By Kathy Williams
As Director of Communications, I was privileged to visit the two ministry sites of the Ursuline Sisters in Peru in October 2019, with my daughter, Elizabeth Williams, accompanying me. The two sites are San Miguel in the Andes mountains, and Callao in the Carmen de la Legua area of Lima, Peru. The purpose of my trip was to document the work the Sisters are doing in Peru through photos, video and interviews. The Sisters have been in Peru for over fifty-five years, beginning in 1964 when several Sisters were sent to Peru to teach Peruvian children at a Navy school, AND, start a school, Saint Angela Merici School, from the ground up in what was then a slum area of Lima—Callao in the Carmen de la Legua area.
Sister Lee Kirchner, one of the school’s founders, says that in 1964, she was “surprised, overjoyed and at the same time almost in a daze as I received by phone my obedience to go to Lima, Peru, with three other sisters to begin a mission there.” Sister Lee and Sister (Joseph Marie) Mary Martha Staarman were told that they were starting a school from scratch in Carmen de la Legua. The other two Sisters would teach English at a Navy school. None of the Sisters knew Spanish or the culture.
After a three month crash course in Spanish (over time they became fluent in Spanish), Sister Lee and Sister Mary Martha set about their monumental task. Sister Lee recalls, “I felt so zealous until I saw our mission, Carmen de la Legua, which was a slum area of 30,000 poor families that lived along a dried-up bed of the Rimac River in straw huts and spoke another language. Oh, my Jesus, guide and keep me.” They had no electricity, running water, sewers, basic medical care or transportation. The area had a lot of mosquitos, scorpions and vermin, and disease was rampant.
In 1965, after a lot of red tape and many obstacles, they were able to open Saint Angela Merici School. They started it with 75 children in two first grade rooms, one box of chalk and two erasers! Enrollment quickly grew as it was the only Catholic school in the area. The co-ed Saint Angela Merici School now serves over 300 pre-k through high school students and will celebrate its 55th anniversary in October, 2020. Carmen de la Legua has grown to become an urban area of brick homes, shops and businesses, and while still a poor area, the people manage to find work and feed their families.
We stayed with Sister Sue Scharfenberger and Sister Yuli Onchinay (a native Peruvian) in their home, which is only two blocks from the school. Sister Sue serves as the Mission Effectiveness Director of the school and Sister Yuli teaches preschool. Both Sisters work very hard at the school, and they also are in ministry with the Associates of Callao.
The school now offers computer, shop, sewing, drama, cooking and English classes in addition to the basic subjects at each grade level. While visiting the school, I interviewed Edmundo E. Gamarra Gomez, the school’s principal, and Carmen Rose De LaCuba Laurel, vice-principal, who told us that while the school faces many challenges, including funding, their goal is to educate the whole person, someone who works for the good of the community. They hope that their school is welcoming, like a piazza, as Saint Angela Merici wished her followers to be. Indeed, I found everyone at the school to be very welcoming and open, and the students have a lively, intelligent spirit. They would run up to us and say, “Hello!” and would giggle when we would ask a follow-up question. The spirit of Angela Merici is very much alive in the students and faculty of the school. The legacy of the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville will live on for many years to come in Callao, Peru.
Congratulations to Saint Angela Merici School on this milestone!
The current population of Lima, Peru, is 10 million. In 1964, when the Sisters came to Lima, it was 2 million.