Chile: When the earthquake is over...

"On 27 February at 3.35am we felt a little earth tremor but it went on increasing so rapidly that we three sisters could not easily come down the stairs from the first floor because the house was shaking so much... With the noise of the earthquake and the shaking of the house everyone was in a panic. We were worried how to save 56 old ladies of whom only 17 are able to move. Since electricity never fails here they have no torches and no emergency lights were functioning. On one side of the house, the ladies were crying in fear and anxiety. We really believed that we would all die together. Everything was falling so heavily onto the ground that we thought we were facing our end. After almost eight minutes we felt that the earth was tired of her work and we began breathing again as we realised we were safe. We went around with lighted candles to check on our ladies. All were happy to see that we were there, with them.  Many of them were unable to speak with the shock."

Sr Pushpa Macwan, an Indian Sister working in Concepcion in Chile, was one of many terrified people as the earthquake struck Chile with such magnitude that the centre of gravity of the earth shifted a massive 10cm within the space of a couple of minutes.

Sr Pushpa, whose name in Hindi means ‘flower’, is one of a community of three Sisters who have a care home for elderly ladies in Concepcion, the epicentre of the earthquake.

She continued: "It is heart breaking to see the churches. Most of the churches are collapsed. In my diocese there are 103 churches, out of which 43 have fallen. My parish church is also very badly damaged. All the statues and the altars are fallen and broken to pieces. No priest is able to celebrate Mass in the church. On Sunday we had Mass in the park.

"We are still living in panic because we are continuously experiencing the tremors. If they happen during the day we have many people to help us to save the old ladies but at night we are only 3 Sisters with 3 staff on night duty. I do not know how to express in words the experience that we are going through."

At the London office of Missio-England and Wales, we attempted to find out how the earthquake and subsequent tsunami had affected our office in Chile. A few days after the disaster, we sent an e-mail to the National Director of Missio-Chile, Fr Jorge Patricio Vega SVD. The precariousness of the situation in Chile came home very forcibly when, a few minutes after dispatching the e-mail, news reports told of a large aftershock that had, yet again, struck the country. It is a sobering thought to realise that, at the very moment of hitting ‘send’ on the computer, the earth was once again striking fear into many thousands of people.

It was, then, with a sense of relief that Fr Jorge’s reply came, several days afterwards.

The Missio-Chile office in Santiago suffered little material damage during the earthquake and its aftershocks, although one of the workers lost most of her house. Fortunately the rest of the staff did not experience great personal loss.

The same could not be said for the dioceses closer to the epicentre, where the affected dioceses have experienced great problems. One of the Mission Together animators, who lived in the area affected by the tsunami, has disappeared without trace.

At the moment, Fr Jorge is still collecting information about Missio-Chile’s volunteers and, especially, of the children whom they were helping. 

Fr Jorge wrote: "I have been speaking to the Diocesan Secretary for Mission Together, Sr Flerida Espinoza, who told me that we must begin to think of what to do next. There is a need to respond to the educational situation of many boys and girls, many of whose parents have lost their homes and belongings. They are in no economic position to buy materials for school for their  children, such as exercise books, pencils, text books etc. Missio-Chile, with the help of its sister-offices around the world, must do what it can, to help provide these materials so that children can continue with their education."

Fortunately, Missio is based in 120 countries across the world, its global outreach in prayer and solidarity helping to sustain hope as the people of Chile begin to rebuild their lives. Missio will be there for the long haul.

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