Science and Faith Work Together in Peru

By Michael O’Loughlin

Professor Doug Nelson (in red) and his MSOE students meet with manager and biologist at the Paita water treatment plant.
Professor Doug Nelson (in red) and his MSOE students meet with manager and biologist at the Paita water treatment plant.

In the impoverished Paita neighborhood near the PRONOEI (public) school that the School Sisters of St. Francis administer, there is no electricity or running water. Families share a community water tank where water is delivered every few weeks. Although the water is chlorinated, it also easily becomes contaminated.

The sisters and the medical mission volunteers organized by St. Paul Parish in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, recognized that unsafe water was at the root of many of the illnesses they were treating on their visits. Looking for long-term solutions, the volunteer coordinators enlisted the help of a Milwaukee water science professor and his students to try to determine the causes and suggest solutions.

“I knew Doug Nelson was the perfect person to approach about mission work because he had done missions in the past,” said parishioner Lisa Bixby, who is herself a veteran of overseas mission trips. “When we asked him about it, he was thrilled because it was his area of expertise. Within months he put the plan together and received funding from the Milwaukee School of Engineering to come to Paita with a couple of students.”

The team visited Paita in May, and with the help of Sister Matilde Maravi as translator, the team toured Paita’s water treatment facility.

“The scientists at the water treatment plant are doing everything right. It’s very similar to what we do in the United States,” said volunteer coordinator Deb Passino. “What we found is that the problems arise after the water exits the treatment plant. As water exits the treatment plant to areas that have running water, individuals and even companies steal water by putting holes in the pipes. Once there’s a hole, pathogens enter—bacteria, viruses. Some people steal water from these pipes and then sell it in areas where people don’t have plumbing.”

The sisters took the initiative to get to know the mayor of Paita and set up a meeting with the water science team.  The team will provide the mayor with a final report of their findings, and offer their recommendations in the coming months.

“Doug is hoping that the mayor will be able to get some NGOs (non-governmental organizations) involved to help improve the systems as well,” Deb said. “The equipment at the water plant is 30 years old, so they’re hoping to get new and improved equipment.”

Immediate Impact

Sister Matilde explains how to use the new water purifiers donated by St. Paul Parish.
Sister Matilde explains how to use the new water purifiers donated by St. Paul Parish.

To help immediately treat the problem of intestinal parasites, the St. Paul volunteers visiting this year brought and set up water purification systems in 20 homes.  

“It’s not a filter, it’s a purifier,” Deb said of the systems. “It takes everything out—viruses, bacteria, chemicals like farming chemicals and fertilizers. It takes everything out. You can convert river water into drinking water in the matter of an hour using these purifiers.”

The system is designed to be simple to use, Deb said. “There are two buckets, with purifiers in the top bucket. You pour the water into the top bucket and it drops down to the bottom bucket. The systems last for 6,000 gallons of water. That’s three years of usage for these families.”

“Deb has had a system in her kitchen at home for a year,” Lisa explained. “She assembled one of these herself so she could get to know it and use it. She wasn’t just reading a manual. She found it was not complicated and that it’s use could be easily taught in Spanish. It takes just a little occasional maintenance to keep the purifiers operating.”

After training the families, the team went to their homes to make sure they knew how to install the purifier, use it, and clean it.

“We are cautiously optimistic that all he families will use them,” Deb said. “We trained the moms and they all felt the purifiers would be easy to use. They also felt that this system will save them lots of money because they don't have to buy coal or gas to boil their water.”

Physician’s Assistant “Charlie” Spindt examines patients during her mission trip visit.
Physician’s Assistant “Charlie” Spindt examines patients during her mission trip visit.

If they find that people are using and benefiting from the purifiers, the parish hopes to purchase and distribute purifiers for another 50 families next year.

“We have two trips planned for next June,” Deb said. “Physician’s Assistant ‘Charlie’ Spindt will be taking another medical team down; they are going to double their group from eight to 16. There will be two teams working at two different sites. Then there will be a trip with a water science team. They will go down either the week before or the week after the medical team’s visit.”

Expanding Involvement

Deb said that in addition to addressing medical issues, their volunteer teams also will be looking at shoring up the aging infrastructure in Paita.

“Peter Barrett’s wife Ellen went on the medical mission and drew him in,” Deb said. “Peter’s in construction and the school is nearly 30 years old now, so some things are wearing out. They can help by working with the sisters and improving the school’s plumbing system, maybe the electrical system. It’s a surprise once you get down there. We’ve found you just have to go with it.”

Deb said that a person who has been instrumental in helping the parish to “go with it” has been the parish’s pastor, Father Ralph Gross.

“Father Ralph really supports this international outreach,” Deb said. “When Father came to St. Paul’s in 2014, he saw the importance. He understood what we were saying, and got on board with the project.”

 St. Paul Parish volunteers call the sisters serving in Peru “super heroes” for the wonderful work they do.
 St. Paul Parish volunteers call the sisters serving in Peru “super heroes” for the wonderful work they do.

“St. Paul’s mission connection with the people in Paita is a relationship that is based on Christ and the Gospel,” Father Ralph said. “Christ has to be—and is—our common bond. I feel that is understood, yet always needs to be reiterated.

“In many ways it has been easy for St. Paul’s people to reach out to the people of Paita and serve them. However, one of my concerns from the start has been that the people of St. Paul’s and the people of Paita realize that each of us is being served in this mission endeavor, and each one is serving the other. The people in Paita need prayer, medical help, and material support. The people of St. Paul’s Parish need to grow in selflessness, generosity, and an understanding of the beauty of these people of a different culture, along with an appreciation of their faith lives.”

Father Ralph said his hope is that adult parishioners’ involvement in this mission ministry will benefit the next generation, both in Genesee Depot and in Paita, because “being models and witnesses for our youth is so important.”

“It has been a very meaningful and faith-filled experience for parishioners who visit Peru and directly serve there,” Father Ralph observed. “And I have also seen the number of people who can’t make one of the trips to Peru, but who contribute their time and resources, along with offering their prayers for both the ones sent forth and for the people of Paita. Everyone makes a difference. We all are part of the Body of Christ, and all peoples in the world are one with us and part of that Body.”


MICHAEL O’LOUGHLIN is marketing and communications director.

Read more about St. Paul’s volunteers’ partnership with our sisters in “Acts of Mercy Reveal Miracles” in the Fall 2015 issue of Alive magazine. You may read the issue online or request a printed copy by calling 414-384-3334.