Francisco, Cecilia and Leo

10th March 2014 - by Stephen Awre

Fr. Leo Donnelly with Francisco and Cecilia.

On 4th February 2014, the missionary journey of Fr. Leo Donnelly drew to a close.  Fr. Leo believed that as a missionary in Peru, it was a powerful witness to live with the people and stay with the people.  For him, it was a sign of fidelity.  Francisco and Cecilia were among them and Fr. Peter Woodruff recalls their story.

Francisco and Cecilia are pillars of a small parish community in a new and dusty suburb on the outskirts of Lima.  They live in a small house located on an unmade street where the government authorities, after about 20 years since families first came to live in the area, have recently begun to put in water and sewerage pipes.

They are welcoming, diligent and loving with their three children and hard workers.  They help their neighbours in need in so far as they can and to coordinate the activities of the local church.

Francisco has worked as a diesel-engine mechanic in the navy for many years and just two years ago, soon before he turned 50 years of age, he retired.  He and his wife had done all they could to bring up their children in a healthy and loving way but, all of a sudden, their world fell apart.

Their eldest son had become a marihuana addict.  They did not know to whom they could turn.  They felt that other family members would be judgemental.  Cecilia’s parents were dead, Francisco’s father also and he did not want to worry his elderly mother.

Distraught and confused he went in search of Padre Leo (who had been parish priest in that area for a few years when they were beginning to get the community up and running).  He found Leo in the central Columban house and when Leo hugged him Francisco just sobbed aloud for ten minutes.  He could not understand why all this had happened to them.  Cecilia came along too and poured her heart out to Leo.

Leo was like a father to them, firm, gentle and compassionate.  With an understanding word and strong hug they were confident that they would always find in him acceptance and compassion.  “Who on earth will judge you?” he said.  “Don’t be getting upset.  Just let the Father act in freedom.  Things will work out.”

They felt that they could have drowned in despair and Leo was like a life-saver.  He stopped them from despairing and they knew they had found someone in whom they could trust.  Francisco said in the course of our conversation, “It’s so important not to judge anyone. I was down and Padre Leo lifted me up. If he had judged me in some way he could have pushed me further into despair”.

They gradually began to get on with tackling the issue as a family, but did not involve the two younger children.  Things have moved on but they know that such matters are never definitively solved nor that they are safe from further family trauma.  Francisco remarked to me, “I now know that no one is immune from anything.  Anything can happen to anyone.  One can do everything correctly, so to speak, and still disaster can strike”. 

Then he continued, “The only response that will work in the face of this kind of thing is love”.

Both told me that they already knew all this from their experience of standing by others in their need, but the experience of having to deal with it in their own lives radically changed their way of knowing.  Their experience of standing by their own son, still fragile and still struggling to find his way, lets them feel the depth of pain that others might be enduring as they face their own family problems.

Such was the love and devotion that Fr. Leo gave to the ‘extraordinary poor’ in Peru.  He will be sorely missed and joyfully remembered.