Story and photos by Sean Sprague
After more than 50 years as a priest, Maryknoll missioner takes on ‘new’ challenge
Daniel McLaughlin climbs slowly up the steep steps of a favela—or shantytown— in the neighborhood of Perus on the northern edge of the city of São Paulo, Brazil, to say Mass in a tiny chapel he has never seen before. As it starts to rain, the 79-year-old Maryknoll missioner pulls his jacket up over his head and suppresses a cough.
He says he’s just getting over pneumonia and laments that he is moving more slowly than his guide, a parishioner at San Jose Church, who steers the missioner past local bars already in full swing in the early evening, with salsa and rap music wafting out of these cantinas along with the scent of marijuana.
After 32 years of working in Brazil’s slums, the missioner from Boston isn’t worried about the rough neighborhood, saying he’s “very street wise,” trusts his guide and knows that even in a tough barrio like Perus, the people still respect the Church. What he’s concerned about is the people he’s here to serve and how they’ll take to their new priest.
“I’ve had the experience of being in other poorer areas and know the people, the poor, but this would be a new experience of meeting new people,” he says of his latest assignment.
“They don’t know me.” The priest and guide come eventually to a red door that is unlocked by a woman living across the street. Inside is a tiny chapel with one functioning lightbulb and a 10-cent candle on the altar.
Eventually, five women turn up for Mass, half filling the small space, and they seem to instantly fall in love with the new pastor with the bushy white eyebrows.
Because some of the women cannot read, Father McLaughlin emphasizes dialogue after reading the Gospel about Martha and her sister Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet to listen (Luke 10:38–42). The women easily identify with the busy Martha, but the priest reminds them: “We have to spend some time also to sit at the feet of Christ and listen to his words, especially in the Gospels, the stories that he has to tell.”
The stories Jesus tells, says the missioner, are about people like them, people who have been rejected by society because they’re poor, because they live in a poorer area, have a family but are not married.
Father McLaughlin traces his desire to work with the poor to his days in a Jesuit high school in Somerville, Mass., where a teacher asked the boys if they would like to become missionaries. Although missionaries themselves, the Jesuits emphasize education and running schools and his teacher told him, “If you want to be a missionary and your interest is being with people and the poor, it’s Maryknoll.”
After reading articles in Maryknoll magazine and being awed by the photos, Father McLaughlin recalls, “That’s what I wanted!” In 1961, at age 27, he was ordained and assigned to the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines.
He spent 12 years in the Philippines before he was arrested and expelled from the country for speaking out on behalf of poor, landless farmers under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. After a stint doing mission development in the States, Father McLaughlin was sent to Brazil, where his love of the poor and marginalized has kept him busy in a predominately urban setting for more than three decades.
Father McLaughlin calls his latest mission assignment a challenge, noting his former favela was economically a little bit better off than where we are now,” but adds that he welcomes the change because “you continue to grow with the challenges.”
He and a Brazilian priest, Father Cilto Rosenbach, were asked by their bishop to take on the Perus parish after the previous priest moved to an even poorer area in the geographically isolated north of Brazil.
“Because of the condition of the parish and the reality, there’s only a certain type of priest who can come here,” says Father McLaughlin. “The bishop saw Father Cilto and myself as possibilities, a good possibility, so he asked us to come.”
“Perus itself is a challenge for us, with its poor favelas, drug problems, violence and crime,” says Father Rosenbach. “In the face of so many difficulties, Father Dan and I have always made a great team, working together these last 16 years. We have always been able to rise to any challenge.”
Father McLaughlin says the bishop wasn’t just looking for them to fill the shoes of someone else but wanted priests who could go beyond the sacramental ministry and help build up the parish and the local people to lead it. “One of the reasons he mentioned to us was that he would like it more developed, not just sacramental but also formation of people, the formation of the people who participate in Scripture, formation to be ministers of the Word, formation on the different pastorals that exist in the area, like the health pastoral.”
While only in the new parish for about a year, Fathers McLaughlin and Rosenbach are applying the skills they’ve learned in other São Paulo favelas and are carrying over projects that have worked elsewhere.
Among those projects is Radio Cantareira, named after a local mountain range, which offers local programming and news of interest to the people who live in the favela neighborhood.
“Normally, it deals with many things that commercial radio won’t deal with,” Father McLaughlin says of Radio Cantareira. “Commercial radio won’t talk about Perus, because it’s just a small little barrio in their network.”
Another ongoing project that keeps the two priests busy is the Ecumenical Center for Popular Education and Evangelization, known by its Spanish-language acronym cesepe. The center offers leadership and formation courses for Brazilian youths.
Father Rosenbach, who is about 30 years younger than Father McLaughlin, says he sometimes worries about the aging American missioner’s health but says the Maryknoller isn’t hearing any of that.
“He is such an old Christian soldier, forever battling onward,” he says of Father McLaughlin.
Sean Sprague is a freelance writer and photographer based in Wales.