Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Please click on the links below to read Parts 1 and 2

I wrote two lengthy articles about Padre Argentino’s “school of love” for the Buenos Aires Herald. The popularity of the first one took me completely by surprise. I was young and had little idea about the power of human interest stories. I liked them and liked writing them, but was convinced that “hard news” was what sold newspapers. My predilection for stories that were about the unique lives of people no one knew I considered a personal weakness, a kind of dirty little secret that I tried to mask with the cynical self-image of a hard-nosed reporter. So, I was astonished when the priest’s story brought a batch of letters to the editor with people expressing admiration for the padre’s work, or sadness for the children’s plight, or asking how they could help. I suddenly found myself acting as a go-between, putting people in contact with Padre Argentino and his project.
“School of Love Revisited” expressed gratitude for the reaction to the first story and told more about the school, its students, the neighborhood and the padre. That one even started bringing in money, checks made out to my name or to “cash”, at a time when my wife and I pretty much lived one month to the next and didn’t even own a bank account. I realized I had to get something organized quickly—especially after receiving a letter from a suspicious donor who said he wanted to get a letter of receipt from “Padre Argentino, not Dan Newland” as proof the money he had sent in (about 20 dollars if I remember correctly) had been received in full.
I had recently become a member of a US expatriate charity group in Buenos Aires called The American Society of the River Plate and decided to go talk to them. They didn’t want to get involved themselves, but pointed me toward some influential friends who did. Suddenly, Padre Argentino wasn’t completely alone. There was a small group of volunteers to receive aid when it came in, to make some improvements in the impoverished little school and to organize some community aid—food donations, used clothing, school supplies, etc. They even found an assistant for the padre, a young teacher with some special education experience who was willing to donate her time and expertise. And she, in turn, got a physical therapist friend to go to the school occasionally and work with the youngsters who were physically disabled.
It wasn’t a solution to every challenge facing Padre Argentino’s Escuelita de Asís. Not by a long shot. But it was, indeed, a start. As for myself, I was hard at work on my budding career as a journalist at the time, working pretty much round the clock both at the paper and as a free-lance stringer for US and British publications, so I was glad to be off the hook. I told the people who were helping out that I’d be glad to meet with them from time to time and publish updates as things progressed, but that I would leave the day-to-day in their capable hands.
“Done!” I thought.
But then, I got a call from an Army colonel attached to the US Embassy. He was an athletic, boyish-looking Steve McQueen sort of guy of about forty with an easy-going manner, whom I’d gotten to know and like in my dealings with him in the American Society of the River Plate and at a few embassy functions I’d been invited to. You almost never heard anyone address him as “Colonel”. Everybody called him “Skip”.
Skip said he had “something he wanted to run by me” and asked if I’d meet him for a cup of coffee. I said sure.
“What’s up, Skip?” I asked over a cup of espresso in a downtown café.
“The ambassador’s been following your Padre Argentino story.”
“Yeah. He was moved.”
“I’m flattered.”
“He wants to get involved.”
“Wow, cool!”
Skip smiled but held up a staying hand. “Just one thing, Dan,” he said. “If the ambassador’s getting involved, we have to as well.”
“Have to what?”
“Get involved.”
“How do you mean?” I asked suspiciously.
“We’re going to have to run a background check on the padre.”
I mulled this over a second and said, “Why?”
“Well, because we’re not talking about just anybody. He’s the US ambassador! I mean, what do you know about this priest, Dan? Like, what’s his real name? Do you even know? Padre Argentino doesn’t cut it, if you see what I mean.”
I could see the colonel’s point. Indeed, I knew precious little about Padre Argentino’s life. In fact, as Skip had surmised, I didn’t even know his real name. I had asked and he’d said, “I’ve been Padre Argentino so long my other identity is no longer part of my life. Let Padre Argentino suffice.”
He had told me a few anecdotes, like when, because of one instance of his serial disobedience, he’d been made the chaplain of a remote provincial girls’ school where he and the mother superior were at odds throughout his stay: “She’d bring a group of girls into the chapel and if I was there she’d say, ‘Come girls, come, we’re leaving. We’ll come back later. Right now there’s a smell of man in here!’ And I’d shout out from wherever I was, ‘Ask her how she knows what a man smells like, girls!’”
The parish priest at San José de Flores had
wanted to charge Padre Argentino for his
mother's funeral. "The deceased is my 
mother and I'm the priest!" he protested. 
He had also told me about what he saw as the corrupt practices of major parish priests, like one, years before, at the busy San José de Flores parish, who, when Padre Argentino’s mother passed away, had wanted to charge him for the use of the sanctuary to hold her funeral there. “Charge for what, you crook?” Padre Argentino had shouted. “I’m the officiating priest and the deceased is my mother! It’s the house of God, you cretin, not yours.”
Other than these and other stories of his younger years that the padre had told me, however, I was really at a loss to respond to Skip’s queries about anything but the Salesian father’s current mission. But in those dangerous days of bloody military rule, in which so-called “third world priests” (those who formed their missions around the poorest segments of society and were outspoken about repression and inequality) were nearly as vulnerable as armed leftwing extremists were, I didn’t want US intelligence stirring up things with the local Armed Forces’ intelligence groups, which were precisely the sources from which “dirty war” hit squads were getting their orders—especially the 601st Intelligence Battalion under the orders of General Guillermo Suárez Mason, which was known to operate numerous clandestine detention and torture centers throughout the country.
I tried to politely dissuade the colonel. I offered to set up a meeting between Padre Argentino and him, or with the ambassador himself. But it was no use.
Finally, I said, “Look, Skip, I appreciate the embassy’s wanting to help but if this is the only way to do it, thanks but no thanks.”
“Yeah, Dan, but the ambassador’s mind’s made up.”
“So tell him to just help and not poke the beehive! Let him do it off the record.”
Skip grinned and said, “I’m afraid ambassadors don’t do that sort of thing off the record, my friend.”
“Then tell him to forget it! Tell him to just butt out!”
With the military government in charge it was a dangerous
time for so-called "third world priests".
“Not your call, I’m afraid, Dan,” he said. “I’m just letting you know. The wheels are already turning.”
And indeed they were. Probably long before the colonel ever invited me to meet him so he could “run it by me.”
Before I ever had a chance to get hold of Padre Argentino to warn him of what was going on, he called me.
“We need to talk,” he said. “But not over the phone. Meet me tomorrow morning at the little coffee place at the far end of Plaza Flores, at Artigas and Yerbal.”
The place was tiny, owned by an old friend of the padre’s. It was basically a counter and four tables with a back-bar bearing, perhaps, a dozen bottles and an espresso machine. We ordered coffee and sat at the table nearest the wall, away from the door and windows.
Right away, Padre Argentino launched into one of his anecdotes.
“When Perón came back from exile in seventy-three,” he said, “here in the capital there was a huge influx of people from the interior, mostly negritos of very humble means, desperate people who for a couple of decades had been hearing about the golden days of Peronism and came to Buenos Aires like pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. When they got here, what they found was more poverty and more inequality and they didn’t have the means to return to their provinces. It was like they were shipwrecked in the capital.
“Seeing so many of them washed up here with nothing and no one to help them, I managed to find a place in midtown, Barrio Once, to start a soup kitchen. I got some people to put up the food and went doorbelling for the rest, and pretty soon we were serving a couple of meals a day to people who didn’t have enough money to eat. And I put in a little chapel there as well to tend to their spiritual needs.” He paused to drink his demitasse of espresso. I asked if he wanted another one. He considered it, nodded, and I motioned to the owner to make us another round.
Paramilitary hits squads: Standard operating procedure
under the last populist government of General Juan Domingo 
Perón and the military regime that replaced it.  
“One day,” he went on, “just after I’d celebrated Mass and was getting ready to go oversee the preparation of lunch, the door to the sanctuary burst open and a group of armed men came in. I found myself standing face to face with the one leading them. When he saw me, his face suddenly changed and softened. Without turning, he told the others to wait outside and to close the door behind them. He was still holding a pistol trained on me and I knew he and his men had been sent there to kill me. When they came in, I hadn’t said anything but ‘Señores, how can I help you?’ before I crossed myself and started making my peace with God.
“But as I stood there facing that young man, his face crumpled up and he fell to his knees weeping. He stuck his pistol into his waistband, took my hand in both of his and kissed it. Then he stood up, took me by the shoulders and said, ‘Padre, God forgive me, I came here to kill you. You must leave right now and not come back. If you stay, you won’t live a week.’
“I asked him why he was doing this. He said he knew I wouldn’t remember him, but that when he was a boy, living in the slums, he’d been all alone with just his mother. He said that she had fallen deathly ill and that they hadn’t been able to find her the help she needed. He said that I had intervened, used my contacts to get her proper medical attention and had visited her while she was in the hospital. He had never been able to thank me, he said, and this was his chance to square it with me. I’d saved his mother’s life. Now he was saving mine.
“I left immediately, went to Bolivia, and I only just came back a couple of years ago, when I started the escuelita. I was warned not to, but I missed Argentina, mi gente.”
The owner brought us the two coffees and left. There were tears in the padre’s eyes as he picked up his cup and sipped, and when he swallowed, it went down hard.
“That’s quite a story, Padre,” I said.
“It doesn’t end there,” he said. “Son,” he went on, “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for us...”
“I’ve done nothing, really, Padre...”
He held up a hand to silence me, and continued, “But all of the publicity and the people you’ve gotten involved...”
I shook my head sadly. “I know, I know, Padre, I thought I’d have time to warn you about the embassy...”
“Your intentions were noble, m’ijo,” he said kindly, “but now I’m in trouble again. This friend, the one I told you about who’s in military intelligence, warned me that a new investigation has been opened because of the embassy probe. I need to leave right now...today...as soon as we’re done here.”
I felt a horrific sense of guilt and my voice cracked when I asked him, “Where will you go? What will you do?”
He shrugged. “I’ll be fine, m’ijo. I still have some friends, a bishop up north who’s said he’d hide me as long as I promise to respect and obey him.
“And what about the school?” I asked.
He sat up straight and stared into my eyes with steely conviction. “That’s where you come in, son,” he said. “I’m placing the escuelita, my mission, in your hands.”
Suddenly, it was as if I’d just been hit in the face with a bucket of ice-water. “Whoa! Wait a second, Padre! Back up!” I said. “I’m not prepared for anything like this. I’m not a teacher...”
“You’ll be fine...”
“Not a Catholic...”
“It’ll all work out...”
“Not even sure what I am...a hopeful agnostic at best...”
“Everything will be fine, m’ijo. God will guide you...”
“No! I’m sorry, but, no! I can’t...No way!”
“He’ll show you the path...” Now the padre was standing up and buttoning his coat.
“No, Padre, sit back down here! You can’t leave...”
“Time to go, my son. I’m counting on you...and so are the children. Their mothers already know you’ll be taking charge.”
“Padre! Padre, come back here!” I called to the back of his head as he was leaving. At the door he stopped, turned, made the sign of the cross in my direction, then wheeled about and was out the door.
It was the last time I would see him for the next several years.
Now, my world was thrown into an uproar. I had trouble working. I couldn’t sleep. I was irritable and distracted. Why on earth had I ever gotten involved with this damnable priest and his school?
But now knowing about it, having written about it, having made it part of me, how could I just abandon it and the kids. Ignorance was bliss. Knowing came with accountability.
Then again, what did it have to do with me? Why should I feel duty-bound? Well, fool, I told myself, because it’s all your fault that the padre had to once again go into exile. If I’d kept my big nose out of his business, he could have kept on running his school forever and no one would have been the wiser, because, in the end, the powers that be always care more about crushing any rebellious unifying force than about projects that promote the greater good.
No question about it. I was stuck. I decided, however, to give myself a week or so to think about it, to study my next move. But the week hadn’t passed before a delegation of mothers from the Escuelita de Asís showed up at the newspaper to talk to me. The padre had told them that I was in charge from now on. What, they wanted to know, was I prepared to do?
First, I called the little group of volunteers who had been helping out and made them aware of the situation. The said that, of course, they would pitch in and do everything that they could, but that, without the padre, it wasn’t going to be easy. He was the heart and soul of the school and still the one who raised the most aid with his persistent cold-calling. Couldn’t I take a more leading role?
I suggested we try to find some permanent benefactors to pay the teacher an actual salary so she could take over. They suggested she was a great teacher but not the organizational type. They needed somebody who could really take charge and who knew what he or she was doing.
I started calling everybody I knew in the social action field. They were all sympathetic and had liked my articles but said, to a man and woman, that they already had too much on their plates. Growing more and more anxious, I cursed the priest under my breath. God would show me the way. God would be my guide. God would provide. “Yeah right,” I thought. “My ass He will!” I suddenly realized that I was at a complete loss, out of ideas, out of my depth, and truly unable to take it on myself.
Then it happened. In fact, it happened the day after I’d almost decided there was nothing more I could do. Sitting at my desk in the editorial department at the newspaper I got a call from Reception. A young woman was there to see me.
“I’m pretty busy right now,” I said. “Did she say what she wants?”
“She said a mutual friend said she should come see you,” the receptionist said. She told me the friend’s name and I knew I couldn’t say no.
The young woman in question was tall and slim with paper-white skin and shiny black hair. She said her name was Martha. She was Canadian.
“And what are you doing in Buenos Aires,” I asked.
“My boyfriend’s from here. We decided to come live here for a while. He got a good job offer. I’m kind of at loose ends right now. I’m looking for something to do.”
“Well,” I said, “we don’t have any staff openings right now, but you could do some free-lance work for us. I’m afraid it doesn’t pay much though.”
“Like I say,” she answered, “for the moment, we’re okay with my boyfriend’s job. Maybe I could do some work for you on social issues. I have a lot of experience in that field.”
“In Canada?”
“No. India.”
“Yes, that’s where I met my boyfriend. We were doing volunteer work there. But I came down with TB and we had to leave. I’m all better now and want to jump back into something. I’m hoping to do some kind of similar social work here.”
Suddenly, I could feel myself getting excited.
“Really? What exactly were you doing there?”
“We were working in Calcutta, with Mother Teresa, in the organization of her children’s missions.”
“Lady,” I said, “have I ever got a job for you!”     

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