Lay Missioner is Lifting Spirits Restoring Life in Bolivia

Maryknoll lay missioner accompanies sick and disabled people in the city of Cochabamba.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner John O’Donoghue pushes Francisco Ayala’s wheelchair and brings him to a small rehabilitation space at a center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the missioner helps Ayala and other patients do physical therapy exercises.

Ayala, 32, was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the road near his home in the city of Montero two and a half years ago. The accident left him with injuries to his head and legs. He can’t walk, his speech is limited and he suffered brain damage.

After the accident, Ayala spent time in a hospital. Then Joseph Loney, director of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Cochabamba, arranged to have him transported to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity home, where O’Donoghue has been serving for the past four years. This home was established by the Missionaries of Charity in collaboration with a local parish 12 years ago, and is staffed by four Missionaries of Charity. The sisters provide daily meals, shelter, medicine and care for up to 20 men who suffer from illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and respiratory problems or, like Ayala, are disabled.

O’Donoghue, 67, received training in physiotherapy for three months to learn how to work with disabled patients. “The patients asked me to help them walk, because it is bad to be in a wheelchair every day,” says the missioner. “They become obese, which is bad for their heart, and it is depressing to be in a wheelchair.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Donoghue was able to physically touch and exercise Ayala’s legs, arms and head, but now he has to change his routine. “I tell him at a distance what exercises to do,” says the missioner. “At the moment Francisco can’t use the parallel bars to try and walk, although we have tried.” However, O’Donoghue adds, Ayala has shown progress. He is capable of lifting weights and his arms are getting stronger. O’Donoghue also tries to engage Ayala in simple conversation every day and have him draw pictures to keep his mind sharp.

O’Donoghue consoles Calixto Cejo, an elderly patient who has a hearing problem and is blind in one eye, at the center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. (Nile Sprague/Bolivia)
O’Donoghue consoles Calixto Cejo, an elderly patient who has a hearing problem and is blind in one eye, at the center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. (Nile Sprague/Bolivia)

In addition to helping the men with their exercises, the missioner begins each morning cleaning the dining room, sweeping, dusting, washing dishes and emptying the trash. He helps the sisters prepare and serve lunch for the patients and helps to keep patients’ minds active by playing games and watching TV and DVDs with them.

The majority of the residents, O’Donoghue says, have been abandoned. “The sisters and myself are the only family they have and that is why many get depressed,” he says. “We try to spend time with them, have time for prayer and bring them some hope.”

O’Donoghue sees his job as a ministry of accompanying the men by being present, listening and talking to them. “I try to keep their spirits up, helping them with their daily tasks and keeping my eyes on them,” he says. “It is kind of a one on one with the patients. I actually enjoy working here despite the fact that people get depressed. We laugh and have a lot of fun.”

Edgar Medina, 33, who had partial paralysis, was a patient with whom O’Donoghue worked. “John is a good person, kind and generous. He doesn’t feel for himself but feels for others,” said Medina, who left the home after five years when he decided he could live independently. “I believe God has sent him to support us.”

Sister Adelbert (left) and another Missionaries of Charity sister share a time of prayer and reflection in their small private chapel at the center where Lay Missioner John O’Donoghue serves. (Nile Sprague/Bolivia)
Sister Adelbert (left) and another Missionaries of Charity sister share a time of prayer and reflection in their small private chapel at the center. (Nile Sprague/Bolivia)

O’Donoghue recalls meeting Mother Teresa when he served for six months in one of her houses in Calcutta 26 years ago. “I remember Mother Teresa as a small woman, but with a tremendous amount of energy,” he says. “In her 80s, she was very active. Even though she had arthritis and a pacemaker, she would conduct meetings, give orders and organize events. Now, ironically, I ended up working with Missionaries of Charity in Bolivia.”

Sister Adelbert, director of the home, is grateful to have the support of the missioner. “He has a way of welcoming and making people feel good,” she says. “For me, the men who come here are like Jesus on Calvary, and we want them to find and see God’s love here.”

O’Donoghue emigrated from Ireland to the United States when he was 18 years old. He has a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, and a post-graduate degree from Cambridge University, England, in development studies, focusing on the social, economic and political development of the Global South. He worked in the business world as an accountant for 10 years.

“I felt like I needed to do something more spiritual and it stayed with me for a while,” he says. “I wanted to deepen my spirituality and explore my faith.” Before joining the Maryknoll Lay Missioners 14 years ago, he worked with non-profit organizations in India, Sri Lanka, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria and Sudan.

O’Donoghue walks around the home to check on the patients. Here he is talking and joking with Justo in the outside washing area at the center. (NIle Sprague/Bolivia)
O’Donoghue walks around the home to check on the patients. Here he is talking and joking with Justo in the outside washing area at the center. (NIle Sprague/Bolivia)

As a Maryknoll lay missioner, O’Donoghue served in East Timor, where he administered a program making specialized shoes, hand-powered tricycles and wheelchairs for the disabled. Then he worked in Kenya with groups on income-generating projects.

In his current ministry, he says, “I really thank God, our Lord, that I am able to help in some small way. I feel part of a family and get along well with the sisters and the patients.”

Seeing people who are sick or disabled makes him appreciate his own blessings. “It makes me realize how lucky I am to walk and have good health,” he says. “I love to get the men out of the wheelchairs, on the walker or using crutches because they have life again.”

Featured Image: Lay Missioner John O’Donoghue brings Francisco Ayala to the dining room area to have lunch. (John O’Donoghue/Bolivia)

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About the author

Giovana Soria

Was born and raised in Lima, Peru. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Communication Science/Journalism from the University of San Martín de Porres in Lima. As staff writer, she writes and translates articles for Maryknoll magazine and Misioneros, our Spanish-language publication. Her articles have also appeared in the bilingual magazine ¡OYE! for Hispanic Catholic youth. Her work has received awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. She lives in Rockland County, New York.