After celebrating morning Masses at two of the five communities he serves as pastor, Maryknoll Father Robert E. Hoffmann stopped by the town of Ichu, located 15 miles south of Puno in the altiplano of Peru. He has been overseeing the construction of a new church building there for nearly five years and wanted to check that everything was ready for cement to be poured on the church’s roof.
“When we get money, we do a little more,” says Father Hoffmann, referring to the time it is taking to finish the building. “It’s so important because the people here need a new chapel.”
Seven years ago, when the missioner from Milwaukee, Wis., began to tend to the sacramental needs of the people of Ichu, he noticed that the old chapel could barely accommodate the needs of the 5,000 Catholics who live in the community—about 80 percent of the total population. Parishioners would often have to stand outside the small chapel after walking several miles to get to Mass.
He adds that the old chapel was certainly too small for the 40,000 devotees who come to Ichu every June for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the community’s patron saints. The devout and lively celebrations include a large procession around town, music and dancing, culminating with Mass with the bishop of Puno. It was after one of these feast days that participants started discussing how to address the need for a new church, the priest recalls.
People pledged their contributions as the priest’s secretary took notes. Some said they would donate 100 bags of cement, or 100 steel rods, or other materials. Other people volunteered to help with construction. Everybody, including those who no longer live in Ichu, vowed to contribute in some way.
Father Hoffmann explains that even after Ichu citizens move to other parts of Peru to become successful entrepreneurs, they always come back to honor the town’s patron saints. “Because they have a lot of love for where they were born and (where) their parents live, they come back for the Catholic feast,” he says. “They have this custom of helping the folks back home with whatever they need.”
Father Hoffmann recalls the townspeople’s generosity and commitment to building a new Saints Peter and Paul church, saying that the owners of the adjacent land quickly donated it to the church when they found out that the original space was too small for the new building.
Later, the community’s elderly women helped to remove the stone around the first chapel to make way for the new building’s columns.
“They worked five days a week, from early morning until dark,” Father Hoffmann says. “I never expected these women, who were farmers, would be handling chisels and hammers and things like that on very hard rock, but they did it and they did it very well.”
“That also brought a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy into those days of beginning the construction,” he adds.
At the time Father Hoffmann was inspecting the construction in Ichu, about half of the cement structure of the church had been built—with part of the roof imitating the rock formations of the area. The patron saints’ statues were behind the altar and a banner of Jesus hung on the brick wall. One could think the church’s structure only needed paint and finishing touches, until walking past a wall of corrugated iron. On the other side, dozens of wooden sticks held up a temporary wooden roof around the columns of the other half of the structure.
“We are trying to finish the shell of the church as soon as possible,” Father Hoffmann says.
The priest explains that this church would meet the needs of the community and include a choir room and a rectory. Father Hoffmann thinks that if the citizens of Ichu continue to support the construction, they could finish the rest of the church soon.
His faith in the people’s effort comes from experience. During his missionary ministry in Peru—which included some time in Lima and Arequipa—he has been constantly surprised and encouraged by his parishioners’ willingness to help priests and religious in spreading the word of God.
When he started his missionary work in the Prelature of Juli, he said he was inspired by groups of Peruvian men and women catechists, who devoted their lives to deepen their neighbors’ faith.
“They did it all for their love of God and the love of their own people,” he says. “Working with them helped me to be a better man, a better priest and a better Catholic.”
Before joining the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, Father Hoffmann was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1960, where he worked for three years. But while his ministry as a diocesan priest was fulfilling, he kept remembering the Maryknoll missioners who had visited his parish school when he was a boy.
Feeling the awakening of his missionary vocation, he asked for his archbishop’s permission to pursue this. After being accepted into the Maryknoll Society in 1963, Father Hoffmann was sent the following year to the mountains of Peru, 12,500 feet above sea level, where he has been serving for nearly 50 years.
He devoted his life to mission and, as the Maryknollers who came before him, Father Hoffmann has respected and learned from the Aymara and Quechua traditions of the people he served, first in the Juli Prelature and now in the Diocese of Puno. He adds that the locals have a great deal of devotion and this religiosity imbues their families and communities.
His work in the altiplano has included being pastoral coordinator, supervisor of seminarians for the Peru region and vicar general of the Juli Prelature. For the last seven years, Father Hoffmann has been pastor of five Puno communities—splitting his time between visiting four of these communities and administrating a chapel in Jayllihuaya that is run by Maryknoll Father Edmund Cookson. Father Hoffmann is also spiritual director to different organizations and part of the executive board of the office for Human Rights and the Environment, a local non-profit organization led by Maryknoll Sister Patricia Ryan.
Father Hoffmann, who recently celebrated his 83rd birthday surrounded by people he was called to serve, says he feels blessed to be a missioner. “I’m grateful to God for calling me to this life, to Maryknoll—and not just the priests, sisters and brothers, but the people who support us in so many ways,” he says. “I am thankful for my family and their constant support. They are all connected to us with prayer.”
While steadily working on the new church in Ichu, Father Hoffmann wishes to build another church in Salcedo, one of the largest communities he serves. He estimates that 16,000 Catholics live in Salcedo and having a place of their own where they could worship would help to strengthen their faith. He recently found out that after seven years, the local government granted his petition to use a plot of land to build a new church in Salcedo.
As with the new church in Ichu, the priest hopes that the new church building in Salcedo will help maintain the parish’s vitality for generations to come.
Featured image: Father Robert Hoffmann smiles after celebrating his second Mass of the day in the Peruvian altiplano. (N. Sprague/Peru)