The grave social difficulties and the situation of exploitation in which the majority of the population live has provoked huge tensions which the first evangelizers experienced first hand

The missions, social projects and solidarity actions are a constant in the action of the Augustinian Recollect Family. The Province of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine has always lived in mission, since its very birth was motivated by the opening of the first evangelization missions in the Philippines in the 17th century. Since then, he has carried out his evangelizing activity following the mandate of Jesus in the places today called “frontiers”: there where it is necessary to defend the dignity of human life, social justice, equal opportunities, the defense of the most vulnerable.

The beginnings of the Church organization in Labrea

During the 19th Century, whilst most of Brazil had been marked by the missionary and educational activity of the Church, the river Purus was still unknown. The first stable missionary was the Genoese Cappuccino fray Pedro de Ceriana, who founded in 1854 the mission of Saint Louis Gonzaga with Indians from the canuicis, mamurus, katukinas, sipes, jamamadís and apurinas. The experience only lasted for two years due to harassment from traders and the government.

At this time the Purus was inhabited by whites up until Canutama: merciless traders, who were cruel, ambitious, and corrupt and who murdered the Indians. Because of these abuses Antonio Macedo Costa, the Bishop of Pará, would not accept the subordination of missionaries for civilians and from this came about the foundation of missionary colonies that would look after the Indians so that they were not deceived.

Six Franciscan missionaries from Bolivia started the experience in September 1870. But the illnesses, the failure of the settlements, the lack of companions and financial resources and, above all, the abuse of the landowners and traders obliged them to abandon the mission in 1881.

The Bishop also sent the recently ordained Francisco Leite Barbosa. On the 8th of September 1878 he took over the new parish of Labrea. He was active from the mouth of the river Purus in Solimões-Amazonas up to the frontier with Peru and Bolivia: some 400,000 km2. In 1908, after thirty years of pastoral labours, he retired.

After Leite retired, three secular Priests successively attended the parish of Labrea: Ulises Montesano who had just finished building the cathedral; Manuel Monteiro, who was born on the rubber plantation of Carmo, in Canutama, the Purus´s first priest; and José Tito, who handed over the parish to the Augustinian Recollects in 1926. With the territory which corresponded to the State of Acre they formed a new parish and later a prelature.

In 1878 they also created the Parish of Saint John the Baptist in Arima, the largest Centre of population after Labrea. It had a chapel made of posts and roof tiles and was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. In 1897 it moved its base to Canutama. At first there were various conflicts between the parish priest and the inhabitants.

In 1901, José Lorenzo, the Bishop of the Amazon, “left Canutama taking with him bitter memories”. Manuel Hurtado, the first parish priest, seeing the dreadful information about his destination did even present himself there. The problems with the other parish priests were grave and numerous. José Laurindo suffered a great many conflicts and unpleasantness. His successor, Manuel José, was persecuted, calumniated against, and imprisoned by the local leaders.

Francisco Villa succeeded him. He was an excellent educator, but the quarrels with the town leaders were serious. In 1917 he left the priesthood. In this situation the Augustinian Recollects received the future prelature of Labrea, the 17th of October 1926.

1926-1942: the beginnings of the Augustinian Recollects in Labrea

The Church offered the prelature of Labrea to the Province of Saint Thomas of Villanueva of the Augustinian Recollects in 1924. Only two religious started the mission: Ignacio Martínez y Marcelo Calvo, Calvo as the Apostolic Administrator. They took possession of the prelature on the 17th of October 1926.

When the time of prosperity for rubber had passed Labrea declined. For when the Recollects arrive it is a miserable shanty town in ruins with less than four hundred inhabitants, a focus point for mortal fevers. The spiritual life was on a par with the material life. They had to start from nothing, without any human or economic resources.

The arrival of the Recollects Bienvenido Beamonte y Juan Altarejos permitted Ignacio Martínez to start on the 2nd of April the “desobrigas”, or pastoral visits for the rubber plantations that have lasted up until the present. He returned on the 2nd of August after visiting seventy populations, celebrating 838 baptisms, 269 weddings and having preached 141 homilies.

The work of the missionaries and their relation with the people was smoothed down after the pessimistic sensation of the first Recollects in Labrea. Music was one of the elements which reconciled them with the people and the region. The Labrea Philharmonic, directed by Beamonte, was the best way of developing their apostolate.

One of the first decisions of Marcelo Calvo was to buy a seven meter landing craft with the name “Saint Augustine”. Fray Bienvenido put a wheel in the Poop: two men at the gears produced that of six on the oars.

In 1930, Monsignor Marcelo, getting on in years and unwell, presented his resignation as Apostolic Administrator. Ignacio Martínez was named as his successor. He was twenty-eight years old.

The religious contributed to the renovation in Labrea, animating the cultural life and building infrastructures: a well, plantations, rearing animals, electricity, brick making. In 1936 the opened a parish school with ninety students.

From 1932 the prelature has disposed of a house in Manaos to help the missionaries that gave origin to the actual Parish of Saint Rita. From 1937 onwards, the Augustinian Recollect family increased their presence there with three nuns who left their cloister in Spain to open the college of Our Lady of Consolation. Three years later, ill and without any resources, they were forced to abandon the mission.

This first period ends with the death of Monsignor Ignacio Martínez. On February 1, 1942, he embarked on the “Saint Augustine” landing craft to make his pastoral visit in the Lower Purus. Passing Canutama he felt unwell. On the 16th of March in the rubber plantation of Nueva Fe he passed away in the boat. Up until that year twelve Recollects had passed through the mission.

1942-1970: New ways

In 1940 the municipality of Labrea had 22,800 inhabitants; the headwaters 1,247. Canutama had 10,710 inhabitants, 947 in the urban zone. One of the first decisions of Francisco Martínez, after the death of Ignacio Martínez, was to name Isidoro Irigoyen as Parish Priest of Canutama. He stayed there for twenty-six years, until 1968.

In 1944 José Álvarez Macua was named Apostolic Administrator and in 1947 the first Bishop of Labrea. The Recollects had been in the Purus for eighteen years. The pastoral visits lasted for 30, 60 or 90 days and wrecked the health of the religious. The pastoral activity in the headwaters was centred on Catechesis, apostolic movements, and popular devotions. They gave a great impulse to the education and the building of schools.

In 1949 the parish of Saint Augustine of Terrua was created, the beginnings of the municipal of Pauini. What gave the greatest enthusiasm to the people was the construction of an ample and solid wooden hut that would at the same time serve as chapel and school.

In March 1954 the Augustinian Recollect Missionary Nuns arrived to take charge of “Saint Rita´s” school in Labrea. Also in 1967 the first Marist brothers arrived to open a secondary school.

Given the success achieved in Pauini, they thought about also dividing the extensive parish of Canutama. When they created the parish in Tapaua in 1964 the wood that was sent for the construction of the parish residence ended up being used in the school, when the religious saw the educational situation in that place.

The missionaries passed through economic difficulties. They took advantage of the rest and recuperation times in Río de Janeiro y São Paulo to preach, and to undertake campaigns for much needed help. Since 1963 the German agencies “Misereor” and “Adveniat” have periodically helped the Mission.

During the 1970´s they built residences for the missionaries. In Labrea it was the missionaries that decided to build the aerodrome once they had taken away, in 1965, the means of transport using seaplanes – that of “Catalina” in the Purus.

On the 24th of June 1960, with the creation of the Province of Saint Rita, broken way from that of Saint Thomas of Villanueva, the Mission of Labrea now passed on to them with the headquarters in Ribeirão Preto (São Paulo). Saint Rita sent religious to the Prelature, but six years later were obliged to ask other Provinces for volunteers for the mission of Labrea. Four recently ordained religious from the Province of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino were sent in 1966 to strengthen the mission.

José Álvarez, after 35 years in the Amazon, 25 in Labrea, left at the end of 1967 foe the south of Brazil. The Holy See named as Apostolic Administrator after 35 years in Labrea Mario Roberto Anglin, the Bishop of Coari. The renovation of the Second Vatican Council was astonished at the idea of a mission without a Bishop. Young missionaries arrived, whilst others who had generously given huge services to Labrea asked to leave the Church or were transferred to other ministries.

1970-1980: Renovation post Vatican II

In 1970, the Father General of the Order of the Augustinian Recollects, Luis Garayoa, made an appeal to the Provinces of the Order asking for volunteers for Labrea. He chose seven from three different provinces. One of them, Florentino Zabalza, was consecrated Bishop on the 28th of August 1971 and took possession of the Prelature. It was the beginning of a new era, a sign of renovation.

The Marist brothers extended their pedagogical activity in Canutama (1973) and Tapaua (1974). New works continued: in 1974 they opened the Church in Pauini; they finished the school, parish residence and the Church in Canutama. They also renovated the Cathedral of Labrea, built a community centre and enlarged “Saint Rita´s” school. In the 1980´s they opened the Church of Fatima in Labrea, and various chapels and community centres in Pauini, Tapaua and Canutama.

They gave renovation courses to teachers, also cooking classes, dressmaking, manicures, tapestry, and painting. They attended to the health and other needs of families. They organized cooperatives and courses on technical agriculture and tried to obtain that lands bought by other groups would be returned to the Labrea residents.

The four headwaters of the municipality were modernized and the use of electricity was generalized. In 1978 television arrived in Labrea and they opened a factory for the processing of rubber. They also established the National Institute for Food and Nutrition, retarmacked the airport and built a terminal for passengers. The Amazon Bank arrived and telephones. Labrea was now united to the world by land through the Transamazon.

Of the 50,000 inhabitants in the mission only 8,000 lived in the urban centres and received some attention. The people scattered through the rivers saw a priest, if they were lucky, once a year. The religious spent months in the rural interior, with work, sacrifice and illnesses.

In 1975 they redacted a “Pastoral Plan for the Prelature in Labrea” which gave space to the participation of local pastoral agents, people who would take on responsibilities and be formed for their tasks: the celebration on Sunday, relations with the Protestants, social responsibility, etc. The training of these agents was the first step in order to establish local ecclesial communities in the rural zones. They came to form more than ninety, and transformed the mission.

They created a series of new pastoral approaches that required special attention: for young people, for families, for the indigenous. Also they created the figure of the Sister Church, a role which fell to the diocese of Vitoria (Espíritu Santo, Brazil), that helped with material and human resources.

The religious maintained annual meetings for study, prayer, evaluation and planning. They assisted courses on pastoral areas like the environment, the indigenous, and on the Bible. They were determined to implant a Syndicate for Rural Workers, in order to alert the authorities about the selling of indigenous lands. In 1979 they celebrated the first General Assembly which proceeded to meetings in every parish.

The Province of Saint Rita took on, in 1960, the mission of Labrea with a lot of interest, but then suffered a grave vocational crisis. By the middle of the 1970´s only two religious from the Province of Saint Rita were left in the Prelature. Finally, since 1979 the mission of Labrea has passed to depend on the province of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine.

1980’s and 1990’s: the Province of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine takes charge of the mission

When the Province of Saint Nicholas took charge of the mission, a fistful of young priests came to the Prelature. To avoid loneliness they reinforced the communities, but pastoral visits, illnesses, reunions, courses, journeys to organize residence permits for foreigners, and other causes multiplied the periods in which only one religious was left in the communities.

The priorities for the pastoral areas which the General Assemblies had proposed had been the family, the participation of the laity, the local ecclesial communities, pastoral activities for the indigenous and for the environment, the accompaniment of popular movements, a preference towards the poor, popular participation, the fight against all injustice and in favour of human rights, the rejection of all violence, the formation of a critical conscience, the education and infancy-adolescence.

In the last decade of the 20th Century there was an increase in migratory movements in the interior of the rivers and the water heads of the municipals, and in the water heads of the municipals in the State capital. Particular stress was given to the defence of the rights of the indigenous and ribeirinhos –the inhabitants inside the forest area-. The arrival of landowners demanding in front of the tribunals their rights created a battle in which only the Church was on the side of the most affected the true inhabitants of this land.

The Church in Labrea also made a great effort in the support and organization of popular movements, syndicates for rural workers, Dockers and teachers, associations of laundry workers and those with leprosy, assemblies of indigenous peoples, the commission for the defence of human rights and youth groups.

The 21st Century

In the last decade they have strengthened other aspects, once other institutions and the popular movements were working more and efficiently. The pastoral attention to families, infants and the Interior (inner river and forest areas) has been key in missionary work.

The catechesis has been fully assumed by the laity and they attend to young people from six to eighteen years old. It is also the door for a commitment to society. Methods such as Missionary Infancy, the young and adolescents have had a significant impact in the arrival of future leaders.

The emigration of young people to Manaos has made difficult the advanced preparation and planning. Those who are most conscious and able are those who quickest to leave in the search of a better life. The prelature has become an exporter of catechists.

One of the failures has been the formation of native clergy and religious, The opening of a seminary, the agreements with other dioceses’ for the formation of candidates and teams of vocations have not had the desired effect.

One of the areas which have required most attention in the new century has been that of religious sects. In populations like Tapaua the presence of these sects is strongly rooted in the local history. They are radical Neopentecostal Churches, extremists, fundamentalists, and some of them are born out of a political or economic interest with outside influence: The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, The International Church of the Grace of God, The Church Reborn in Christ, The World Church of the Power of God, The Assembly of God, The Quadrangular Church and the Philadelphian Mission.

Some of these Churches are a political lobby, possess means of communication, and there pastors are amongst the better off. They are continually dividing and have very few things in common, but three things stand out: their aversion towards Catholicism; their sentimental spirituality, fanatical, irrational and without any social responsibility; and their decentralization and independence in terms of other churches even those of the same profession or creed.

From the 1990´s up until now, support has arrived from public and private institutions, from Brazil and abroad, for concrete social projects. The areas of agriculture, associations of syndicates and the education of adolescents are those which have received most funding. They have built social centres, spaces for formation and meetings, have improved the channels of communication and established community radios and have started work on a pastoral centre in Labrea. They have also prepared the infrastructure of three “Centres of Hope” for the prevention and job training of young people in Labrea, Tapaua and Pauini, as well as funding the visits to the interior of the rivers and for formation courses for leaders of these inhabitants and those that live in the inner forest.

On the 20th of August 2004 the Province of Saint Nicholas signed an agreement with the Filipino province of Saint Ezekiel Moreno so that, amongst other things, the Mission of Labrea has counted upon the help of Filipino religious who have strengthened the communities.

On the 1st of January 2005, and after almost eighty years uninterrupted presence, the Province of Saint Nicholas closed the community in Canutuma. With that, the Province of Saint Nicholas was left with three communities in the mission (Labrea, Tapaua and Pauini) and support house in Manaos, the State Capital.

The challenges for the Order of the Augustinian Recollects in the mission of Labrea are huge, set by the physical challenge of the place, and the isolation and loneliness of the missionaries in a climate of almost genetic despair in the people they serve.

Religious Institutes in Labrea

The collaboration of the rest of the religious organizations has been important throughout the history of the mission.

The Augustinian Recollect Missionary Nuns have had a similar and close history in the Mission for thirty years, since their first attempt to set themselves up there. Since 1954 their presence has in the education has been a constant. They have acted in teaching literacy to adults, technical courses, catechesis, the sick, the indigenous, the river and inner forest areas…

The Marist Brothers arrived to Labrea in 1967, and in 1973 to Canutama and in 1974 to Tapaua. After directing schools in all these municipalities they left Tapaua in 1988 and Canutama in 2005. They have also collaborated in catechesis, youth groups, apostolic movements, visiting the sick, celebrations, social assistance…They have stimulated social promotion and professional formation, installed sawmills, brick factories, carpentry and mechanical schools, typing schools and horticulture.

The Missionaries of Jesus Crucified maintained a community in Pauini between 1983 and 1993. They travelled by river, gave catechesis, promoted youth groups, the liturgy, associations of laundresses, formed community leaders and participated in pastoral work for the care of the environment.

The Oblates of the Assumption arrived in Tapaua in 1993. Among their works there has been the catechesis, health, the formation of leaders, the indigenous (CIMI), pastoral work with children and attention to the rural population. Amongst their dreams and immediate projects is the opening of the Adolescent Home of Sister Rosa.

The Marian Missionaries arrived in Pauini in 1999. They have actively participated in pastoral care for health, the attention to the people who live amongst the rivers and the Hope Centre.

Two lay movements have successively taken charge of the pastoral activity in Canutuma, after the departure of the Marist Brothers and the Recollects: between 2005 and 2010 the Epiphany Community, founded in 1994 in Vitoria (Espíritu Santo, Brazil); and the Community of Rescue Mission, born in 2001 in the diocese of Crato (Ceará, Brazil), since 2010.

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