75th Anniversary of the Delegation of Uruguay

Interview with Fr. Pippo MAMMANA, OMI

This year the Oblates of Mary Immaculate celebrate 75 years of presence in Uruguay. On this occasion, Fr. Pippo MAMMANA, a missionary there for the past 25 years and currently superior of the Delegation, agreed to be interviewed by Omiworld via Internet. Uruguay is known in South America as a “secularist” country. We are happy to offer our readers a look at the history of the Oblates in that country and their work today.

  • Could you tell us in a few words how the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate came to the Eastern Republic of Uruguay?

Let us recall that in 1928, Fernando Damiani, Vicar General of the Diocese of Salto (Uruguay), travelled to Rome. He had with him, among other things, a request from Bishop Arrospide, the first bishop of Melo, to have some religious Congregations come to help with the pastoral care in this new diocese. The Diocese of Melo included half of the Republic of Uruguay, with a million and half of inhabitants but only seven parishes. They were served by as many priests, some old or ill, each having to look after a department or a territory, never smaller than 9.000 square kilometres, with 40 or 50,000 inhabitants.

  • Did Monsignor Damiani get something?

In Rome, Providence guided his steps to the General House of the Oblates. (One can read the manu of Fr. Álvaro Vallée, History of the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate Mary, San Esteban, Cordova, 1971, p 47.).

  • Can you tell us what happened then?

In 1929 Fr. Theodore Labouré visited Uruguay to see firsthand the new foundation. Fr. Prieto accompanied him. It should be noted that Spain was then part of the Second Province of the United States (Texas). (Fr. Labouré later became Superior General of the Congregation.) He and Fr. Prieto were still in Uruguay, when José Batlle y Ordoñez fell sick. He was a brilliant man, but an enemy of the Church. He had founded modern Uruguay by giving birth to a State that in many ways was secularist. Batlle died on October 20, 1929, during Labouré’s visit. It is said that before dying, he wanted make his confession and that the priest had to disguise himself as a doctor in order to get into his room. It is possibly true and meaningful, since a Capuchin nun had cared for him during his illness and was with the family at the funeral.

  • So for decades a secularist atmosphere reigned in Uruguay?

The preceding indicates the climate in which the Oblates began their mission in Uruguay. The State often persecuted the Catholic Church in a subtle ways, without actually spilling blood. After a period of opposing the State, the Church adapted to reality and acquired an important place not only on the religious plane, but also on cultural, social and political.

  • We know that at the end of the 80’s Pope John Paul II visited Uruguay. Did this visit have any repercussions?

The visit of Jean-Paul II in 1987 and 1988 gave the Church the visibility and the recognition which it needed and which it had earned by its humble and serious work. The laity and many missionaries, including the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, contributed to bringing this about.

  • Thank you for this initial explanation, but we would like to return a little to the beginnings of the Oblate mission. How that did it occur?

Fr. Prieto, the first Oblate intended for Uruguay, fell sick and was replaced by Frs. Centurioni, as superior, and E. Diez y Calleja. I will read you an extract of a letter from Fr. Centurioni: “Leaving New York on July 10, we arrived at Montevideo on August 3 and at Salto on the 6th. That same day we stayed at the Episcopal Palace, a recent construction, large enough and comfortable.” (Letter from Fr. Centurioni to the provincial Superior, February 4, 1931, in Missions, December 1932, p. 665). August 27th, only 24 days after their arrival, they began their principal apostolate: preaching missions. “We did twelve missions, including five in the diocese of Salto, two in that of Melo and five in the Archdiocese of Montevideo.” (Idem, p. 667).

The Missionaries Yesterday.

  • And the first house founded by the Oblates?

The house in Salto was opened on January 1, 1931 “a few days after the arrival of Brother Santiago Martinez, an invaluable Christmas gift brought to us by the child Jesus on December 24. The house is comfortable. If the Fathers of Texas could see us, they would be jealous.” (See the written account by Fr. Centurioni to the provincial Superior, February 4, 1931, in Missions, December 1931, p. 674-675).

  • A few moments ago you made an allusion to secularization. Could you say a little more about that?

All appeared to be going well, but the secularization led by an intelligent masonry, together with paternalistic social reforms, which were well received by the people, had the effect of undermining the popularity of the Church and of constantly posing problems for it. The work of the Oblates became more difficult than expected. They realized it little by little, becoming aware of their ignorance of what a secularized culture was.

  • Were their other foundations besides the Salto house?

Yes. Towards the end of 1931, the Oblates took charge of a very big area that included Paso of los Toros, Achar, Curtina, Piedra Sol, and San Gregorio de Polanco. In 1932, they preached 32 missions “of 7 days each, performing 462 baptisms, 1242 confirmations, distributing nearly 3,000 communions and regularizing 49 marriages. This was the work of two Fathers who devoted themselves to preaching the rural missions.” (See Fr. Centurioni, June 1933, in Missions, December 19933, p. 503).

In 1939, they founded the parish of San Rafael in Cerro of Montevideo, an area populated by workers and immigrants. In 1976, they took over the parish of San Jose Obrero, in the diocese of San Jose, a working-class area on the outskirts, where many domestic workers also lived. In 2000, the Oblates came to Nuestra Señora de los Dolores parish in Libertad (Diocese of San Jose).

  • Are you satisfied with the work accomplished to date?

The most important work of the Oblates in Uruguay has been the foundation many Christian communities. Noteworthy also are a strong presence in many marginal places, a good rapport with the local Church and many vocations: priests, men and women religious, laity. The first Uruguayan Oblate, Fr. Robert Berroa, was ordained in 1983 and the second in 1985.

The Delegation Today.

  • Do you see a future for this mission?

Of course! Although secularization has lasted for more than one hundred years in Uruguay, its results have been very negative: the loss of a sense of the family and the vacuum caused by the absence of the religious dimension in particular. There is an increasing demand for religious things and the Church, instead of decreasing, has found an essential role in society, obviously more in quality that in quantity.

With a little patience the future could see an abundance of good vocations at all levels.

  • What is the present situation of the Oblate Delegation in Uruguay?

There are fewer requests from non-Oblate parishes to preach parish missions. But we continue to proclaim the Good News among poorest in the marginalized areas like Cerro, Rincón de la Bolsa, San Gregorio, Achar, Curtina and Piedra Sola. We work a lot with teenagers and young people, we support the setting-up of informal educational centers for poor children, we are present in the Basic Christian Communities and are training lay people who wish to share the Oblate charism.

  • Do the Oblates in Uruguay have a special characteristic that is recognized by the others?

Obviously, yes! The first is the intense community life of the three communities, which spend a day per week together for prayer, study, planning and sharing. The second is the capacity to be with the poorest and to build up communities in the most marginal areas. The third is love for the Church and very good relations with other Gospel workers.

Finally, I would like to note that Uruguay is the second Oblate foundation in Latin America after Paraguay.