S. Sally Harper: 40-Year Mission in Peru

sally harper

The Mission Continues in Peru:
Sister Sally Harper’s 40 Years of Service

By Patti Eischen

What were you doing in 1977?

Sister Sally Harper, CSJ was just settling into a new assignment in Peru. She’s been there in several capacities ever since, 40 years in all. While she is currently on sabbatical, visiting family and friends strewn across the country, she plans to go back to Peru in December. We talked to S. Sally, who reflects on her experiences and the changes both she and those working with her have seen evidenced in the country, the people and the work they do.

When the Peruvian ministry began in 1962, the sisters started small with 14 sisters but not on a small scale as they served in two schools, one hospital and a university. In all the places where they ministered, they had a special concern for the poor.

“We had to raise the consciousness of parents of school children so that rich and poor could be educated side by side,” S. Sally says.  Then, in response to the Latin American Church’s option for the poor, the sisters moved to the mountains and rural areas where the very poor lived.

They had to start with the basics. “We had to teach the concept of ‘human rights’ to parents. It was a notion they really didn’t understand,” she says.

“I remember explaining it to a woman using her livestock. I said to her, ‘If you have a cow and someone takes it from you, is that the right thing to do? Of course, she said, ‘No.’ Well then, I explained you have a right to that cow. That is what a right is. And no one can take that away from you.”

sally harper peru 1990

(Sister Sally Harper 1990)

Because the sisters’ work is part of the church, S. Sally has seen seismic changes there too. This is due in part to a program called “Family Catechism” (Catecismo Familiar), which teaches both adults and children about the sacraments and the church. The family comes together to the lessons, but adults are taught by adults and the children receive lessons from “animators.” The idea here is that the parents go home with the children and the lessons continue.

As a result, parishes have seen an influx of families and participation at all levels. S. “Lay people definitely have become more involved with the church and in their parishes. This type of empowerment, self-worth, it’s beautiful to see that.”

The teachings of Gustavo Gutierrez, OP and “Theology Liberation” have had a great influence and this is right in step with the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph and serving the dear neighbor. S. Sally confides that, even if there are no sisters, the work within the church keeps going with the laity. “It’s been a big shift,” she explained. “I feel that there has been a systemic change in the church and we have helped that to happen.”

The work that has been done in Peru for more than five decades has taken root. Currently, there are 21 sisters serving in Peru; six North Americans and 15 Peruvians. The sisters are involved in a diversity of ministries: in prison ministry, as hospital chaplains, as religion teachers in public and private schools, in after school ministries, in parishes and the National Conference of Religious.

Besides service in vice-provincial leadership, S. Sally has taught postulants, novices, sisters with temporary vows, and seminarians in the Conference of Religious and the John XXIII Theological Institute. On her return to Peru, she hopes to teach lay pastoral agents, religion teachers and, maybe, seminarians in a location which will be decided in conversation with vice province leadership.

“We are teaching people theology. There is an expression in Peru that says you must have a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Which means that we must look at reality through the eyes of the gospel. The mantra is to ‘see-judge-act.’ We are trying to help people be aware that poverty is not a punishment from God but is the result of unjust systems.”

“The bottom line in all that we do is to help people know that “God loves us. Period,” said S. Sally.

S. Sally dismisses the idea that serving in Peru is a sacrifice as it may appear to others, “Anywhere we are, the work we are doing is for the reign of God. We are all missionaries!”

sally harper peru 1977

(Sister Sally Harper, bottom right, with the sister assembly in Peru, 1977)


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