Tuesday 27 June 2017

'Fly on the wall' who stayed 40 years to bring hope to favelas

When Fr Pat Clarke arrived in Brazil in 1977, a six-month staybecame a lifetime's work to help the people of the São Paulo favelas to build sewers, a community centre and a ­holiday camp for its children. Don Mullan meets the inspirational Irishman who has helped transform the lives of thousands of people

Victor Lotufo, architect of the chapel in City of the Angels, Fr Pat Clarke and lawyer for the Shanty Town Defence Movement (MDF) Dr Miguel Afonso
Victor Lotufo, architect of the chapel in City of the Angels, Fr Pat Clarke and lawyer for the Shanty Town Defence Movement (MDF) Dr Miguel Afonso
The ballet group in the Centre for Culture and the Arts in Sao Paulo
Favela children on a lunch break while designing a mosaic
Fr Pat Clarke meets children on an educational/environmental day in the City of the Angels nature reserve

In comparison to the breathtaking vistas of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo is ugly. As Brazil's economic and cultural engine, it is a magnet for the country's landless peasants who travel here in the hope of securing life's basic necessities: work, shelter, food and education for their children. The city's total population is over three times that of the island of Ireland.

San Paulo's Latin motto, 'Non ducor, duco' ('I am not led, I lead') could also be the personal motto of 70-something priest Fr Pat Clarke and his Irish compatriots who have dedicated their lives to nurturing the real beauty of São Paulo: the people. Their leadership is one of service.

The three Irish Holy Ghost missionaries live in Vila Prudente - one of six favelas that make up the Saint Joseph the Worker Pastoral Area. And it is here, buried under a pile of stationery, that I find a certificate dated December 11, 2008. It declares Patrick Joseph Clarke a freeman of the city of São Paulo. A belated acknowledgement perhaps, that fighting on behalf of the poor and the oppressed is a universal imperative.

Vila Prudente

Vila Prudente is the oldest favela in São Paulo. It originated in the 1940s when workers from the impoverished north-east arrived in their tens of thousands to work in the factories springing up nearby. Favelas do not exist 'officially' in Brazil. On the city map, they appear as green areas. But it is in this non-existent place that Pat has spent the greater part of his time in Brazil.

Initially, Fr Pat's job here was to be "a fly on the wall" - to spend six months becoming familiar with the world view of its people.

"Given the immensity and urgency of the problems evident all over the place, six months as a fly on the wall did seem like precious time wasted," Fr Pat says. "And of course, dialogue wasn't easy either, when you were only a stammerer in the language yourself; unless you begin right where you are - gaffs and all!"

And where was that?

"By showing respect for the poor and their simple faith; by saying the rosary and following their devotions; despite the overpowering stench from the open sewers and the scurrying of rats around your feet."

The Theology of the Sewers

"That was the beginning of a long and still unfinished story," Fr Pat says. A story that took him into every home in the favela for the first year; a story that went on for another five years, during which the people installed a new underground sewage system, with minimum resources; and then 'exported' the system to several other favelas in the eastern region of the city.

In the process, the priest says he witnessed the transformation of the people's simple, devotional faith into a dynamic faith which he describes as a 'theology of the sewers'.

He says a new consciousness emerged amongst the people of the favelas, one that emboldened them to engage with the world.

Reflecting for a moment on this notion of 'a theology of the sewers', you'd have to wonder if the people stopped praying once the sewers were in.

"No way," says Fr Pat. "It's the 'mistica' that keeps us motivated and moving forward. While religious faith is not per se essential to the process of transformation, it is not irrelevant either. And in our case, it's been central to everything that followed on from the sewers."

Once the sanitation system was established, the people moved on to create a community centre, community crèche, a Centre for Culture and the Arts (a mini campus of five beautiful buildings decorated with mosaics), a pastoral centre, a chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph the Worker and a small house for the three religious sisters who work in the favelas.

It also inspired the founding of the MDF - a defence organisation for the favela people - and the founding of a recycling cooperative movement for the men and women who live off the rubbish they collect on the streets. "The initiatives have just multiplied. And what's more, the people have taken over. And now they run the show."

Fr Pat is part of a missionary era that is rapidly passing; part of a generation of Irish ambassadors who, unlike a beleaguered diocesan clergy back home, have retained enormous respect.

Walking through the dark and intimidating streets of Villa Prudente with Fr Pat is to be guided by a light. At street corners, doorways, windows and alleyways, adults and children are animated by his presence. Many approach for a kind word; others for advice. He encourages them to see a future beyond the favelas.

Handing Over

Fr Pat arrived in Rio de Janeiro on March 15, 1977 to begin learning Portuguese.

"I felt like a pilgrim, on the road to some great adventure," he says. "With no missionary experience, it seemed to me that the only logical course of action was to become a learner."

In 1974, three years before going to Brazil, while attending a literacy seminar in Paris, Fr Pat had met the late Latin American educationalist, Paulo Freire.

The meeting marked the beginning of a relationship that was to continue after Freire's return to Brazil in 1979, following 15 years' exile imposed by the Brazilian Military Coup in 1964. His philosophy has influenced the priest's whole approach to education and to his role as a missionary.

Now in his mid-70s, Fr Pat has begun the process of handing over responsibility for the St Joseph the Worker Pastoral Area of six communities, one of which is an 'Invasion' called Haiti, composed of homeless people living in tents and dwellings made of whatever they can find. The new coordinator is a young priest from the Cape Verde Islands, who is assisted by a seasoned missionary from Sligo.

Fr Pat speaks movingly about the generous support he has received from Ireland; from his deceased mother Anne, who often saved her pension, "so the children would not go hungry"; and his sister Mary Jo, and his four brothers, "for their never failing interest"; and "the many individuals and groups who fundraised, along with all the 'widow's mites' - the one, two and five euro that each month appear in the City of the Angels account in the AIB, Dublin".

He mentions three decades of support of Fr John Ahern of Farranfore Co Kerry; and the teachers, students and old boys at the Holy Ghost colleges of Blackrock, Willow Park and Saint Michael's; and their counterparts at Loreto College, Foxrock, many of whom have come to visit the projects in Brazil.

That loyal support is now helping Pat realise a dream - to build a holiday camp of sorts for the children of the favelas.

The City of the Angels

A two-hour drive away in the Atlantic Rain Forest, in the 5pc of what remains of the original forest, is an oasis called the City of the Angels. I arrived there at the end of 2016 for the inauguration of a small chapel in honour of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. The Gaudi-type structure was designed by Victor Lotufo, an architect friend of Fr Pat's. The missionary bought the land on which it, and the other holiday camp buildings here sit, through a donation from an Irish businessman in December 2006.

"I had dreamt for years of acquiring some land," says Fr Pat, "so as to take the kids out from the favelas where they don't know what a blade of grass is, into the healing power of nature. A place where some of the wounds inflicted on them by a society that condemns them to misery, might be healed".

The combined effect of Fr Pat's transformative pedagogy, involving the arts and, now, a vulnerable natural environment, have produced in the shanty town children, not only artistic achievements, but an awareness of their potential to effect change in their environment.

Here, in the City of Angels, Fr Clarke has given life to Pope Francis' environmental encyclical Laudato Si', making the connection between all living things that embellish and sustain planet Earth - our common home.

Enough perhaps, to justify the motto over the door of the Cultural Centre in the middle of one of São Paulo's oldest and biggest favelas; Dostoyevsky's "beauty will save the world".

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