Through dedicated care and tireless fund-raising, Fr Liam Hayes SVD has brought hope and sanctuary to some of Argentina’s abandoned disabled. Sarah MacDonald reports on this “remarkable” achievement.
For nineteen years he has laboured at the mission coalface, easing the plight of some of Argentina’s abandoned disabled. By dint of hard work and inexhaustible commitment, Fr Liam Hayes, SVD has transformed the lives of people like Clorinda. She was crawling around on the mud floor of her one-roomed hut when he found her. Blinded by malnutrition, her only social contact with her neighbours was when they tossed her scraps of food. Further isolated by speech and hearing impediments, her body battled to control the contortions which resulted from her serious physical disabilities. The villagers told him they were afraid to approach her.
In Fr Liam’s view, “The worst disease is the feeling of being unwanted, unloved and abandoned by everyone.” With this in mind, the Limerick-born priest set about fund-raising and lobbying for the finance that would see the construction of two homes, dedicated to the care of Oberá’s intellectually and physically disabled. “The provision of services in a loving and caring atmosphere is central to the ethos of both homes,” he explains.
Last year was the tenth anniversary of the opening of the first home, the St Thérèse of the Child Jesus shelter, which caters for 29 people, aged between five and eighty. To mark the occasion, the SVD missionary was awarded the Diploma of Merit by the Lord Mayor of Oberá, who credited the rehabilitation centres with having eased much mental and physical pain and improved the quality of life of many of Oberá’s poor. The diploma is the highest honour ever paid to a foreigner by the city.
Back in 1993, there was virtually no state aid for this kind of work in Argentina and the economic crisis in recent years compounded the problem. The abandonment of family members who are disabled, is not just the result of ignorance; poverty is a major factor. “The poverty in Oberá is extreme,” says Fr Liam. “Poor families are unable to care for their children who have physical and learning disabilities and so they often hide them away or leave them on the roadside.”
It was his concern for their dignity and a desire to counter the dejection felt by these forgotten poor which spurred him into action. Rallying support from the local bishop, he set about building the first home, which he describes as “a house of God, where there is an opportunity to attend Christ in his most abandoned friends.” In his view, we are all handicapped in one way or another and it is through tending to our physically and intellectually disabled brothers and sisters, that we grow in patience, love and kindness. “Our homes are places of equality, where there is no them or us,” he adds.
Caring for a cross section of ages, the two homes fulfil a human and social need. According to Fr Liam, “They are communities which create a sense of belonging in a family-like atmosphere for the disabled, while at the same time they are helping the people of the locality to change their attitudes towards their handicapped relatives.”
When Fr Liam first came to Oberá, which is in Misiones Province in northern Argentina, he was appointed chaplain at the local hospital, which had only 100 beds for a population of over 60,000. He was taken aback by the poor quality of medical care available. Part of the expansion of his Oberá project in recent years has been to incorporate high quality training in nursing for staff at the two homes. “The nursing tradition in this part of Argentina is not great and the long term success of the work here depends on the recruitment and formation of good staff. Some of our helpers have been given assistance to take a degree course in nursing at the University of Posadas here in Misiones.”
Some volunteers from Ireland have come to help at the centres over the years and have brought very welcome financial assistance or organised the donation of essential medical equipment for the two homes. Their generosity is emblematic of the links between the two countries. A fact best symbolised by the 2003 March visit by the Irish President. Despite Oberá’s remoteness and intense humidity, President Mary McAleese took time out of her busy schedule to see first-hand the work unfolding at Fr Liam’s two foundations. The Irish government, through Development Cooperation Ireland lent its support to the project, and gave much needed funds towards the cost of building the second home. It was dedicated to Mary the Mother of God in 1999.
Explaining the importance and symbolic significance of the President’s visit, Fr Hayes said it would act as a “powerful incentive” to volunteers and hopefully give a new impetus to fund-raising efforts. Currently, the projects need €60,000 annually to maintain themselves. They are largely dependent on donations from people in Ireland and Britain for this money. While it is an ongoing fundraising headache, Fr Liam admits he is constantly surprised by the generosity of people.
Having been warmly welcomed by residents from the two centres and viewed the facilities, the President described Fr Liam’s work as “remarkable”. Mrs McAleese also met two volunteer members of the staff, Niamh Herarty and Triona McCaffrey, from Co Mayo. Citing Ireland’s own experience of hardship, the President said the memory had resulted in many Irish missionaries embarking on projects in which they sought to journey with those who are suffering.
The Irish priest, who has managed to create a bridge of love between Ireland and Argentina and a bridge of hope within Oberá itself, says one of the most important results of his work is the change in attitude it is bringing. “There is an awful lot of suffering and we are doing everything we can to relieve it. But change is definitely taking place and that is the crowning achievement – the recognition that every person has great dignity and that they are helping us far more than we are helping them.”
This article first appeared in The Word (June 2004), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.