Twice a year, typically during Thanksgiving week and Easter break, a group of JSerra students travel more than 4,500 miles and become missionaries.
A JSERRA STUDENT REPAIRS A HOUSE IN THE IMPOVERISHED REGION SURROUNDING PIURA, PERU. PHOTO COURTESY OF LAURA KENNEDY
The students, usually between 30 and 40 per trip, visit Santisimo Sacramento Parish in Piura, Peru, situated in a region stricken engulfed in extreme poverty.
JSERRA HISTORY TEACHER LAURA KENNEDY VISITS WITH AN ELDERLY WOMAN DURING THE SCHOOL’S MISSIONARY TRIP TO PIURA, PERU IN NOVEMBER 2022. KENNEDY HELPS ORGANIZE THE TRIP TWICE A YEAR FOR JSERRA STUDENTS, WHO PROVIDE FOOD AND OTHER ITEMS, VISIT ELDERLY AND INFIRMED VILLAGERS, VISIT SCHOOLS AND BUILD HOMES. PHOTO COURTESY OF LAURA KENNEDY
During their time at the Piura parish, the students and their chaperones visit orphanages and build houses.
They assemble and deliver food and care packages to impoverished villages adjacent to the mission. They minister to infirmed villagers. They attend Mass daily and embrace their faith in ways they have never done
“A lot of times, what we say, ‘Down here, God feels closer,’” said junior Ashley Moro, who made her second trip to Piura over Thanksgiving 2022 along with her twin sister Lauren.
Their mother signed them up for their first trip as sophomores.
But for the second trip, Lauren and Ashley were begging their mother to sign them up again.
“When we went down there, we went to Mass every day and all the people you saw were Catholic and were so happy about being Catholic,” Ashley Moro said. “It just made me realize that I wanted to be able to experience this again.”
JSerra history teacher Laura Kennedy has been organizing the missionary trips since 2014.
Before that, JSerra parents put the trips together.
“It’s been the best part of my job,” Kennedy said. “I’ve been blessed. We do other trips too, but this trip is so special.”
In the weeks and months leading up to the trip, the students raise money through JSerra’s Peru Club, which was started in 2007 by two students who had taken the trip.
The money raised by the club goes to the church, school and orphanage in Piura.
Students also cleans out their closets and pack extra suitcases with clothes to be donated. Unused items are also taken out of storage at JSerra to be given away.
“We bring down anything that is left over down here, and we stuff all the suitcases as much as we can,” Kennedy said.
For Lauren Moro, what stands out more than anything state of contentment the villagers seem to be in, despite the conditions with which they live.
“I think one thing I would say is that you notice how poor they are and how much less they have than us and how much more fortunate we are but they are so much happier,” Lauren Moro said. “And I think that is because they are so much more dependent on God because they don’t have other things that we do and that is just so cool to see and more inspiring for my faith.”
Senior Ryan McLaughlin figured he might never get another chance to visit Peru, so he signed up for the trip along with some friends.
It’s worth noting that McLaughlin and his friends are also members of JSerra’s water polo team and had defeated Newport Harbor for the CIF Southern California championship the night before the trip.
“Once we got to Peru, I wasn’t really thinking about anything back here, McLaughlin said. “I was just taking it all in. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.”
As the plane was landing in Peru, McLaughlin said he was expecting to land on a smooth, paved runway and to see a city similar to Los Angeles, not a cluster of shabby structures with sheet metal roofs, or in some cases, no roofs. Electricity was hit or miss, and for those fortunate to have electricity, it was a single lightbulb, Kennedy said.
Villagers cooked over an open flame or, if lucky, a propane stove. Because there is no organized waste
disposal or sanitation systems, villagers must burn their trash, creating a rancid odor.
“It was just so unreal,” McLaughlin said. “It was too much for my brain to comprehend.”
In Piura, the students stayed in dorms at the Santisimo Sacramento parish as guests of Fr. Joseph Uhen, known to all as “Fr. Joe.”
Under Fr. Joe’s leadership, the parish has fostered relationships with several American parishes.
He has constructed dorms, for the purpose of housing the hundreds of missionaries to who come to serve the Piura every year from the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Germany.
A native of Oklahoma who’s been at the parish for decades, Fr. Joe is also responsible for adding multiple chapels to the parish and has helped launch programs and facilities to serve abused women and children, a medical clinic, food programs, a hospice and drug rehabilitation facility.
When the students landed back at LAX on the flight home, sites that go virtually unnoticed, suddenly stood out, Ashley Moro said.
“I remember the first time back on the freeway in California, things I would have never noticed like light posts, trees, paved roads,” she said. “They had none of that. It was so interesting to be able to help them out and to see how grateful they were for even the little amount that they had.”
Kennedy added, “I’ve been blessed to be able to organize this for the kids and really participate in it as well. Like I tell them, we feed them physically, but they do feed us spiritually with what they give back to us.”