Back to the roots

by Fr. John Boles

In the fourth of his six part series detailing the history and development of Columban mission in Peru, Fr. John Boles writes about Columban Fr. John Hegerty who never thought he’d be able to go back to his life as a farmer……..until the pandemic struck!

When Covid-19 appeared on the scene, Columbans all over the world had to react to the emergency. We all had to ask ourselves, “How can I carry on serving the People of God in these strange new times ?” For Australian John Hegerty, on mission in South America, it was a case – literally – of going back to the roots. He responded to the pandemic by combining his current role as, “Father”, to his original one as….“Farmer”.

Born in 1941 in Redesdale, central Victoria, John grew up on his parents’ 1,700 acre sheep and cattle and rotational cropping  holding.called Summer Hill. “From the word go he worked  all the jobs around the place”, John recalls. He worked on the property right up to joining the Columbans, aged 23. “I never had a city job. I went into the seminary as a ‘hayseed’. I was the ‘boy from the bush’, a ‘country hick !”

During his holidays from the seminary in Sydney he returned home and helped Dad and Mum with whatever was needed. He even managed to host fellow seminarians for a week or so. This was cheap labour! One thing that still makes him laugh is how some of these big burley footballers and surfers wilted under the pressure of sheep work. When crutching to remove wool from areas where flies might strike, their backs packed up. When pruning the hoofs to avoid foot rot from the long lush of spring, their hands became swollen. Maybe John couldn’t keep up on the long runs in the bush nor on the football field but he was in front.

After ordination he was posted to Peru, where he’s been for most of the last fifty years. By 2020 he reckoned he’d filled just about every missionary role imaginable. Then, Covid came knocking.

He was in semi-retirement in our Centre House in Lima, a fairly pleasant spot set amidst a kind of oasis (Lima lies in the world’s driest desert) and surrounded by schools and a university (all of which got closed down for the duration of the crisis). Peru was hit very hard by the pandemic and the economic collapse which followed. The Columbans were in lock-down for months, leaving them with two challenges – how to keep THEMSELVES sane and the PEOPLE cared for, given the new restrictions.

“We had this Irish Columban, Tom Hanley, who works in Chile but who’d been left stranded up here by the lock-down,” John Explains. “Now, Tom had had a lot of experience on the land back in Ireland, so he suggested he’d use his time digging up and planting part of our grounds. Not only would it keep him occupied, but it’d also make us partially self-sufficient. He sowed vegetables, corn, herbs and (being Irish) even some potatoes. Well, they all grew like mad.” The experiment was a great success.

As restrictions eased, the Irishman was able to return to Chile, leaving the new post of farmer vacant. John suddenly felt those old green fingers twitching again. Fond memories of life back on the farm in Australia came flooding back. So…..he filled the vacancy.

“Not that I was alone”, he remarks. Full-time local gardener Gaspar returned to lend his expert advice. Also coming to help were two young Columban seminarians from Fiji, Atonio Saula and Iowane Naio. “This was the perfect match,” says John. “Not only were they two strong bucks from a farming background in Fiji, but they were also working in a poor parish where there were a number of ‘comedores’.” (“Comedores” are essentially subsidized canteens. The Columbans set up a series of them at this time to help feed families who’d lost their sources of income. Each ‘comedor’ caters for up to a hundred of the needy at each midday sitting.)

Fr. John Hegerty and Gaspar in the corn (maize) patch.

A regular routine has now emerged. John and Gaspar look after the day-to-day running of the mini-farm. As required, Atonio and Iowane come in and  prepare new beds, adding manuer, doing regluar watering , and harvesting the produce. Some is kept for the Columban houses, but the majority goes to one or ,bmore of the  ‘comedores’. It is planned to continue this system even after the coronavirus emergency ends for, as John points out, the effects of this virus on the poor will last for years.

John insists this has resulted in the best of all worlds. The poor are helped, Columban running costs are defrayed and, “it is great therapy for me. I love it. I go out working every afternoon after lunch. Much healtier than a long ‘siesta’. It’s doing me good.”

A LOT of good – for John, for the Columbans, for Peru.

It really has been worthwhile, going back to the roots.

Read more

Read the third update from the fantastic series detailing the history and development of Columban mission in Peru in which Fr. Dylan Tabaco reflects on how he thought he knew all about walking, until he came to Peru and met someone who’d walked across half a continent .

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