By Dan Foor
Providence. That was the word that Jack Felsheim used to describe the chance meeting we had that eventually led to me joining nine other diocesan members on a pilgrimage to Peru to follow in the footsteps of Father Joseph Walijewski. Providence. Not a word one hears every day. It is defined as “divine guidance or care.” I think Jack was right; here’s why.
In January of 2015, I was traveling to Phoenix for business. While waiting in the gate area of the La Crosse Airport, I noticed two men conversing about a book on Pope Francis. At that time, I was somewhat of a newly minted Catholic, having been confirmed, baptized and received my first Eucharist the Easter prior (joining my wife and three daughters in the faith). One of the gentlemen looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place the name with the face. With the help of my smart phone and Google, I determined that one of the gentlemen was none other than our Bishop, William Callahan. Excited for the opportunity to meet the Bishop, I introduced myself.
As it turns out, Bishop Callahan and Jack were traveling to Lima, Peru to conduct some work for the Cause of Father Joe. In our brief discussion, I shared that prior to moving to La Crosse in 2011, I had spent three years in Latin America as an ex-patriate worker for a large multi-national agricultural company. I offered to them that if I could be of service, given my fluency in Spanish and familiarity with Latin culture, that I would be happy to help. Jack texted me photos during their visit to the Casa Hogar orphanage and invited me to pray and reflect to understand God’s intentions for me to get involved.
I was somewhat familiar with Casa Hogar due to the connection between St. Patrick’s elementary and Jhon, one of the orphans there. Living in Bogota and Mexico City also gave me an appreciation for the poverty and challenges that the less fortunate deal with every day. And as I learned more about the good work that Father Joe had begun and that continues today under Monsignor Hirsch, I made the decision to participate in the pilgrimage in August of 2015.
To say the experience was life-changing would be a significant understatement. As mentioned earlier, living and working in Latin America had given me an awareness of the poverty there, but as an expat, neither my family nor I were ever fully immersed in that section of those societies. Casa Hogar receives 64 children from the area, who are divided among 8 families, each with their own parent-teacher couple who act as a surrogate family for the young children aged from babies to 17 years old. They have an organized development program, modeled after Boys Town, which greatly influenced Father Joe in his youth and became the basis of his desire to help the impoverished to have at least a chance of living a better life than their biological families could provide.
On the pilgrimage, we spent time at Father Joe’s tomb overlooking Casa Hogar, visited area churches and a soup kitchen founded by Father Joe, as well the tombs of Saints Martin de Porres and Rose of Lima. The most powerful experiences for me was the time spent with the families at Casa knowing that the spirit of Father Joe permeated the facility and the determination of his ambition visible all around. Another was an afternoon our group spent walking the beach nearby where Father Joe himself used to go when the weight of the circumstances became quite heavy. There he could seek solace and guidance on his mission.
The children at Casa are happy knowing that they are loved. Monsignor Hirsch is the rock of the orphanage and brings a zest for life while patiently cares for his flock both at Casa and around the area. I recall a question I asked him that went something like, “Father Hirsch, isn’t it frustrating knowing that while the work being done here is good, that the impact is so small relative the larger problem?” You see many of the kids that eventually leave Casa find themselves back in the unfortunate situation that they are so desperately trying to escape. He looked at me and said, “Our job is to prepare these kids for battle for the day they leave the safety of Casa Hogar. If we’re able to help just one kid have just one more day away from the terrible things that are out there, that makes all of this worth it.”
It was indeed Providence that led Father Joe to be ordained in the La Crosse Diocese, move to South America and to establish the safe places where the poor and desperate can find hope and faith. I believe that it also called me to Lurin, Peru last year. And by God’s continued Providence, and the support of our catholic family, the good work there will continue.