Fiorela Gonzales remembers how she and her friends always waited for the green car to cross the gates of the home for vulnerable girls where she grew up in Lima, Peru. They were waiting for Maryknoll Father Bernard “Pete” Byrne, who came to visit every Sunday and whenever he could during the week.
“All of us ran to hug him and he would just give us his big smile and say, ‘How are you, my children?’,” says Fiorela, now 23. “His presence brought us peace.”
Father Byrne not only helped to fulfill the children’s many material needs, but he made them feel seen and heard. Although the priest is now retired back in the States, his 50-year ministry on the peripheries of Lima continues through people who were inspired by his example.
The missioner’s tireless caring for youth in Lima resulted in programs that helped street children to live safely and free from abuse, and helped the shelters to ensure the children’s development. When the missioner left Peru due to health reasons, he asked a group of Maryknoll affiliates to continue visiting and supporting Hogar Nuestra Señora de la Misericordia, a home for girls in Puente Piedra, and Santa Maria Home for boys in the south of Lima.
The Maryknoll affiliates—lay people who commit themselves to the mission goals of Maryknoll in local chapters—and other volunteers have been carrying on the work of “Padre Bernardo” since 2000. In 2007, they also started a non-profit foundation with Father Byrne to help at-risk youth on the peripheries of Lima and to continue to support the Misericordia and Santa Maria homes.
Both facilities house children who either lived in extreme poverty or were orphaned, abandoned, neglected or at risk in some way. They provide not only shelter but nutritious food, clothing, education and loving care. Father Byrne played a crucial role in helping fund some of the homes’ infrastructures as well as the children’s education and nutrition.
Currently, Misericordia home cares for 100 girls and Santa Maria home has nearly 70 boys, ages 5 through high school.
“The homes provide a family-like environment where children can grow, knowing that they have value and dignity,” Father Byrne emphasizes.
“We try to give them a normal life,” says Sister Alejandrina Ayala, Misericordia home’s director and a member of the Franciscan Sisters T.O.R. Daughters of Mercy who run the girls home. “We are very thankful to Father Bernardo’s friends because of the help they bring, for their presence and friendship.”
For girls like Fiorela and her sister Salome, 25, living at the shelter was one of the best experiences of their lives, says Salome. The sisters were separated as toddlers after their parents died and each sibling went to live with a different relative. Two years later, their elderly grandmother and a social worker helped to place both girls together at Misericordia house. “What the home does is to give hope to each girl who arrives here,” Salome says. “I felt safe and protected.”
What the children he met remember most about Father Byrne is how kind and warm he was and how he listened to them. Fiorela remembers how the missioner from Anaconda, Mont., stressed at every Mass that Christ loved them, sending them forth by saying, “And we must not forget that Christ loves us.”
“They still do that,” says Alberto Bailetti, a Maryknoll affiliate who frequently visits the homes. “At the end of Mass, a boy or a girl calls out, ‘And we must not forget’ and everyone responds, ‘that Christ loves us.’”
“We knew Father Bernardo was telling us that we are not alone, that we have somebody who loves us and cares for us,” Fiorela recalls.
Describing the priest as a “true disciple,” Bailetti and Maryknoll Affiliate Elizabeth Lock say that Father Byrne always preached God’s love through concrete actions on behalf of the children. Father Byrne—who will turn 90 this year—also advocated for and raised awareness about neglected children around the world.
Even in retirement, the missioner has continued encouraging the affiliates and other volunteers to sow seeds of love by reaching out to children to give them love and protection. “The sacred value of each child is a gift that we discover by getting to know them,” Father Byrne says.
Lock says that in addition to bringing clothes and shoes for the children, the affiliates organize special visits on Easter, Christmas and the children’s birthdays every year, often enlisting their families and friends to bring games, prizes and gifts for festival-style celebrations. “We always wait excitedly for the visit of Father Bernardo’s friends,” says Ana Maria Verastegui, 16, who was originally from the Andes Mountains of Peru and came to the girls home eight years ago. “And they are present in our prayers.”
Alejandro Ore Gutierrez, general coordinator of the Santa Maria Apostolic Society that runs the Santa Maria home for boys in the district of San Juan de Miraflores, says that the men who grew up at Santa Maria have formed solid families of their own and pursued jobs to help their families. Others become volunteer tutors and provide academic and spiritual support for the home’s boys and teens, as if they were their younger brothers.
“To me, Santa Maria home is everything. It taught me about mutual respect and love,” says Alvaro Lopez, 19, who arrived at the hogar when he was 9 years old due to extreme poverty at home and is now one of 11 tutors at Santa Maria.
Through benefactors who support his work, Father Byrne has continued helping both homes to ensure that the children have food and school supplies. Whenever the children need support—with clothes for the winter or other necessities—the affiliates and the priest rally together to donate the items they need.
“The kids need to feel that Father Bernardo is still accompanying them in spirit, and is still taking care of them through the affiliates’ chapter and the foundation,” says Bailetti, who helps to lead both organizations.
The Maryknoll affiliates who work with Father Byrne grew up with the missionary charism of Maryknoll, transmitted to them at Maryknoll-founded Santa Rosa school. “The Maryknoll missioners were our spiritual guides and helped us focus on what is important: helping others and showing them love,” Bailetti recalls.
Many of the fruits of God’s love that the missioner and affiliates helped to nurture are yielding fruit through alumni like Fiorela and Salome, who pursued their studies through a government scholarship for talented youth who are vulnerable.
“The home was key to the person I am now,” says Salome, who is finishing up her studies to become a psychologist.
Editors Note: Shortly after publication of this article, Father Byrne passed away, on May 5, 2018. He will be greatly missed.
Featured Image: Maryknoll Affiliate Alberto Bailetti (wearing suit) speaks with students at Hogar Santa Maria, a shelter for boys in San Juan de Miraflores, Lima, Peru. (N. Sprague/Peru).