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Mr Ballingall is to be thanked for his story on Melbourne Overseas Mission in the back blocks of Venezuela in the early seventies (August AD2000). There are, however, some inaccuracies in the account.
Firstly, we priests there seldom took children for rides in our vehicles unless they were part of a family group. The children in the outlying areas were extremely shy especially of foreigners.
The little girl at the centre of the story, Luzminia, was the youngest sister of our housekeeper whom she came to visit on just two occasions. The first was when she got sick, the second when she died.
The term "little angel" ( angelito in Spanish) was the word the people used for a dead child laid out in a small white coffin for burial next day. It was a euphemism for a grim reality - the very high child mortality rate. There were far too many "little angels".
But the essential details of the story as told by Mr Ballingall are correct. The girl became sick in my jeep. My annoyance, more at the delay since the jeep was a beat-up old bomb by then, quickly dissipated when I saw the contents of the vomit. She sat with her face in her hands. I have never forgotten that scene or the shame I felt over my cantankerous nature.
Despite my protestations that she needed a proper course of treatment, Luzminia returned that same afternoon to her home in the surrounding hills, some two hours away by jeep. The real reason I suspect was the grumpy priest
She next turned up at the parish house a year or so later just a few days before Christmas accompanied by her parents. They did not dump her at the door but all moved into the house-keeper quarters. In spite of the anti-biotics administered she died on Christmas Day. The penicillin was too late, the doctor said. There were no medical services within cooee out where she lived. Overnight she became a "little angel" laid out a white coffin we bought from the coffin shop in the town's central plaza.
Since returning to Australia in the mid-70s I have visited there three times, the last in 2007. I even visited El Volcan, the tiny village where Luzminia had lived. The father was still alive and in his 90s. The children in the village seemed better nourished, electricity had arrived and there were a few mod cons in the homes I visited, but still no toilets.
In a neighbouring village not far away there was a clinic staffed by qualified Cuban doctors. Chavez had done a deal with Fidel Castro - in exchange for oil Castro sent doctors to work in the slums and rural outposts of Venezuela. I met people elsewhere in Venezuela who hated Chavez with a passion. But in that area he seemed popular including among my much loved priest friends of old.
In the chapel a group of young people had gathered for a Legion of Mary meeting. They paid scant attention to me. When working there in the seventies I had the impression that the poor loved their traditional Catholic Faith and were suspicious of liberation theology priests who hardly ever spoke of God. The poor wanted social change but they also wanted their Catholic Faith.
With Chavez's rule heading towards dictatorship the liberationist view of Catholicism may soon be the only version of the Faith being taught. That, I think, would be a sad outcome for the people we once served. But it is also true to say that if the Cubans had been there in 1972 Luzminia would not have died.
FR M. SHADBOLT
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 23 No 9 (October 2010), p. 14
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