LIMA, Peru — On the feast of the Assumption, Albina Tobar Seminario, the 59-year-old wife of a vine farmer, went to Mass at the Shrine of the Lord of Luren.
One of the most venerated places in Southern Peru, the shrine is home to the 16th-century image of a crucified Christ who is also known as the Lord of the earthquakes — it has survived several quakes.
But Albina never made it back home. She was one of the seven people who died at the shrine Aug. 15, when a 7.9 magnitude, two-minute-long earthquake killed 700 people, injured more than 3,000 and left more than 20,000 homeless along the coast of Peru.
The Lord of Luren survived this earthquake as well, though two towers and one of the three domes of the church were destroyed.
Devastation was greater 60 miles north in the port city of Pisco, where 60 of the 120 killed by the earthquake in that area died at the town’s Church of San Clemente.
“When Father Emilio [Torres] pronounced ‘You may go in peace’ after the 40-minute-long Mass, the earth started to shake violently, the lights went off and people started screaming,” said Sister Elvira, a Dominican nun who arrived at the 6 p.m. Mass with three others.
“Father Emilio remained on his knees at the altar praying. Sister Blanca and I helped people leave the church by the side door. Right after we left, I turned around and saw the church fall completely, disappearing before me in a cloud of dust,” said Sister Elvira.
Her congregation lost two sisters at San Clemente, she said tearfully.
Father Alfonso Berrade, San Clemente’s pastor, ran out of the rectory and tried to find his assistant, Father Torres.
“When I saw the church completely destroyed and heard that Father Emilio remained inside, I started shaking and began to cry,” said Father Berrade, a Spanish missionary who has spent more than 30 years in Peru.
During the night after San Clemente collapsed, people started digging with their bare hands in the rubble until rescue teams arrived the next morning.
“The recovery and identification of the bodies was terrible,” said Sister Elvira. “A corpse would be found, then would be placed in the main square next to a statue of St. Martin [de Porres] recovered from the church, and rescue workers would shout the features, like ‘Woman, middle age, thin, black skirt!’ and people would come forward to recognize if she was a relative,” she explained.
With the local hospital partially destroyed by the earthquake and no morgue available, the smell of bodies permeated the town over the next two days. Desperation at the lack of food and water grew.
Early in the morning of the 17th, one of the rescuers heard a faint voice in the middle of the rubble. “Over here!” he called the rest of his team.
They found Father Emilio alive, protected under the altar.
When the priest was taken out, people started clapping and shouting, “A miracle!”
Two other men were rescued that morning. Father Emilio wanted to stay with his parish, but was sent to the hospital with a broken arm and serious dehydration.
Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima, said on national television that people are asking him, “Why is God punishing us?”
“God is good, he is not punishing anyone,” the cardinal said. “He is here with us, reminding us of our true destination. He is calling us to greater faith and to a greater expression of our love in the way we respond to those most in need.”
It was a U.S. Catholic organization, Catholic Relief Services, that was the first to announce help for the victims of the earthquake
“Next to the international aid, it has been the help sent by the Catholic Church from neighboring countries that was the quickest and most significant,” said Jorge Lafosse, secretary general of the local Catholic relief organization Caritas.
Special collections have been made in all Peruvian dioceses for the earthquake victims.
“Our people have deep faith. They long for the spiritual bread as much as they feel the need for the physical bread,” said Cardinal Cipriani, explaining why he called for the creation a team of seven priests — four from his archdiocese and three from the Peruvian-born apostolic society “Sodalitium Christianae Vitae” — to provide spiritual assistance in the affected area.
The priests have been hearing confessions, celebrating Mass, conducting funerals, performing baptisms and administering last rites for 18 hours a day.
“I see myself as a rescuer, too,” said Father Gilmer Cacho, one of the priests from Sodalitium, who provided spiritual assistance to victims in the town of Chincha, 30 miles north of Pisco.
Said Father Cacho, “The people who have seen their loved ones disappear, who have remained next to theirs corpses for days, and who have lost everything, these are people you can’t appease just by providing them some food or water.”
Along with the spiritual support provided by Catholic priests, Lafosse said that “the logistical support provided by more than 500 volunteers from parishes and local movements has been critical to providing effective logistics” in the hardest-hit areas.
The Peruvian-based Movimiento de Vida Cristiana (Christian Life Movement) provided 150 volunteers, many of them experienced professionals, to organize the distribution of relief supplies in Chincha and in Tambo de Mora, another coastal town almost completely destroyed by the earthquake.
Said Lafosse, “At one point we had the help, but we needed the human structure to make sure that all this help would reach everyone in need.”
“Why these things happen is always a mystery,” Cardinal Cipriani said Aug. 19.
“But just by watching the outpouring of Christian love and solidarity, locally and internationally, we can say that God has been very quick to bring great good out of this evil.”
Alejandro Bermúdez is based in Lima, Peru.
To donate: www.crs.org 1-877-HELP-CRS or Catholic Relief Services, P.O. Box 7090, Baltimore, MD 21203. Write “Peru Earthquake Fund” in memo section of check.