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Earthquake in Chile
Maryknoll sisters among those providing aid

Sr. Jeanne Rancourt with Luz and Osvaldo Sepulveda in their destroyed home. Several weeks later, she joins them again in the new house she helped them obtain from the government.

Maryknoll, NY — Six Maryknoll Sisters currently serving in mission in Chile, in Santiago and Coelemu, now turn their attention to helping provide relief for those affected by the massive earthquake of Feb. 27. While their ministries usually are with women and the elderly, they now work with colleagues to assess the damage and determine how to provide for those in need.

Two Maryknoll Sisters, Sr. Jeanne Rancourt and Sr. Cecilia Santos, work in Coelemu in Central Chile, the area most affected by the earthquake. The town is only 30 minutes away from Concepción, closest to the epicenter of the 8.8 earthquake (on the Richter scale). Sr. Cecelia, who has served here for 28 years, said “much of Coelemu has been destroyed.” Communication and roads were cut with the earthquake and the tsunami that followed soon after severely affected the coastal area.

The home for the elderly that Sr. Cecilia helps run with Sr. Jeanne was damaged in the quake, but no one was injured. They’re still assessing the structural damage and how it can be repaired. Sr. Jeanne reported the elderly in their home were so scared that they slept in their wheelchairs the first few nights for safety. Some of them had lived through four major earthquakes. The kitchen of their home will have to be rebuilt. “The Chileans are a resilient people,” she said, “now begins the reconstruction.”

The other four sisters’ missions are in the Santiago area, where the quake registered 8.5. Sr. Linda Donovan works with the Chilean Conference of Religious in formation programs for young religious while Sr. Kathy Gilfeather is in mentoring young researchers and helping them keep abreast of current affairs and the Church worldwide. Sr. Linda reported that there were still many aftershocks to the quake and many damaged buildings continue to weaken and fall. “Rubble covers large areas and whole streets are cordoned off,” Sr. Kathy said. “Although international aid was slow in arriving” Sr. Linda added, ”now it is coming in from everywhere.”

In addition, a special project with the country took place last weekend to raise money through a telethon to build thousands of homes. The Church is helping coordinate aid through Caritas, a Catholic Aid agency. “This is the best part of solidarity” she said, “we all feel a part of.” The downside has been ransacking of stores and hoarding of goods and supplies. “Chile is still in the throes of “band-aid” solutions, the rebuilding will mean years of work ahead.”

Two other sisters also work in the Santiago area. Sr. Mary Tracy visits the homebound sick and elderly and the residents of a very poor nursing home, while Sr. Helen Carpenter helped develop Casa Malen, a center that provides programs for poor women, helping them deal with stresses of political and familial violence. Casa Malen was damaged as well in the earthquake.

Sr. Jeanne Rancourt, who returned to her mission in Coelemu last year after serving the congregation on its leadership team in New York for several years, is again involved in running the home for the abandoned elderly, as well as looking after their health care. Both Sr. Jeanne and Sr. Cecelia have helped families obtain temporary shelter. Sr. Jeanne visited Luz and Osvaldo Sepulveda, both in their 70s, in their destroyed home. Several weeks later, she joins them again in their new house she helped them obtain from the government. Sr. Jeanne responds to whatever comes in the day, saying "One never knows who will knock on the door."

For more on the work of the sisters in Chile and how to help them after the earthquake, visit www.maryknollsisters.org.