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Church charity supporting Carmelite nuns in Bolivia
15 June 2012

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Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is a Catholic charity that supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. Directly under the Holy See, for over sixty years ACN has helped to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information-sharing and action. The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and religious, and training for seminarians.

In mid-June 2012, ACN published the following report by Teresa Engländer about the charity's support for Carmelite nuns in the South-American nation of Bolivia...

The dust swirls around us as we approach the Carmelite convent. It is situated in an unmade street in the densely populated and fertile city of Cochabamba in southwest Bolivia.

The convent stands out, with its painted facade, from the rest of the houses in the street. None of the other houses has been rendered, because finished buildings are liable for tax, and every Bolivian wants to avoid this expense.

On the convent doorbell there is a note: "Bell out of order, please knock". Our guide tells us that it hasn't been working for ages. The sisters have far too much to do and every centimo, or cent, they earn goes straight out again, since their income is barely enough to survive on.

A small, dainty young woman in a brown habit opens the door to us. Sister Maria Olga must be around 30 years old. She is the Superior of the Carmelites in Cochabamba and immediately likeable. Often a beaming smile spreads across her face and a joyful light shines in her dark brown eyes whenever she speaks. 

She takes us on a tour of the immaculately tended convent, showing us everything that has already been renovated with the help of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

In her warm and tranquil voice she explains that our contribution has enabled them not only to paint the exterior but also to build a protective enclosure wall around the convent. Then she proudly shows us the newly-laid floor in the recreation room, gleaming with cleanliness. Every time the sisters gather here and look down at the floor, they give thanks for the benefactors of ACN, she tells us. The money received has enabled them to renovate the convent; however there is still a fair bit to be done – with cracks still running right through the wall in places and the plaster peeling off the walls inside the church.

Maria Olga then takes us through the convent garden. When she first came here to Cochabamba, 19 years ago, this was just an overgrown field, she tells us. Sister Maria Olga was one of the first to move to the recently built convent, in fact.

This August the Carmelites will celebrate the 21st anniversary of their founding. "Six sisters from Beni, in the northern Amazon region, established the convent at the time", she explains. Today there are 12 of them, most of them not yet 30 years old. And more and more young women are joining them. Every year they have new vocations. Only this March two women, aged 20 and 26 respectively, made their first profession.

The sisters support themselves as best they can. Maria Olga shows us the cornfield, which they farm with the help of the tractor part-funded by ACN. "Would you like me to show it to you?", she asks enthusiastically, then jumps on the tractor and drives a few circuits, just for the photo.

Sister Maria Olga on the monastery tractor

The tractor is a great help to the sisters in harvesting this field with which, in the truest sense, they earn their "daily bread". They also needed it initially to level out the ground and to scare off the many snakes that were lurking in the long grass and posing a potential danger to the sisters, as Maria Olga lightly explains. And the sheep in the field next door provide precious milk.

In addition to this they manage to earn a little extra through their lovingly executed embroidery work, candle-making and production of other devotional items. Also their neighbours do not let them go hungry. Many local people come to the convent and drop off items of foodstuffs. They think very highly of the sisters and are delighted to have them among them.

"Sometimes couples come to us who have not been getting on together", Maria Olga tells us. Usually they stay for just a few days, talk and pray together with them and then "leave us again, reconciled", she adds with a broad grin, then goes on to explain that the foundress of the convent, Mother Maria Teresa had prayed for the grace of a peaceful and conciliatory atmosphere in the convent. We too sensed this peace that seemed to emanate from the sisters. For a brief moment, as they sang to us, Heaven seemed to touch the earth.

Source: Aid to the Church in Need