Fr. Francisco Fahlman served the people of Moquegua, Peru for over 35 years. He died at age 74 in 1997. I met him in 1995 through a Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip to Moquegua. The word moquegua is Quechua in origin and means "quiet place." Possibly, it was named that for its pleasant climate, which is the reason it is sometimes known as "sleepy Moquegua" in Peru today. (The town plaza was designed by Gustave Eiffel--yes, that Gustave Eiffel.)
Our first evening in Moquegua, we had dinner with the local Habitat board, among whom was Fr. Fahlman. He also served as our interpreter. He was actually a Canadian by birth, which is how he knew English, but had been in South America for so long that he now thought and dreamed in Spanish, and had for quite some time.
He was then 72 and the only priest in a large parish. Two nuns were also assigned to the congregation, but they spent most of their time running the orphanage next door to the church. Fr. Fahlman had 400 children in confirmation!
As one of the few people in the city with advanced education, he was also in demand for community service, such as serving on the Water Board, other civic associations--and, of course, the Habitat board.
As the only priest in a city of 30,000, he presided at several Masses each week, at least a few funerals, and special Masses for special occasions. "If it's National Firefighters Week," he said, "the firefighters want a Mass."
He took Wednesdays off and drove about 45 minutes to Ilo, which is on the Pacific coast. This is where he found the vast majority of his pre-Columbian artifacts. Over the years, his collection had grown quite extensive. He persauded the local copper mine--the fourth largest in the world--to support forming a museum around his collection, the Museo Contisuyo in Moquegua.
Fr. Fahlman could get quite animated, in his quiet way. He was no friend of "liberal economics." Back in the 1980's, "liberal economics" was all the rage in Peru. ("Liberal economics" is what they call free market-ism in Latin America.) Presidential candidate Fujimori was pushing it at the time, and Fr. Fahlman voted for Fujimori when he first ran. He did not vote for Fujimori when he ran for re-election because, as Fr. Fahlman acidly said it, "Liberal economics 'helps' poor people by getting rid of poor people."
Fr. Fahlman's theology was "liberationist." This was not simply an academic position, nor an intellectual one. Quite the contrary, it was practical and down-to-earth. Fr. Fahlman's people were poor, and he was on their side and he was sure God was too. Theologians call it "preferential option for the poor." Fr. Fahlman called it "following Jesus."
Moquegua has a fall holiday known as the Festival of Santa Fortunata. The alleged bones of "Santa Fortunata" were brought to Moquegua in the 1700's. Fr. Fahlman said nobody really knows who the remains actually were, but somehow they wound up being Santa Fortunata. "And the Franciscans did this!" he said, with great indignation, an indignation made even sharper by the fact that he was also Franciscan.
One of the features of the Festival of Santa Fortunata is the local custom of offering a toast before one downs a local drink known as a Pisco Sour. The toast, if I remember correctly, is "no soy un protestante," which means, "I am not a protestant." Fr. Fahlman didn't care much for this practice, not least because it seemed to say that the drunker you were, the better Catholic you were.
He went on a campaign against it. He wanted to have the so-called remains of the so-called Santa Fortunata removed from the church. The reasoning he presented to the church was that Santa Fortunata was an Italian and the church should honor a Peruvian saint, such as St. Rose of Lima, for example, or St. Martin de Porres. Both, he also pointed out, helped the poor.
The way he told the story, a sizeable group of men worked and worked and worked and couldn't get the remains of "Santa Fortunata" out of the church. Not long afterward, Fr. Fahlman had his first heart attack while serving Mass. Many of the people were convinced that Santa Fortunata was getting even with Fr. Fahlman for trying to put her out of the church. An astute parish politician, he said, "After that, there was never much hope of making a change."
The local orphanage began during his tenure. It began when someone left a baby on the church steps. They took the child in, and soon they had three or four more. Suddenly, they were operating an orphanage. They decided they could not take more than ten children. When they got up to around 15, they decided that 20 was the absolute limit. When they hit 25, they absolutely, absolutely could not take more than 30.
When we were there--this was 1995--there were 186 children in the orphanage. The nuns were quite accomplished at pointing out the cramped conditions and the special challenges of their situation. They survived on contributions, after all, and, as I myself like to say, "Donations are always cheerfully accepted." Besides, having seen those little Peruvian faces, how could you not?
Fr. Fahlman was a prime mover in the local Habitat affiliate, though he was not alone in this. Local Habitat boards are organized the same way around the world. The Moquegua board seemed representative of the community and had a high level of commitment. The project we were working on was called the "City of Angels" project--Cuidad Los Angeles. The planned 200 homes have been completed for some time now, of course, providing safe and decent housing for at least 1000 people.
Fr. Fahlman died on August 22, 1997 during heart surgery following his fourth heart attack, a priest to the end. I heard they renamed the Cuidad Los Angeles project after Fr. Fahlman. They have also named a school after him, and, I believe, a local park--also, apparently, a local sports team.
He had come to visit not long before. He stayed at our house and wanted to see as many of his Colorado friends as possible, not realizing that we lived all over a very big state. Over a week's time, we did re-connect with a few, showing him big chunks of the Rocky Mountains along the way. Of course, when you have the Andes in your backyard, the Rockies don't make the same impression as they do if you're from North Dakota. When we weren't doing that, he liked to watch television. "Wow, you must have 50 channels," he'd say. Turns out, it's not that hard to entertain someone from the third world.
He also happened to be in town during a time when I was likely to be called to the particular congregation I serve now. Before the final deal had been struck, however, we needed to have dinner with the congregation. Of course, we brought Fr. Fahlman as a guest. I don't think it hurt my prospects any that I was able to introduce someone to them whom I regarded as a saint.
I was once asked my favorite memory of Habitat for Humanity. I have several, but if I had to choose one, it would be the final worship service of our week at Cuidad Los Angeles in Moquegua. We were all gathered under a tent on the Habitat site. A slight breeze caught Fr. Fahlman's vestments every now and then while we and our Peruvian friends sang joyful songs in Spanish. Most of us did not know the words, but it didn't seem to matter that much. Besides, el amor de Jesucristo is not that difficult to translate.
Fr. Fahlman is a hero to the people of Moquegua, and to me, and I hope also, dear reader, to you.