Author Archives: Danelle Bjornson

Wisconsin priest’s legacy lives on at Peruvian orphanage

Category : News

LURIN, Peru (CNS) — In 1975, Msgr. Joseph Hirsch spent a month living in Lima’s slums as he backpacked through South America. Now he’s back in Peru, working to prove a man he met that year is a saint.

But proving a man is a saint is no easy job, and it will take years of interviews, investigation, paperwork and prayer.

Father Joseph Walijewski from the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., diocese died in Peru in 2006, after 35 years of serving the country’s poor. On March 19, his sainthood cause was launched in La Crosse.

“Even if it takes 200 years to canonize him, I think his story is something that can impact us today,” said Msgr. Hirsch, who is also from the La Crosse Diocese.

When young Msgr. Hirsch met Father Walijewski, the older priest was working in Villa El Salvador, a Lima slum. He dreamed of starting an orphanage to help the abandoned and abused children he saw daily.

In 1985, Blessed John Paul II visited Villa El Salvador. Father Walijewski shared his dream with the pope, who donated $50,000. Father Walijewski named the orphanage Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II.

The orphanage started with two children, one volunteer and one tutor. Today, Casa Hogar is home to 64 children. They live in a family style modeled after the Boys Town program. The children are divided into eight families, each with their own apartment, mother and father.
Alfredo Inigo, 21, moved to Casa Hogar when he was 8. He said Father Walijewski taught him friendship and kindness that he had never known in his own home. He lived there until he turned 18 and said he still prays to Father Walijewski.

“He was a very humble priest,” Inigo said.

When asked what Father Walijewski was like, almost everyone mentioned this humbleness. They smiled and laughed, remembering his broken Spanish.

“He almost always spoke in the present tense,” Msgr. Hirsch said.

They also talked about his childlike nature and love of singing. One of his favorite tunes was Old McDonald, and he had perfected the sounds of each animal.

And no one could pronounce his last name. Father Walijewski would joke and tell them to call him “Padre Whiskey.”
Father Walijewski considered the orphanage his greatest work.

“The vision is to be able to transform society by teaching children how to live in families,” said Msgr. Hirsch. “The transformation of a culture happens always within marriage and within the family.”

In July, Msgr. Hirsch took over as executive director of Casa Hogar. He now lives in the house where Father Walijewski once lived.

Msgr. Hirsch said he had dreamed of working as a missionary in Latin America since his high school days. He was ordained in 1986 and patiently waited to be sent to the missions. In the meantime, he led a handful of short mission trips to Casa Hogar. Finally, in 2013, he received his first post abroad, at Holy Cross Parish in Bolivia, a church started by Father Walijewski.

Just five months later, Msgr. Hirsch was sent to Peru, tracing the footsteps of his friend.

In addition to directing Casa Hogar, Msgr. Hirsch was appointed the promoter of justice in the cause of Father Walijewski. He will spend the next five years gathering testimony. One of the first interviews he conducted was about 600 questions long and lasted six hours.
“I look at this as an opportunity to be able to learn not just the life but the spirituality of a very simple and holy priest who gave himself completely,” Msgr. Hirsch said.

Father Walijewski is buried in the hillside overlooking Casa Hogar and the sea. Every Sunday, Msgr. Hirsch takes the families up there to pray. They touch the grave and ask questions about Father Walijewski; some of the younger children never met him. Msgr. Hirsch said he hopes through his stories of Father Walijewski, he can keep his presence alive at Casa Hogar.

Thousands attended Father Walijewski’s funeral in Villa El Salvador. There, Msgr. Hirsch asked several people what it was like to know the priest.

Many told him, “This is the first saint that I’ve ever met.”

Copyright © 2013 Catholic News Service

By Ellie Gardner Catholic News Service Reprinted with permission of CNS.

Father Joe’s Years in the Jungle

Category : News

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the opening of the Cause for Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God, Father Joseph Walijewski, we are pleased to update all Guild members on the work that has been started in South America. Part of that work involves interviewing those who best knew Fr. Joe throughout the many stages of his life.

Fr. Joe lived a very interesting life and carried out his missionary work in many different countries. Most people have heard of the Holy Cross Parish in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a few know of Villa el Salvador in Peru, and there are many who know about Casa Hogar in Lurín, but very few people have ever heard about his work in the jungle. We decided to begin our interviews in these far-reaching communities, which led us on a twelve-hour journey to Oxapampa, Peru on the border of the Amazon rainforest.

Fr. Joe’s bio reads that he spent his retirement and the last few years of his life in Oxapampa when in reality his time there was far from a traditional retirement.

Fr. Joe’s first connection with Oxapampa was back in 1988, just two years after Casa Hogar was founded. What is most interesting about his work in this area is that it seems as if everything he did in his life is recapitulated during these years from 1988-2006.
The history of Fr. Joe in Oxapampa reads like an action novel packed with excitement of far-off places, threats of danger, and learning how to adapt to all kinds of impossible challenges.

As director of Casa Hogar he was simultaneously building an orphanage for youth in Chontabamba, near Oxapampa. He began construction of the orphanage in 1988 and it was opened in 1991. At this time he also purchased a farm to be able to provide the youth with the opportunity to learn farming skills.

In 1992 a group of terrorists entered the city of Chontabamba, in search of Fr. Joe with plans to assassinate him. As God’s providence would have it, the very day that they came looking to kill him, Fr. Joe was visiting Casa Hogar in Lurín. Had he been home when they arrived this story would have a very different ending. Due to the unstable state of the area under threats from the Shining Path, he decided to close the orphanage for two years.

Although he ‘retired’ in 2000 from Casa Hogar, Fr. Joe never slowed down his pace and his mission heart continued to carry him forward. His ministry included working at the chapel in Chontabamba as well as celebrating Masses in over ten different communities throughout the jungle. He opened soup kitchens in town and even started a pre-seminary for youth interested in the priesthood. One can only marvel at the missionary zeal that inspired and led him to reach out to so many of the poorest people.

In 2003 the orphanage in Chontabamba closed, but Fr. Joe still had one more dream to fulfill; to found a nursing home. Through a number of providential encounters he was put in contact with the Josephine Sisters of Charity. They agreed to convert the orphanage into a nursing home with a capacity for 18 people. The home is still in operation and currently is home for 11 elderly under the care of three sisters.

What impressed us the most while visiting these remote sites was once people learned about the canonization process, many came up to share their appreciation for all that Padre José did for them personally, for their families and for their community. We can truly be proud of all of his works but we can be especially inspired by this last chapter of his life which is a summary of his entire missionary life.

By Jess Mollison, Director of Development for Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II