Friday, April 28, 2006

LURIN, Peru — Father Joe has come home to the place he picked for his eternal rest — a burial niche on a barren hill, looking down on the orphanage he founded two decades ago.

Joseph Walijewski, a Polish-American, Roman Catholic priest known to all simply as Father Joe, would have been surprised by the turnout for his funeral this month. Two dozen men of the cloth, some from as far away as Wisconsin and including five bishops, led the Mass for him April 11 at the small church in this community outside Lima, packed with hundreds of townspeople who spilled into the street outside.

Orphans small and large, many now leading successful lives, came to say goodbye.

“A saint has lived among us, and a saint has died among us,” said the Rev. Luis Hidalgo, a priest from the jungle town of Oxapampa, just down the road from the village where Father Walijewski spent his last years setting up a home for the elderly.

The priest’s life, and death at 82 from complications from pneumonia, exemplify the dedication and sacrifice many foreign missionaries bring to their work in Third World nations — though few receive the recognition that he has.

Father Walijewski represented the diocese in La Crosse, Wis., when he arrived in Peru in 1971 after 10 years as a missionary in Bolivia and two in Ecuador.

He quickly set up the first parish in Villa El Salvador, a shantytown that was taking shape amid the sand dunes outside Lima, Peru’s capital, and helped get aid for its first inhabitants, people who had been uprooted by a devastating earthquake in the central Andes the year before.

“Without him, Villa El Salvador would have been something else, filled with resentful, rebellious people. He gave it a different tone, a different heart,” said Bishop Gerardo Anton Zerdin, who oversees parishes in Peru’s central jungle.

Years later, walking through a tough part of Lima, Father Walijewski spied stealthy movements under a pile of dirty newspapers in an alley. It was a little boy and a girl preparing a place to sleep.

The sight made the priest decide to fulfill a lifelong dream and open a home for abandoned children.

Pope John Paul II’s Home in Lurin, near Villa El Salvador, came to provide refuge for more than 100 children, some as young as 2, who live in families headed by couples who serve as surrogate parents.

“Many of the children have never known a home, and we are trying to give them the feeling they have a family,” Father Walijewski told an Associated Press reporter a few years ago.

He was inspired by the movie “Boys Town,” which told the true story of Father Edward Joseph Flanagan and the City of Little Men. He said he wanted to create a place for “happy children.”

Father Walijewski knew about poverty. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., the ninth child of poor immigrant parents from Poland. At age 5, he hawked newspapers on the street to help his family.

In his work clothes and heavy shoes, Father Walijewski looked more like a meatpacker than a priest. Squealing children would swarm around him, hugging his legs. His mouth twisted off to one side, giving him a Popeye the Sailor look, and his green eyes gleamed when he talked — especially when the topic was his children.

“If he hadn’t taken them on, a lot of them might not even be alive today,” said British-born Susan Morillas, the head of Friends of Casa Hogar, whose members donate their time and efforts to the orphanage. “It was their home, and he was their father, and they were all brothers and sisters.”

Father Walijewski started the home after Pope John Paul II visited him in Villa El Salvador in 1985 and, touched by the priest’s dedication, compassion and vision, gave him $50,000 to begin the project. The orphanage now is financed by private donations, mostly from the United States.

There was no shortage of orphans. Half of Peruvians live in poverty, and a long-running guerrilla war — while waning — has left its share of homeless.

One of the most chilling stories involved three siblings, ages 4 to 7, brought to the orphanage by police who found the two boys and a girl wandering a roadside on Lima’s outskirts, clutching each other’s hands. They were from a village in the Andes, where 10 hooded men broke into their home and hacked their parents and grandparents to death while they hid under a bed.

Later, they crawled out and hitchhiked to Lima, hoping to find relatives. Their first nights at the orphanage they screamed for their mother.

“But they found a place where they could forget their past,” Father Walijewski said in an interview in 1998.

Gisela Zorrilla was taken in after her parents died, when she was only 2.

“He was a wonderful man,” she said, trying to keep up with the procession behind the priest’s casket as pallbearers carried it up the hill, followed by hundreds of people.

“He gave us an education, food, went to Mass with us,” she said. “He would talk to us about our future, that we had to be well-educated, so many things. He showed us so much affection.”

In 2000, Father Walijewski turned the orphanage over to the Rev. Sebastian Kolodziejczyk, a Polish-born priest also from the La Crosse Diocese. He moved to Chontabamba, a village in Peru’s central jungle, where he visited hamlets to celebrate Mass and set up a retirement home.

But he made a point of returning once a month to Lurin to see how his children were doing. It was during his last visit that he took ill. Father Kolodziejczyk rushed him to a hospital before dawn because he had trouble breathing. He died 24 hours later.

Father Joe had a great sense of humor, his successor recalled. One of his favorite sayings was “Don’t worry, nothing is going to be all right.”

“The night before he died, he said, ‘Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right.’”

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