I first met Maureen McCarthy about 12 years ago. She hails from the village of Enniskeane, a small place located between Bandon and Dunmanway in West Cork.
She frequented the ceilis in the Kerry Hall in Yonkers, where she could step it out with the best of the set dancers. In addition, we had valued mutual friends in Nora and John O’Connor, who live near Maureen in the Wayne area of New Jersey.
Some of the ceilis were fundraisers for HOPe, a small, non-sectarian Third World charity which was in its infancy at that time. We invited Maureen and her friend, Nora, to join us in the development of HOPe, but they explained that they were already committed to a parish outreach charity, started in Our Lady of Consolation Church in Wayne, called Ecuador Quilt, which focuses exclusively on working with poor parishes in the San Pablo area of Ecuador.
While Ecuador Quilt is a Catholic organization and HOPe is strictly non-sectarian, and while they confine their charitable activities to one country, which is not the case with HOPe, both groups share a commitment to promoting development work that helps indigent people find a way to break the terribly dehumanizing cycle of poverty.
So we met occasionally and provided personal support for each other’s work. HOPe sponsored one educational project recommended by our friends in Ecuador Quilt.
Last October I received an email from Maureen saying that she had just returned from a trip to various South American countries with her sister, a Presentation nun who had recently retired as a high school principal in the order’s secondary school in Cork City. Maureen explained that they spent time in Lima, Peru, with a friend of her sister, another Presentation nun, Sister Regina Toomey, from Fermoy, Co. Cork.
Sister Regina has devoted the last quarter century to working with the poor in Lima, having previously served as a teacher in Tralee. Maureen was very impressed by her work.
“We were overwhelmed by the work she is doing, by the dreadful poverty all around. She serves the impoverished people who make the shanty towns on the foothills of the Andes their home,” she said.
“The people are dirt poor and devoid of all basic services. I am still haunted by what we saw and especially our meeting with a mother and her 14-year-old son, living in one room with no kitchen and no furniture, except for one bed.”
The Fermoy sister told them about a project that was especially important for the local community. Many families live in huts, makeshift homes on hill slopes supported only by walls of loose stone. Because of the poor structure there is a real danger of inclement weather causing these “homes” to collapse or, worse still, to be destroyed by a landslide. Maureen told the nun about HOPe and promised to forward their proposal for possible funding.
Sister Regina and her committee want to secure these housing sites with a re-enforced foundation. This would offer considerable security for the present makeshift homes, and would also provide solid and secure foundations for the future construction of permanent housing.
Their proposal runs to four pages, well-prepared and presented. It is entitled “Building from the Bottom Up: Enhancing Urban Security in Settlements in Lima, Peru.”
The proposal was considered at the October meeting of the HOPe Appropriations Committee and of the general membership. The decision was that some members needed to visit Lima to meet Sister Regina and the other community leaders and to assess whether the project would provide some real security for these forgotten families living at the foot of the Andes.
Two members agreed to go, Vincent Collins and myself. While I am a retired teacher with very little contact with hammer or drill, Vincent, one of the famous footballing family from Castlehaven in West Cork, owns a construction company in New York with his brother, Anthony. He will cast a cold eye on the feasibility of the project, and his recommendation will weigh heavily on the eventual funding decision by the members of HOPe.
Vincent and I traveled on a similar mission for HOPe to San Pedro Sula in Honduras a few years ago. On that occasion his son, Ian, who is now in college, joined us for the experience of seeing how the other half lives. This time, the next boy in the Collins family, Morgan, who is 16, will accompany us to Lima.
Originally, we planned to go in December, but the cheapest flight I could get was close to $1,600. I was able to cut that almost in half by leaving on January 17.
When members of HOPe travel to our various projects they travel on their own dime because they feel that it is a bit much to solicit donations from our supporters and then spend the money on travel and hotel expenses.
So, Vincent Collins and his son, Morgan, will join me in the United lounge in Newark Airport on Thursday for the 2 p.m. flight to Lima. Irish Voice readers will hear more about Sister Regina and the people in those huts on the foothills of the Andes in the coming weeks.
Where does the term “the luck of the Irish” come from?