From Wisconsin to Peru: Missionary Family Answers Call of Our Lady of Champion
Taylor and Katie Schmidt and their children answer needed prayers.
Nuevo Piura is a village in the mountains of Peru. It sits in such a remote valley that for 18 years the local people never saw a priest. Occasionally, non-Christian religious groups came through, but the villagers were Catholic. They waited faithfully, certain that someone from the Church would eventually come.
In 2018, Taylor and Katie Schmidt were the Catholic missionaries who finally showed up. The following year, they brought a priest to the village who celebrated five sacraments with the locals: baptism, penance, first Communion, confirmation and marriage. The same year, the Schmidts founded The Servants of the Good Help, a 501(c)(3) Catholic missionary organization. The couple, including their seven children, still return to Nuevo Piura every Sunday, hiking 6 miles through the jungle, for prayer and Bible study.
The Schmidts don’t always trek through the jungle to reach the people they serve. In 2023, villagers from eight remote mountain pueblos began hiking to the Schmidts’ nearly finished multipurpose center for celebrations and retreats. The center, located in Tarapoto, Peru, also started hosting free clinics with visiting doctors and dentists. One night a week, local children from two communities walk there through the jungle, and in the dark, to hold youth groups.
“Their mission benefits many people who are not served pastorally due to the lack of priests and the geographical difficulty of reaching these distant villages,” said Bishop Rafal Escudero Lopez-Brea of the Diocese of Moyobamba, in a recent letter of support.
A Mission From Our Lady of Champion
Last August, more than 100 locals traveled to the Servants’ mission center for their second-annual Assumption Day Mass and procession. This celebration is a 164-year-old tradition the Schmidts brought with them from Wisconsin.
In 1859, Our Lady appeared to a Belgian farmworker named Adele Brise in what is now known as Champion, Wisconsin. Our Lady of Champion (formerly Our Lady of Good Help) is currently America’s first and only Church-approved Marian apparition. In 1861, Brise inaugurated the annual Assumption Day celebration. This year 2,500 pilgrims came out to celebrate at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, according to Chelsey Hare, director of communications for the shrine.
Green Bay Bishop David Ricken, who approved the apparitions in 2010, sees Our Lady of Champion as the “spring” from which the Schmidts’ ministry is growing, and for that reason, they are deeply connected to his diocese.
“The Blessed Mother said to Adele, ‘Go out in this wild country and teach the children what is necessary for salvation.’ The Schmidts are going into the wild country of the mountains of Peru and they’re bringing Our Lady of Good Help’s message to the people there.”
In 2022, the Schmidts had an 8-foot mural of Our Lady of Champion painted on the side of their retreat house in honor of their patroness. Most of the people the Schmidts serve are impoverished farmers who have little to no access to the sacraments, just like the settlers Brise served in Wisconsin. When Brise received her commission to “teach the children,” there was only one priest serving 2,000 Belgians spread across 70 miles of dense woodlands. With no churches and only rare visits from a priest, the faith was dying in the Belgian settlements.
“It’s exactly the same mission in a different country, with a different topography, but same type of circumstances,” said Bishop Ricken.
Where the Schmidts serve now, the faith is also in danger of disappearing. Their mission is in a region that was the focus of Pope Francis’ Amazonian synod in 2019. It is a region that still desperately needs missionaries and priests. In the 1990s, drug cartels were rampant in Peru, and a Marxist guerrilla movement called the “Shining Path” fought for control of the country. Much like during the 1994 Rwandan crisis, many families turned on each other.
“There is a huge river here called the Huallaga ... and we have heard from so many people that that river ran red with blood from the massacres that happened and corpses lining the road,” said Katie Schmidt, age 40.
During the wars, it was not uncommon for priests and religious to be murdered. Schmidt tells the story of a sister with a local order known as the Compassionists.
“She is the only sister to survive the massacre in Tarapoto. The one day she stayed back to care for the house, the other sisters tried to come home, and they were pulled out of the car and shot,” said Katie.
A Difficult Beginning
The Schmidts decided to be missionaries after a decades-long discernment. In 2015, they sold their Wisconsin farm and all their belongings to fund their way to Peru. They didn’t yet know how to speak Spanish. For months, they lived with their four children just as the locals do: in a hut with a dirt floor, using water from a stream, and digging their own outhouse.
At one time, they felt called to buy Bibles instead of food, but then the locals began to feed them. A mechanic fixed their vehicle for free for six months. After a donor helped them purchase land on the mountain, they learned to raise pigs and sell the meat. Now, Taylor Schmidt trains widows, single moms and dads, and other locals to run the farm.
They believed all along that the Lord had bigger plans for their mission, and they continued to lay their needs at Our Lady’s feet. Throughout the history of the apparition of Our Lady of Champion, miracles have been attributed to her intercession. Most notably, the chapel, which is now the national shrine, was completely preserved during the Great Peshtigo Fire in 1871, and every person who sought refuge there was protected from harm.
Katie cites the central location of their mission center as proof that Our Lady intercedes for them. “Where she has placed us, there is access to all the other counties down the mountain by different paths.”
In 2018, when the Schmidts felt called to build a retreat center to make it easier for everyone to come together, they thought the idea was crazy. They had no money in their bank account, so they prayed to Our Lady of Champion on Oct. 9, her feast day.
“We told her we needed $10,000 in our account to prove it was her will,” said Schmidt.
They received a call from their accountant three days later, and she told the Schmidts that they suddenly had $10,700 in their account.
Bishop Escudero Lopez-Brea is excited to have a quiet retreat center outside the city, and the Schmidts have already held retreats for clergy.
“They have become vital members of the pastoral team, specifically by assisting with the training of church leaders and marriage preparation for many people,” the bishop wrote in his letter.
Ministries for married couples, like marriage preparation, retreats and crisis counseling, are a large part of the Servants’ outreach. Schmidt said Christian marriage is one of the most difficult concepts for people to accept in their mission territory.
In one village, the Schmidts were faced with the intimidating task of convincing polygamous couples that marriage should be between one man and one woman. They explained the Church’s teaching on marriage and sex and the immense love of Christ for every person.
Many of the men in that meeting stormed out. The Church’s teaching was hard for the women to accept as well. They were scared not to be the “wife” their husband chose to be monogamous with. Every woman who was put out would end up in “utter poverty,” according to Schmidt, though the Servants of the Good Help would aid them in this transition however they could.
None of the villagers chose to be received into the Church that day. Yet something in what the Schmidts taught had resonated with them, for every child in the village was baptized. The Schmidts take a long view in their work and know that drastic lifestyle and spiritual changes take time and sincere effort on their part. They’re especially hopeful that something will change for the women of the village, as it may have been the first time the women and young girls had ever heard about their dignity and worth in God’s eyes. According to Schmidt, many women in the region are treated like servants instead of beloved wives.
Taylor, who will soon be the only permanent deacon in San Martin, also talked about the dignity and beauty of women.
“Those children will grow up knowing a different option. They will be able to see ... women standing up for themselves,” he said.
The Future of the Mission
One of the Schmidts’ current projects is finishing their retreat center. It contains space for four family-style apartments and a separate bunkhouse for men and women. Once the interior is completed, the center will also include a kitchen and dining hall, which will be good for the Schmidts. Their home is inside the center, and they currently feed guests in alternating groups around their own kitchen table.
The second level of the center will house the caretakers, small-group meetings and a medical/dental clinic. Many students fell behind during COVID, so the Schmidts would also like to provide lunch and tutoring classes. The Servants are currently in their fourth week of teaching “summer” school to local children, which includes classes in math, art and language studies. With help from friends in America and Peru, they plan to offer classes in economics, welding, woodworking, sewing, nutrition and sustainable farming. Their 2024 “summer” classes in Spanish and English language have already started.
The Schmidts’ long-term goal is to build a sanctuary on the mountaintop dedicated to Our Lady of Champion. It would include a 48-foot statue of Our Lady that pilgrims could climb up and exit through the statue’s Immaculate Heart overlooking the valleys below.
Help From Home
In early December, the Schmidts traveled back to northern Wisconsin to give talks, fundraise and meet with Bishop Ricken. The financial and spiritual support they receive in the States is changing the lives of Catholics in San Martin, Peru.
One example of this is the recently finished church in the town of Cuñumbuqui, which is the head church of the parish and home of the only priest in the region. The Schmidts funded the church project with donations their family would have lived on for three months.
“It makes my heart hurt to turn people away,” said Katie. “It’s a good thing we had ducks and alpaca because we have meat in our freezer.”
What has happened in the village of Nuevo Piura is another example of support from home reaching Peruvians. The Servants were able to give this community the financial aid, physical labor and spiritual guidance they needed to reclaim the Catholic way of life. After waiting 18 years for a priest to come to their village and provide the sacraments, they now have a church they built with their own hands.
“We’re working with them for a period of time, so that one day they can do it all without us,” explained Katie.
Like all local villages, Nuevo Piura waits months for the priest to come. There is only one for all 38 mountain communities in the region. The Servants of the Good Help hope to change this. A few years ago, they took in a seminarian from Buenos Aires named Carlos Manuel Rengifo Huaya. Huaya believes the only way that people can discover their vocation and follow it is through a “personal relationship with Jesus.”
“The only way to change the priest shortage is to bring Jesus to the people,” said Rengifo Huaya, who will soon enter his third year at St. Joseph’s Major Seminary in Moyobamba.
Bishop Ricken said he would be happy to send priests to Peru, but his diocese doesn’t have any to spare either. Patience has been a big part of the mission, said Katie.
“More missionaries and priests will eventually come,” she said.
“Our Lady will move hearts when it is time.”
Theoni Bell writes from Houston. She is the author of The Woman in the Trees, a novel about the first approved Marian apparition in the United States.