God’s Presence in the Highlands of Peru

Missioner and indigenous preserve the faith in Puno

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[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Maria-Pia Negro Chin, photos by Nile Sprague [/googlefont]

Before the All Saints’ Day Mass in the highland village of Jayllihuaya, Peru, parishioners at St. James Church approach the altar with offerings such as photos, cloth funerary wreaths, fresh flowers and intricately designed loaves of bread. Maryknoll Father Edmund Cookson, pastor, welcomes his indigenous Aymara parishioners and their relatives, praying with them to thank God for their deceased loved ones’ care and guidance.

The next morning, the community will bring the offerings to the local cemetery, where people will spend the day praying and honoring their deceased relatives.

The celebrations of All Saints and All Souls exemplify the blending of Catholic practices and pre-Columbian Andean traditions in Peru’s altiplano, a high plains plateau in the Andes Mountains.

Maryknoll Father Edmund Cookson celebrates the Eucharist with Aymara parishioners at a small church in Jayllihuaya in Puno, Peru. (N. Sprague/Peru)

Maryknoll Father Edmund Cookson celebrates the Eucharist with parishioners at a small church in Jayllihuaya in Puno, Peru. (N. Sprague/Peru)

“Part of our Aymara culture involves honoring the saints and remembering those souls who left their blessings in our lives,“ says William Mamani, a pastoral agent at St. James. “Our Andean cosmovision helps us believe we are connected through the spirit.”

He says the Aymara traditionally present their deceased relatives with bread shaped like angels to accompany the souls of the dead to eternal life, llamas or horses to speed up their journeys, a sun and a moon to guide their way, as well as tributes of flowers and food.

Father Cookson, 81, has ministered to the Aymara people of Puno for more than 50 years, and he has learned to value their ancestral culture while being committed to prayer, liturgy, education and the betterment of the community.

“He respects our dignity as people from the highlands,” says Mamani, who was 6 years old when he met the missioner. “He has always emphasized our cultural elements and included them during the Mass. He encourages you to understand that God is with you, that God is present in how you are as a person.”

Father Cookson has cared for the spiritual and physical well-being of the Aymara people of the province of Puno through projects and pastoral care. His projects have included setting up a mill to process local grains, distributing animals such as hens and guinea pigs to combat malnutrition, improving the herds of llamas, restoring the soil damaged by floods, and touting the nutritional value of native grains like quinoa, as well as helping to secure a government contract to bake high protein cookies for local schoolchildren. Father Cookson also helped the Aymara build adobe greenhouses so they could raise vegetables year-round and improve their diets.

Today, his ministry focuses less on agricultural projects and more on ministering to the people’s spiritual needs. “My apostolate is to affirm the presence of the Lord Jesus here,” he says, “to be with the people and to say, by my presence, ’God loves you.’ ”

The missioner from Peekskill, N.Y., says he enjoys striking up conversations with people around the village and attending to those who visit him seeking guidance, prayers, Masses and blessings. He recently received a request for blessings from the local taxi organization. “There were more than 100 taxis,” he says. “It took me an hour or two to bless them all.”

Visitors and Aymara residents of Jayllihuaya, including Father Cookson, gather at the house of the Flores family to pray for their deceased relatives and honor their memory. (N. Sprague/Peru)

Visitors and residents of Jayllihuaya, including Father Cookson, gather at the house of the Flores family to pray for their deceased relatives and honor their memory. (N. Sprague/Peru)

The priest encourages prayer in the Aymara language and incorporates Andean elements into Masses as “ways to reach out to God.” The All Saints’ Mass today, for example, includes an Aymara ritual where people wash their faces to symbolize reconciliation using holy water. “This rite reminds us of our ancestors, but also makes us realize that water heals and allows us to pray,” Father Cookson tells the congregation.

After the Mass, Father Cookson visits the Flores household. There, the missioner talks with the family about their departed, sips a cup of soft drink being passed around and receives food prepared for the visitors who come to honor and pray for the souls of the family’s departed loved ones. One of the relatives starts praying the Apostles’ Creed and the missioner joins in. He is one with the people as he shares in their lives.

It took Father Cookson years to gain the Aymaras’ trust and confidence, he says, because historically outsiders have taken advantage of the Aymara people. “Now I can be a friend to them,” the missioner says.

In addition to his sacramental ministry, Father Cookson supports and empowers teams of faithful lay leaders. “We are pastoral agents with an Andean face and we proclaim Jesus Christ’s Gospel from our faith and life experiences,” reads a mission statement from parish volunteers.

Villagers from the Andean community of Jayllihuaya in Puno, Peru, pray the Lord's Prayer in the Aymara language during the annual All Saints' Mass. (N. Sprague/Peru)

Villagers from the Andean community of Jayllihuaya in Puno, Peru, pray the Lord’s Prayer in the Aymara language during the annual All Saints’ Mass. (N. Sprague/Peru)

Among the pastoral projects is the Amigos de Jesus (Friends of Jesus) cultural center and library, which provides a safe after-school space for children and teenagers. The center also offers resources, including workshops on public speaking, Christian leadership, local music and dance, cooking and arts and crafts.

“Young people sometimes isolate themselves from the parishes, so we are looking for other ways to reach them,“ says parishioner Marlene Condori, the wife of William Mamani and a school psychologist, who coordinates the program.

Angela Nicole Machaca, who has been part of the Amigos program since its beginning, is an example of its impact. Her mother could not afford to buy her schoolbooks, but Machaca was able to do homework at the Amigos de Jesus library. Soon, she became first in her class, gained confidence through the workshops and started helping her community.

“We receive donations of dry foods at Mass and she is in charge of distributing the food among the elderly,” says Condori about Machaca. She adds that Machaca has been accepted to college at the Nestor Cáceres Velásquez Andean University in nearby Juliaca to study to become a lawyer.

The workshops help preserve young people’s cultural pride, Father Cookson says. Last year, the center organized a contest for youth to write local myths and folktales they heard from their grandparents. “This strengthens their Andean identity and prevents us from losing these oral tales,” Condori says.

Reflecting on his journey walking with the indigenous people of Peru, Father Cookson says he is blessed to be another “altiplano citizen, sharing the life of the people, the Aymara people who have lived here for a thousand years.”

Local Aymara people are taking the initiative to preserve their faith and culture, he says and adds, “I’m here to accompany them and to encourage them that the Lord does not forget them, that they are here in the joy of God’s presence.”
Featured Image: Maryknoll Father Edmund Cookson celebrates the Eucharist with parishioners at a small church in Jayllihuaya in Puno, Peru. (N. Sprague/Peru)

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About the author

Maria-Pia Negro Chin

Maria-Pia was born and raised in Lima, Peru. She earned a master’s degree in multimedia journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s degree in communications/writing from Loyola University Maryland. As bilingual associate editor, she writes, edits and translates articles for Misioneros and Maryknoll Magazine for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. Her work has received awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. She lives in New York with her husband.