A Brief History of the Brazil Mission
In 1964, Bishop Francis J. Klein, in response to an appeal of Pope Paul VI and a specific request from the archbishop of Maceió, agreed to establish a diocesan mission in that archdiocese in northeastern Brazil. Bishop Klein effectively tithed from his supply of priests, sending three to Brazil, along with two nurses. They were assigned to staff a large rural parish of 70,000 to 80,000 people in União dos Palmares. The original team consisted of Frs. Don Macgillivray, Bernard Dunn and Bob Ogle and two lay women, nurses Ida Raiche and Cecile Poilievre.
Initial Saskatoon mission team: (L to R) Cecile Poilievre, Fr. Don Macgillivray, Fr. Bernard Dunn, Fr. Bob Ogle, Ida Raiche
Only a short time later, St. Peter’s Abbacy sent its first two missionaries, Benedictine priests Alvin Hergott and Sylvester Vredegoor to the Maceió area. They were joined in January, 1968 by Fr. Leander Dosch, OSB, two Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth from Humboldt, Sr. Marcella Haag and Sr. Dolores Jansen, and two Bruno Ursulines, Sr. Maria Doepker (who stayed for almost 30 years) and Sr. Bernadine Fetter.
Fr. Alvin Hergott (left) and Fr. Sylvester Vredegoor, the first Benedictine missionaries to Maceio
Over the 40 years since the relationship with the archdiocese of Maceió started, other missionaries have followed these pioneers and participated in the teamwork. They included members of the Sisters of Sion from Saskatoon, the Prelate Ursulines and the Sisters of Notre Dame D’Auvergne, whose Sr. Lea Desharnais spent many, many years in União, and the Sisters of Mission Service. Other diocesan priests who served in União dos Palmares included Fr. Al Pich, Fr. Emile April (for about 26 years), Fr. Bernard de Margerie and Fr. Les Paquin. Benedictines Fr. Bernard Stauber and Fr. Lawrence DeMong also spent years working in the mission. The Elizabethan sisters’ contingent also included Sr. Sida Hrbachek for a time, and the Bruno Ursuline group included Sr. Marie Gorsalitz for several years.
Fr. Emile April chatting with parishioners after Mass
The Saskatoon mission team remained in União dos Palmares from 1964 until 2002. During those 38 years, they developed a network of about 75 base Christian communities and helped form hundreds of dedicated lay leaders and catechists. They would also become involved from time to time in disaster relief -- such as when the flooding of the local river swept people’s homes away or when the plight of homeless children necessitated creation of a boys’ home and a daycare centre for girls -- and support was always generous from people of the Saskatoon diocese.
In 1994, the Sisters of Mission Service joined the Saskatoon team and began their work in the neighbouring small city of São José da Laje. Sisters Jeannine and Marie-Noelle Rondot were stationed there, working with the parish priest in pastoral tasks and extending special attention to one of the poorest slums in the city.
Ever since the beginning of the abbacy mission in the environs of Maceió, team members were involved in parish work, as well as trying to improve the lot of the poor farmers, fishermen and slum dwellers among whom they worked. The Bruno Ursulines continued that tradition. One of their priorities was hospitality. All were received warmly at the door, whether from near or far away.
The missionaries from Saskatoon have always been particularly interested in issues of social justice. They offered support to people and organizations fighting for land reform, womens’ rights and better housing and health care.
In 2002, the Saskatoon diocese ceased to have a presence in the parish of União dos Palmares. The missionary efforts were then concentrated in the Maceió parish of Marechal Deodoro, and in the regions of São José da Laje and Ibateguara.
In the summer of 2014, the four diocesan missionaries serving in Brazil returned home to Saskatchewan, Ursulines of Bruno Sr. Claire Novecosky and Sr. Louise Hinz, and Sisters of Mission Service Sr. Jeannine Rondot and Sr. Marie-Noelle Rondot. The diocese of Saskatoon is now discerning how to best continue its long friendship with the people of Brazil.