Joseph Uhen, in center, surrounded by his parishoners in northern Peru.
By Lauren Sherman
July 14, 2011
Joseph Uhen has been in Peru since 1993.
Originally published January 31, 2011
After completing biblical studies in Jerusalem and theological studies in Rome, Oklahoma-born Joseph Uhen came to Peru and became a priest within the Archdiocese of Piura. Since 1993, Joseph has been serving his parish of 40,000 people, bringing various youth groups, medical missions and volunteers to the Piura community, located on the northern coast of Peru.
After a busy holiday season, Father Joseph took the time to tell us more about his work in Piura.
What brought you to Piura, Peru?
At the University of Notre Dame we were taught about the plight of the poor. While at the university in 1980, we learned that Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in El Salvador defending the poor and Mother Teresa of Calcutta won the Nobel Peace Prize helping the poor. As the Shining Path guerillas were assassinating priests in Peru, I decided to come to serve as a priest to help the poor. I have been in Piura since 1993.
What sort of community-oriented programs do you have in Piura and what is the primary focus of your work with the community?
As a priest our work is the salvation and sanctification of the people. Piura is about ninety percent Catholic. Besides the sacramental work of baptisms, first communion, confirmation, marriage etc., we have an average of 380 visitors from the U.S. each year that support programs for the poor. Two hundred farmers receive interest-free loans to sew their fields. We receive about 98% payback on the loans and the farmers are beginning to prosper. This project has been going on for seven years.
We have a women's refuge home for those threatened by domestic violence. We have a drug rehab residential center. There is a retreat house for up to 100 people. We provide free legal and psychological counseling. There is a Pro-life and nursing office that provides free care. A hospice serving the terminally ill has been functioning for three years with 24 hour nursing care. Our Family to Family program pairs 1400 U.S. families with 1,400 poor families in Piura. A $25 monthly food package is provided for the family in Piura and often other aids are provided: home improvement, education, and medical attention. Two orphanages are aided with food supplies and construction. About 60 homes are built for poor families each year.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the community in Piura and Peru as a whole?
The biggest challenge is finding some way to earn one's daily bread. And what can be done to overcome this challenge? Provide opportunities for the people to earn an income. Education and skill development is an important part of providing opportunities so that everyone's efforts can be successful.
How have Piura and Peru changed since you arrive in 1993?
There have been many improvements to roads, electricity and water. Communities that were previously lacking these services are now having improved access.
Tell us about the team you work with.
We have a team of 30 Peruvians that provide the services listed above.
Is there a way for foreigners currently living in Peru to get involved?
It is probably best to do something for the poor in the area in which one lives, but visitors respectful of our mission are welcome to come and serve in the programs here or contribute to their support.
What do you like most about living in Piura and what would you suggest that visitors do when traveling to Piura?
Visit the poor neighborhoods and get to know how the majority of Peruvians live.
What if your favorite local Piurian dish?
To learn more about Father Joseph's Piura Parish and work, visit santisimo.org.