Saturday, August 27, 2016


To read Part 1, please click on the following link 

Padre Argentino’s “mission” was located in a neighborhood that, during the years of the military regime (1976-1983), when he introduced me to it, was marginalized by the government and the mainstream Roman Catholic Church alike. On my first visit, in 1979, I followed the padre’s instructions, took the train from Constitución station in downtown Buenos Aires to the southern industrial suburb of Berazategui and then hoofed it from there.

The place wasn’t a provincial shantytown or villa miseria, as they were known, where structures were mostly cheap lumber, tin and cardboard. Most of the houses here were actually brick and mortar, if very humble. It was one of the laboring-class neighborhoods that had sprung up around the glassworks that formed the area’s main industry. But now it seemed to reflect a lagging job market, overpopulation and far less than booming industrial activity.
The streets were dirt with a big ditch full of run-off water along one side. It had been raining over the last few days and the lanes were way too swampy for my city shoe-leather. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going and asked a few people I saw along the way if they knew where Padre Argentino’s Escuelita de Asís was, but nobody did and they looked at me like I was a Martian. Eventually, I saw several provincial cops dressed in knee-high boots and riot helmets, patrolling the area, cavalry troop-style, on horseback with pistols and shotguns and asked them. Some of them looked at me like, “Search me!” Finally, however, one of them directed me to a narrow muddy road a couple of blocks over, where I saw nothing that resembled a school. But then all of the sudden, up ahead, I could make out the padre standing by the rickety gate of a tiny, rundown house, his arm raised in greeting.
“Welcome, m’hijo!” he said as I approached. “Did you get lost? Come, children! Come! Greet señor Dan!”
And suddenly, I was surrounded by a bevy of kids of all ages and sizes who grabbed me and hugged me and took me by the hands and arms and led me into the yard surrounding the ramshackle building. The padre started introducing me to his charges and to a few of their mothers who were also on hand for the occasion. Many of them were kids with Down Syndrome, others were physically challenged with forms of palsy or deformities. A couple were in wheelchairs. One was blind and deaf...a veritable sampler of maladies that can befall children, all under one tiny roof. 
“This is the Escuelita de Asís,” Padre Argentino said, ushering me inside. “I know it doesn’t look like much,” he said, “but it’s all these kids have and we fill it with love every day.”

I asked the padre if the building belonged to them. “In a manner of speaking,” he said. “When I first started ministering to this community, I didn’t have a building. This was an abandoned house that had been occupied by a band of criminals—truck hijackers and drug runners from what I understand. Well, some of the neighbors denounced them and there was a shootout with the Army and police. You can still see some of the pock marks in the masonry although we mostly filled them in and painted them over. But anyway, the bad guys were killed (he crossed himself and kissed his thumbnail) and the building was sitting here empty, because everybody was afraid to occupy it for fear other hoodlums would come. Finally, I asked the father of one of the children who is a policeman if he could find out if there was an owner and if maybe we might use the building. He eventually told me nobody had been able to find out who the owner was and that his chief had said we should just move in until somebody claimed the place. So here we are...and so far, so good.”
It was, indeed, just a building—an almost empty shell, two small rooms with a few sticks of furniture—a couple of tables and a few rickety chairs—that Padre Argentino had been able to gather through his “doorbelling” activities. “School supplies” were whatever the parents or ad hoc guardians of the kids could get together. At the far end of one of the two rooms was a small, makeshift altar that the priest had set up and when school was out, that room often doubled as a sanctuary. The main purpose of the school, which had no official or private recognition as such, was simply to make the lives of these children better than they had been before, to give them a place to interact, to get together with their peers, to help them reach whatever level they could of their limited learning potential, but mostly to have a place in their world where they could feel a certain amount of security and mutual love and joy. That’s why, although he had named it after the birthplace of his order’s patron, Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francisco de Asís), Padre Argentino more often referred to his mission as “the school of love”.
There were several mothers who were highly active in helping the padre make the school the place of solace that it was for the marginalized children who went there daily. Others were simply happy to have somewhere to send their mentally and physically challenged children during the day so that they themselves could have time to try and eke out a living. Still others were indifferent to the priest’s whisking their disabled children off of the street and into his mission during the daytime hours, where they were always sure to be given some free food and to be well cared for.
“I came here to tend to the neighborhood’s spiritual needs,” the padre told me. “But when I saw how many mentally and physically challenged children there were here, I knew I had to do something. I don’t know if you know are Catholic, my son, right?”
“Um, no, Padre. I’m more what you might call, um, no-preference...but I was brought up Methodist.”
“Oh, I’m afraid I don’t know much about ‘sects’...but Christian, though, right?”
“My sect kind of likes to think so,” I laughed.
“Well, no matter. What I was going to say is, my order, the Salesians, are youth ministers, and wherever we go we are charged with the task of reaching out to children. So when I first came, it was because there was no priest who would come out here to take care of the community’s spiritual needs, but then I realized that another mission awaited me here as well.”
“So you were assigned here for one thing and ended up doing another.”
“No, no one assigned me. Because no one in the Church hierarchy cares what happens in the marginal neighborhoods and considers anybody who comes to them to raise people up out of the poverty and ignorance they’re condemned to is a ‘third world priest’. You know about Padre Mujica and Bishop Angelelli, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “And the Pallottine priests...”
Indeed I did know.
Father Carlos Mujica had been known as “the shantytown priest” and as “the
Padre Mujica
chaplain of the poor”, a high-profile cleric who had defied Church and government authorities to not only tend the spiritual needs of the poor but also to encourage them to lift themselves out of poverty and to forge a place of dignity for themselves in Argentine society. His mission reached its height during the dangerous times of tit for tat violence between the far right and the far left leading up to the 1976 military coup. He died in a hail of gunfire in front of his parish on May 4, 1974, the same month and year that I began working as a reporter and sub-editor for the Buenos Aires Herald. Padre Mujica was shot five times but was still alive when he was rushed to a hospital. His last words, spoken to a nurse, were, "Now, more than ever, we must be with the people."
 He was murdered by an agent of the so-called Triple-A (the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance), a sinister far-right paramilitary group that was formed and operated under the final administration of General Juan Domingo Perón and his wife and successor, Isabel Perón. The Triple-A would later be absorbed into the plainclothes, deep cover hit squads that carried out the dirty work of the military regime from 1976 on.
Bishop Angelelli
Angelelli was the Roman Catholic bishop of La Rioja Province. On August 4, 1976, less than six months after the military takeover, his van flipped over multiple times on a lonesome rural highway. The bishop was found dead lying beside the road, the body appearing to have been moved to or carefully positioned in the spot where it was found. Though homicide made to look like an accident was never proven, it became a foregone conclusion, since the bishop was on his way back from Chamical, a town where the bodies of two so-called “third world priests” had been found tortured and murdered a couple of weeks before. Angelelli had celebrated Holy Mass at their funeral and was understood to have been transporting a suitcase full of documentation he had gathered in investigating the deaths of the two priests.
The Pallottine priests—actually three priests and two seminarians—were the victims of what would come to be known as the Saint Patrick’s Massacre. In the wee hours of July 4, 1976, just a month before the assassination of Bishop Angelelli, a group of thugs in plain clothes and armed with long guns entered the dependencies of the Iglesia de San Patricio in Buenos Aires by force, lined up the five clerics living there, and murdered them execution style, so that they fell face down side by side in a pool of blood. In the spot where the murders took place, the paramilitary assassins left legends indicating that the churchmen had been “third world priests” and that they were “leftists killed for indoctrinating virgin minds.” They also left a poster ripped from the wall in the priests’ living quarters on the body of one of the victims. It was a large print of a drawing by renowned Argentine cartoonist “Quino” that depicted his most iconic character, Mafalda, standing next to a uniformed cop. She’s pointing at his nightstick and asks, “Is that the club for denting ideologies?”
A forensic photo of the Pallottine priests shot execution style
and left lying face down in St. Patrick's Church
“So how did you end up here?” I asked the padre.
“God called me, hijo, not the Church,” he answered. “Let’s just say I have a problem with my vow of obedience...a recurrent problem.”
“How so?”
“Let’s just leave it at that, m’hijo. Like I said, I don’t want anything you write to be about me. Just about my mission, my school of love.”
As if to distract me from his own story, he took me around to chat with some of his star students.
There was Minguito, the first student to join the Escuelita, a Down Syndrome pre-teen who was a natural deadpan comic like Buster Keaton. When he came over to me, he was wearing a Spanish-style, broad-brimmed black hat made of plastic and black half-mask covering his face from the eyebrows to the nose. He was carrying a slender plastic foil-type sword that had seen better days and drooped a bit in his hand.
“Who are you today, Minguito?” the padre asked.
“El Zorro,” he answered laconically.
“When he comes without his hat and sword,” the priest explained, “and just wears the mask, he may be Batman.”
As if on cue, Minguito dropped his sword and hat on the grass and looked our way, obviously waiting to be asked the inevitable question.
“So, who are you now?” Padre Argentino asked.
Minguito doubled as the padre’s acolyte for weddings and funerals. Whenever he arrived and saw the priest wearing his vestments for Mass and observed that he had gotten out the small painted “ark of God among us” used for funeral rights when the body was not present, he would sigh sadly and say, “Another dead guy, Padre?”
“He actually thinks the deceased is in that box!” Padre Argentino told me with a chuckle. “He’s a good acolyte, though. Best I’ve ever had. Never misses a beat, even when he does the whole mass wearing his vestment with his Zorro hat and mask on.
There was also Celia, a Down Syndrome teen who was an incurable romantic.
“Celia’s in love with several major singing stars,” Padre Argentino said.
At the sound of her name, she looked our way, smiled shyly and blushed.
“Isn’t that right, Celia?”
“What, Padre?”
“That you have lots of famous boyfriends.”
Celia giggled, folded her chubby hands under her chin and seemed to hug herself before turning away from us to face the wall in embarrassment.
“Isn’t that right?” the padre asked the back of her head again.
With that, she whirled around and cried, “No!”
“No, Padre! There’s just one.”
“Let’s see...” said the padre, teasingly, “if there’s only one, it must beeeeee....Julio Iglesias!
No sooner was the name out of his mouth than Celia did a theatrical spin and fell, limp as a large rag doll, to the ground, as if the mere mention of the famous Spanish pop-singer’s name had caused her to faint.
And then there was a boy of about seven or eight known as El Perrito (the Little Dog). The moniker wasn’t ironic.
“When I first came across him,” Padre Argentino told me, “I would always see him in the streets hanging out with a pack of stray dogs. He was as skinny and dirty as they were. I would get him to come with me and eat something here. The dogs would wait for him by the gate. At first I had to feed him out in the yard because he wouldn’t come inside and I had to give tidbits to the dogs while I fed him or he wouldn’t eat. After a lot of coaxing I started getting him to come inside. But he’d sit on the floor and eat with his hands. He couldn’t talk. He literally whined, barked and howled like a dog and he was afraid of the other kids. He couldn’t wait to get back outside with his pack.”
“Incredible! Was he abandoned?” I asked.
“As good as,” the padre said. “It took me a long time to track down where he came from. His mother’s an alcoholic and a prostitute who lives way at the back of the neighborhood. She works out of her house and didn’t want him around when she had johns in, which was most of the time...and the rest of the time she’s stone drunk. I tried talking to her but it was useless. Too far gone. And trying to get help from social services is even worse. They’ll just stick him in some institute where he’ll languish without love or hope.”
“So what’s his story now?”
“We take care of him within our own little community. He’s here with us during the day and at night he stays with one or another of the better families of the children here at the school.”
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s learning to play with other children, to sit at a table, to draw a little. He’s even learning little by little to talk.” At this, the priest’s voice cracked and his eyes filled with tears. “The first word he pronounced was padre.”
By the time I took the train with Padre Argentino that night to return to the city, the story of the School of Love was already writing itself a mile a minute in my head.
To be continued    


Nesy said...

Can't wait for the rest!!!

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for reading it!