Santisimo Sacramento in service

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A large parish in the Archdiocese of Piura in Peru, Santisimo Sacramento serves 40,000 Catholics in Piura and its surrounding villages. The parish, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, is located approximately 600 miles north of Lima in an area that is very poor, with more than 40 percent unemployment.

Father Joseph Uhen has been pastor since his ordination in 1993. Originally from Milwaukee, Father Uhen graduated from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., in 1980. While in college, he was inspired by the lives of Archbishop Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa and felt a deep calling to give his life to the church while serving the poor. He felt called to work in Peru after hearing of the Shining Path guerillas who killed more than 60,000 Peruvians - including a dozen priests and religious - during the 1980s and '90s.

Mass is celebrated at Santisimo Sacramento twice daily and six times over the weekend at the main parish. According to recent numbers, an estimated 10,000 Catholics attend Sunday Mass at the parish. In addition, Father Uhen makes regular visits to each of the 28 local village chapels, offering up to eight additional Masses every week. To help accommodate the spiritual demands, Father Uhen is assisted by local Opus Dei, Franciscan and Jesuit priests, and a parish council of more than 70 catechists and group leaders.

The parish staff includes 20 members who spend their days distributing donated supplies and assisting with local social service programs. Donations to the parish support a drug rehabilitation center, a hospice, a women's shelter, local orphanages, a clinic and a parochial school, Mother of Good Counsel, among other services.

Since 1996, the parish has welcomed hundreds of volunteers, including high school youth groups, medical missions, parish mission groups, university volunteers and families to help serve the local community. Father Uhen estimates the parish welcomes between 400 and 420 volunteers each year, although this year's number will be closer to 500. Together with parish workers, the volunteers deliver food and clothing to the needy, assist in various social programs, and construct houses and chapels.

"Mostly they come from the United States, but they come from other places too," he said. "It's just a bridge. It's an opportunity for (volunteers) to share the faith with the people here and offer their talents and resources."

And even though not everybody who volunteers at the parish is Catholic, there is a strong spiritual component to the volunteer work, Father Uhen said.

"The primary way we can come together is faith and sharing that together and the good works that come along with that," he said. "Jesus said, 'I was hungry and you gave me food to eat, I was naked, you clothed me, I was without shelter and you gave me a home,' so those are the kinds of things that happen when visitors come."

In addition, the parish organizes a successful family-to-family program, which matches Peruvian families in need with American sponsor families. Currently, the program provides food for more than 1,400 families. Each month, the sponsor families pay for an assortment of rice, beans, corn, lentils and evaporated milk to add to the Peruvian family's supplies. The two families also form a relationship through exchanged prayers and letters.

"Even though it's not enough food to supply them for the whole month, it's enough food to encourage them and motivate them to try to do what they can to help make ends meet," Father Uhen said. "At least they know that they are not alone."

For Father Uhen, one of the most important jobs as pastor is to help build and nourish a strong community where the people can build each other up. That's part of the reason the parish encourages village chapels. Currently, there are 28 chapels spread around the parish boundaries - each constructed in a different village.

"(The chapels) bring people together to help each other," Father Uhen said. "If someone gets sick, they can all get together and help them get some medicine. So it's not just about getting resources from the United States and others. They themselves can work to get the resources they need to help each other. So that's part of our work, teaching that kind of faith and communion."

(Click here to read about Catholic Herald staff writer Katie Bahr's recent mission trip to Santisimo Sacramento.)

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012