In 1975, Msgr Joseph Hirsch spent a month living in Lima's slums as he backpacked through South America. Now he's back in Peru, working to prove a man he met that year is a saint, reports the Catholic News Service.
But proving a man is a saint is no easy job, and it will take years of interviews, investigation, paperwork and prayer.
Father Joseph Walijewski from the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, diocese died in Peru in 2006, after 35 years of serving the country's poor. On March 19, his sainthood cause was launched in La Crosse. 'Even if it takes 200 years to canonize him, I think his story is something that can impact us today,' said Msgr. Hirsch, who is also from the La Crosse Diocese.
When young Msgr Hirsch met Father Walijewski, the older priest was working in Villa El Salvador, a Lima slum. He dreamed of starting an orphanage to help the abandoned and abused children he saw daily. In 1985, Blessed John Paul II visited Villa El Salvador. Father Walijewski shared his dream with the pope, who donated $50,000. Father Walijewski named the orphanage Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II.
The orphanage started with two children, one volunteer and one tutor. Today, Casa Hogar is home to 64 children. They live in a family style modeled after the Boys Town program. The children are divided into eight families, each with their own apartment, mother and father.
Alfredo Inigo, 21, moved to Casa Hogar when he was 8. He said Father Walijewski taught him friendship and kindness that he had never known in his own home. He lived there until he turned 18 and said he still prays to Father Walijewski. 'He was a very humble priest,' Inigo said.
When asked what Father Walijewski was like, almost everyone mentioned this humbleness. They smiled and laughed, remembering his broken Spanish. 'He almost always spoke in the present tense,' Msgr Hirsch said.
They also talked about his childlike nature and love of singing. One of his favorite tunes was Old McDonald, and he had perfected the sounds of each animal. And no one could pronounce his last name. Father Walijewski would joke and tell them to call him ;Padre Whiskey.'
Father Walijewski considered the orphanage his greatest work. 'The vision is to be able to transform society by teaching children how to live in families,' said Msgr. Hirsch. 'The transformation of a culture happens always within marriage and within the family.'
Photo: Msgr Joseph Hirsch of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, greets people after celebrating Mass in late September at Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II, an orphanage started in 1986 by Father Joseph Walijewski in Lurin, Peru