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A first Thanksgiving in the missions


In this 1968 file photo, Father Joe Gaudet lends a helping hand to Peruvian workers in the mountains of Peru. Pilot photo/ Courtesy St. James Society photo

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By November of 1959, the missionaries of the Society of St. James had been in Latin America for eight busy months.

From his post high in the Andes, Father Bill Pearsall reported that his mission church celebrated four Masses each Sunday to accommodate the 12,000 people living in Andahuaylas. The parish had already baptized 1,500 babies and performed 440 weddings since they arrived. “We baptized 110 children within a single week and had 43 weddings just over the past weekend,” said Father Pearsall.

Another group of the society’s diocesan priests set up a mission parish in San Ricardo in the La Victoria section of Lima. That’s where they confronted poverty in one of the city’s worst slums. Families of as many as 12 lived in houses comprised of just a single cramped room of about 12 feet by 12 feet where they slept, cooked, and ate. In addition to evangelization, a special strategy was devised to help the people living there.

Despite the notorious reputation of the area, the priests began home to home visitations as part of a parish census and quickly established a “breakfast program” which fed 400 children every morning. The food itself was supplied by the United States government and distributed through Caritas Peruana. Among the many needs of the people, they saw it was [necessary] that an elementary parochial school be established.

A third group of missionaries in Santa Cruz, Bolivia was busy developing a parish community of their own, in keeping with the needs of their people.

Although the first missionaries were now dispersed into three distinct areas, maintaining camaraderie was critical, particularly during the holiday season. To mark their first Thanksgiving away from home, nine of the missionaries traveled to Huancarama, Peru for a reunion of sorts. The day’s festivities were reported in a letter to The Pilot in 1959.

“A large portion of the population of this pueblo was gathered along the perimeter of the town’s plaza to watch a football game -- a North American football game. How else would nine Boston priests celebrate Thanksgiving Day in Peru? So the nine of us had a football game -- or a reasonable facsimile of a football game. The football was provided by Father Dan Sheehan and the field was a narrow muddy strip along the center of town...

“Fathers Tony Vasaturo and Joe Martin were not getting under the passes as quickly as they should. And when Father Rudy Masciarelli had an open field he ran out of breath ten yards from the goal...The spectators enjoyed the show no end and complained when the exhausted Fathers failed to appear for the second half. The game was followed by a traditional Gobbler’s Day feast... It wasn’t exactly Boston, but it was as close as we could get.”

Frank Mazzaglia is a columnist and a layman associated with the Society of St. James.

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