On outskirts of Buenos Aires, parishes mobilize for COVID-19

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With the coronavirus pandemic threatening Argentina,
priests mobilize parish communities to tend to the needy

MEXICO CITY (CNS) — The soup kitchen at Father Nicolas Angelotti’s parish in the rough outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was feeding 1,500 residents daily in recent months, with demand driven by a weak economy and unemployment.

But the demand more than doubled to 4,000 people per day after a coronavirus quarantine was imposed March 20, prohibiting residents from leaving the Puerta de Hierro barrio, served by Father Angelotti, known locally as Padre Tano.

Father Angelotti and this fellow “curas villeros”—the priests serving the shanties of Buenos Aires—work on the front lines of social and economic crises in Argentina, tending to marginalized populations often living without state services.

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)

olunteers at a soup kitchen sew protective masks for low-income people during the spread of COVID-19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 26, 2020. (CNS photo/Agustin Marcarian, Reuters)

With the coronavirus pandemic threatening the South American country, the “curas villeros” are once again mobilizing parish communities to tend to the needy. The villas where they serve often were founded as informal settlements and populated by immigrants from neighboring countries.

Parishes in the villas have expanded soup kitchens, giving people their food to go, and turned their churches and other buildings into shelters for the elderly and homeless to self-isolate. They’ve also established places for infected individuals to receive care.

“The message is: Stay in your home, stay in your barrio,” Father Angelotti said. Often, though, “It’s impossible that people stay in their homes due to their social situation.

“These homes are precarious. They don’t have potable water … and there are a lot of people crowded into them. That’s why people are staying in their barrio” as opposed to strictly indoors.

One of the faces of Chicago in mission is Marta Robak, coordinator of volunteers from St. Ferdinand parish who serve with the Missionaries of the Poor, a religious community of brothers who minister to the most vulnerable people. Robak finds joy surrounded by residents of MOP-run Good Shepherd Orphanage Center for girls and elderly women in Uganda. (Courtesy of Marta Robak/Uganda)

Volunteers wearing protective masks serve stew at a soup kitchen in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 26, 2020. (CNS photo/Agustin Marcarian, Reuters)

Some of the “curas villeros” met March 25 with President Alberto Fernandez at his residence to discuss the COVID-19 crisis and how to help a population that tended to work in the informal economy, where jobs have dried up and working from home is impossible.

Father Angelotti said the president asked priests to expand their current pastoral work and act as liaisons so more state services could reach local residents.

“We were asked if we could work on providing food through soup kitchens and if we could take on the health issue in these barrios,” Father Angelotti said.

“People are staying put in their barrios,” he said. “But parishes in the villas along with the state must attend to these people so they can stay where they are.”

For his part, Fernandez thanked the “curas villeros,” saying in a tweet, “I enormously thank the ‘curas villeros’ for contributing at this difficult time and for making parishes available for isolation for those without a roof over their heads. They’re an example of the solidarity in Argentina we should be building.”

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