Maryknoll Lay Missioner John O’Donoghue pushes Francisco Ayala’s wheelchair and brings him to a small rehabilitation space at a center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the missioner helps Ayala and other patients do physical therapy exercises.
Ayala, 32, was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the road near his home in the city of Montero two and a half years ago. The accident left him with injuries to his head and legs. He can’t walk, his speech is limited and he suffered brain damage.
After the accident, Ayala spent time in a hospital. Then Joseph Loney, Maryknoll Lay Missioners regional director for Bolivia, arranged to have him transported to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity home, where John has been serving for the past four years. This home was established by the Missionaries of Charity in collaboration with a local parish 12 years ago, and is staffed by four Missionaries of Charity. The sisters provide daily meals, shelter, medicine and care for up to 20 men who suffer from illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and respiratory problems or, like Ayala, live with disabilities.
John, 67, received training in physiotherapy for three months to learn how to work with patients with disabilities. “The patients asked me to help them walk, because it is bad to be in a wheelchair every day,” says the missioner. “They become obese, which is bad for their heart, and it is depressing to be in a wheelchair.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, John was able to physically touch and exercise Ayala’s legs, arms and head, but now he has had to change his routine. “I tell him at a distance what exercises to do,” says the missioner. “At the moment, Francisco can’t use the parallel bars to try and walk, although we have tried.” However, John adds, Ayala has shown progress. He is capable of lifting weights and his arms are getting stronger. John also tries to engage Ayala in simple conversation every day and have him draw pictures to keep his mind sharp.
In addition to helping the men with their exercises, the missioner begins each morning cleaning the dining room, sweeping, dusting, washing dishes and emptying the trash. He helps the sisters prepare and serve lunch for the patients and helps to keep patients’ minds active by playing games and watching TV and DVDs with them.
The majority of the residents, John says, have been abandoned. “The sisters and myself are the only family they have, and that is why many get depressed,” he says. “We try to spend time with them, have time for prayer and bring them some hope.”
John sees his job as a ministry of accompanying the men by being present, listening and talking to them. “I try to keep their spirits up, helping them with their daily tasks and keeping my eyes on them,” he says. “It is kind of a one on one with the patients. I actually enjoy working here despite the fact that people get depressed. We laugh and have a lot of fun.”
Edgar Medina, 33, who had partial paralysis, was a patient with whom John worked. “John is a good person, kind and generous. He doesn’t feel for himself but feels for others,” said Medina, who left the home after five years when he decided he could live independently. “I believe God has sent him to support us.”
John recalls meeting Mother Teresa when he served for six months in one of her houses in Calcutta 26 years ago. “I remember Mother Teresa as a small woman, but with a tremendous amount of energy,” he says. “In her 80s, she was very active. Even though she had arthritis and a pacemaker, she would conduct meetings, give orders and organize events. Now, ironically, I ended up working with Missionaries of Charity in Bolivia.”
Sister Adelbert, director of the home, is grateful to have the support of the missioner. “He has a way of welcoming and making people feel good,” she says. “For me, the men who come here are like Jesus on Calvary, and we want them to find and see God’s love here.”
John emigrated from Ireland to the United States when he was 18 years old. He has a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, and a post-graduate degree from Cambridge University, England, in development studies, focusing on the social, economic and political development of the Global South. He worked in the business world as an accountant for 10 years.
“I felt like I needed to do something more spiritual and it stayed with me for a while,” he says. “I wanted to deepen my spirituality and explore my faith.” Before joining the Maryknoll Lay Missioners 14 years ago, he worked with non-profit organizations in India, Sri Lanka, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria and Sudan.
As a Maryknoll lay missioner, John served in East Timor, where he administered a program making specialized shoes, hand-powered tricycles and wheelchairs for people with disabilities. Then he worked in Kenya with groups on income-generating projects.
In his current ministry, he says, “I really thank God, our Lord, that I am able to help in some small way. I feel part of a family and get along well with the sisters and the patients.”
Seeing people who are sick or disabled makes him appreciate his own blessings. “It makes me realize how lucky I am to walk and have good health,” he says. “I love to get the men out of the wheelchairs, on the walker or using crutches because they have life again.”
Photos (except top photo) by Nile Sprague.