Kiwi Marist, Fr Patrick ('Paddy') O'Neil SM, writes about the Marist mission in Bahia, Brazil, inspired by the pioneer Marists' first missions in the remote and rugged Bugey mountains of France. ...
The Mission of the Marist Fathers in Bahia, Brazil began in 1987 after much research in order to find a Diocese that was in a poor area of the country where we could offer support not only in Parish Ministry but also to the Diocese as a whole. The idea was to re-model our Marist origins in Bugey among the rural poor. Eventually the Diocese of Caetité in the southwestern area of Bahia State was chosen. At the time the Diocese, which is the same size as Holland, had 35 parishes but only twelve priests. At the moment the Diocese has 38 parishes and 40 priests, including the Marist community of four.
In the beginning the Marists worked in the towns of Urandi, Pindaí and Sebastião Laranjeiras. However, with the passing of time these areas developed sufficiently so that they were able to support a local Brazilian diocesan priest and were equipped with all the necessary parish infrastructure.
In 2000 the Marists made the option to migrate 120km further west in the Diocese to the current parishes in the towns of Palmas de Monte Alto, Iuiú, and Malhada, which is on the banks of the São Francisco River. These parishes are amongst the poorest in the Diocese. Together the three parishes cover 6000 km2 and have a population of 50,000 people, of whom 80% are Catholic. Apart from these three towns in the Sertão of Bahia, the Marists also attend to 80 rural communities. The only access to the communities is by dirt roads or tracks.
The rural population either have their own small farms or work as "vaqueiros" on large cattle ranches. Many also eke out an existence picking cotton on these large farms. The agriculture production centers on a yearly subsistence crop of beans or corn, cotton, milk production with an average herd of 10 cows and cattle raising on the big farms. As it is a semi-desert region, called the Sertão, there is every year a period of 8-9 months without a drop of rain.
In the region the per capita income is around US$ 150 a month for those lucky enough to find work and the Human Development Index (HDI) is 0.59. In comparison in Australia it is 0.97, New Zealand 0.91 and the USA 0.92.
As well as looking after these three poor rural parishes, the Marists also are teachers at a Theology Course for Laity in Caetité. The new Bishop, Dom José Roberto Silva Carvalho, has also entrusted to the Marists the coordination of the Youth Ministry for the whole Diocese and they work together with other Religious and Diocesan clergy on Vocations promotion.
Marist community in Bahia - Lauro Ferreira, Alfred Rösener, Patrick O'Neil, José Maria da Silva
Palmas de Monte Alto and Church of Our Lady (1742)
Nossa Senhora Mãe de Deus e dos Homens (Our Lady, Mother of God and Men) 1742
Typical house in the rural area
Festive procession of a rural community
Currently the Parish of Nossa Senhora Mãe de Deus e dos Homens (Our Lady, Mother of God and Men) in Palmas de Monte Alto is in the process of becoming a Diocesan Sanctuary. The church was built in 1742 and a beautiful statue of Our Lady was brought from Portugal that same year as Marian devotion is very strong in the region.
In the same parish there is a strong group of Marist Laity and together with the Marist priests they have begun to form a support group for families dealing with the scourge of alcoholism. Alcoholism, due to the extreme poverty and despair it generates, is a very serious problem in the whole region.
Although there is still much to do in order to serve the suffering poor of the Sertão, the Marists, in the spirit of Mary and the early pioneers in Bugey continue working in order to build up the local Church and Kingdom of God.
Fr. Patrick Francis O'Neil, SM