DE PERE — Imagine if receiving medical care required six days of travel by canoe. That is the plight for some villagers living on the Napo River in Peru. Fortunately, medical professionals can travel to the patients, but they have to make a 10-hour trip by speedboat requiring 120 gallons of gasoline.
Norbertine Fr. Jack MacCarthy, a physician, has embraced challenges such as these since 1985 when he began serving in Iquitos, Peru. His base is a small rural hospital with 30 beds in Santa Clotilde, a remote parish in the Amazon basin more than 180 miles from any road. The medical facility serves the needs of 100 villages of indigenous Quechua people. Medical workers also treat patients at 13 outlying clinics. Patient visits topped 16,000 last year at the hospital with an additional 20,000 at the clinics.
Fr. MacCarthy served at the Norbertine mission at Tingo Maria, Peru, from 1980 to 1982. He then became medical director at St. Jude Hospital, a facility operated by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother on St. Lucia in the West Indies. His older brother, Dr. Chuck MacCarthy, alerted him to the opportunity and accompanied him to the island, staying the first week.
In 1983, Chuck, a retired ophthalmologist who lives in Wausau, returned to St. Lucia with his wife, Peg, and a few friends from their church music group. A year later, they led a group from their parish, Church of the Resurrection in Wausau, to the island to build a house and renovate another home. The mission trips prompted the formation of the Good News Project, which has spread to include service in St. Vincent and Dominica in addition to St. Lucia.
In recognition of their service, Chuck, Peg and Fr. Jack MacCarthy were honored as the recipients of the 2013 St. Norbert College Ambassador of Peace Award. A presentation and reception was held Sept. 19 in Dudley Birder Hall on the St. Norbert College campus. The event included a videotaped interview with Fr. MacCarthy, a graduate of Loyola Medical School in Chicago. He chose to become a physician after serving as a teacher and hockey coach at Premontre High School in Green Bay, his alma mater.
Fr. MacCarthy, who joined the Norbertine order after high school and is a graduate of St. Norbert College, shared some of the rewards of his work. He told the story of a girl who was in serious condition with tuberculosis. He has since delivered all of her babies. He also spoke about his admiration for Chuck.
“He’s my big brother and I’ve always looked up to him,” said Fr. MacCarthy. “I don’t have any reason to stop looking up to him.
“There has always been encouragement from my family, my friends and from the abbey,” he added.
Norbertine Abbot Gary Neville said that the mission in Peru dates back to 1964 and Vatican II. Pope Paul VI asked religious to have 10 percent of their people serve in other countries. Norbertine Frs. Rod Fenzl and Brian Prunty, who also served in Peru, attended the award ceremony.
Fr. MacCarthy summarized the ministry.
“It’s sending people from one church to work in a different church,” he said.
Good News has expanded over the past 30 years. Approximately 100 volunteers a year now make mission trips through the organization.
“We’ve had some 600 or more volunteers (total), a very unusual group of people, highly motivated, very generous people, college student age to retired people like myself,” said Chuck, who addressed the audience in acceptance of the award. “A group of West Indians work with us every year. We see the same faces. Some people have been with us almost all of those 30 years.”
St. Norbert students participate in the mission trips to St. Lucia through the TRIPS (Turning Responsibility into Powerful Service) program. Maggie Schwanke, a 2013 St. Norbert graduate who is originally from Appleton, joined Good News in the West Indies the past three years.
“I was able to help with building houses and helped build a dormitory,” she said. “I’ve made such good friends. I exchange email with one girl in particular who lives on the island. We put up a wall together in the dormitory. I’ve done a lot of work with the elementary school kids, reading stories, doing activities and singing with them.”
Schwanke, now a fifth grade teacher in De Pere, said that she hopes to work with Good News in the future.
“I don’t know what it is about Peg and Chuck, or if it’s the island air, but they get you excited to do it,” she said. “I have often said to them that I could live there and do what they do all year long.”
A St. Lucia flag is displayed in Schwanke’s classroom along with photos from her trips. The experience has made her a better educator, she said.
“Building that sense of community within your classroom is so important,” she said. “That’s something I’ve taken from working with the group. The kids have asked me about it. We’ve talked about doing a service project with the college students, wondering if we can send letters down to the kids (in St. Lucia).”
Peg and Chuck regularly lead groups in January. They’ve also taken planning trips during other times of the year. A six-week service trip joint effort between Good News and St. Norbert is in the works. The need on the island nation goes beyond building houses, said Peg.
“They just need somebody who they know cares for them and comes back every year, mentors them, keeps in touch with them,” she said. “We’ve gotten really close with the Mother Teresa Sisters (Missionaries of Charity). When they get transferred, they still write to us. Our volunteers are very generous people. They saw that they needed a stove, so they bought them one. They’ve chipped in for sewing machines. Our volunteers are incredible. It’s a family.”
The organization has a board of directors to maintain sustainability for the future.
“We’ve let go a little bit, but it’s hard,” said Peg, who also credited the support of St. Norbert Abbey for donating four vans to Good News for use on the island.
Fr. MacCarthy made the trip to St. Lucia last January. Even though Chuck, who is also a graduate of Loyola Medical School, is six years older, the brothers have always been close.
“We can sit up with an ounce of brandy and talk until 2 a.m.,” said Chuck with a smile. “It’s always been that way.”
When Fr. MacCarthy was first approached about the honor, he suggested that Chuck and Peg be the recipients.
“The award is beautiful and appreciated,” said Chuck, “but the connections are the most important part of this. We will keep working with the volunteers and the local folks and fit them in where they can use their talents.”