Sisters' practical mission of mercy

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Sister Patricia McDermott (left) and Sister Joan Doyle at Cerro Candela, on the outskirts of Lima.

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"Look at this, it's a memory stick cover.'' In the makeshift shop, Sister Joan Doyle is sorting through the products made by the Cerro Candela Women's Centre - bags and dolls, iPad and Kindle covers, done in joyful Ayacucho colours, reports The Sunday Age.

Amid the riot of rainbow stripes, Doyle and her colleague, Sister Patricia McDermott, white-haired, 60-something Sisters of Mercy, are dressed down for the dust, in T-shirts and jeans.

Already, the sisters have shown me the women's centre, the childcare centre and the health clinic they set up in this poor community on the outskirts of the Peruvian capital, Lima.

I'm eager to sit down and talk - about global poverty, development, charity, its contradictions, and the faith that keeps the women going in this obscure corner of the world. Yet they are eager to show me more of the place that has been their home for 17 years. Rooms and rooms of women doing work, classes, the childcare centre.

Doyle and McDermott are the centre, the centre is them, woven together like lines of coloured thread. Which makes it all the more bewildering that next week they will leave Cerro Candela for ever, to return to Sydney and, eventually, a fresh posting.

Watching them chatting animatedly with staff and clients, in Spanish with a Kyliesque rising inflection - a relic of suburban Sydney origins - you wonder not merely why they are going, but how it will be possible even for them to leave.

''Well, things are changing,'' McDermott says. ''When I came from Chile to here, it was for the same reason: by the time we left, the poverty level had dropped to around 25 per cent, while in Peru more than half the population was beneath the poverty line. Now things are improving [in Peru], although slowly for the poor. For that, and some family and health reasons, it's time to move on.''

Will that be tough? McDermott's smile disappears for a second. ''Oh yes, very hard.''

Looking around Cerro Candela - the name loosely translates as ''Candle Hill'' - you get the impression that many would not share her enthusiasm for the place. The town and surrounding areas have exploded from virtually nothing two decades ago to settlements with a population of hundreds of thousands.

Lima sprawls like Los Angeles, and Cerro Candela sprawls beyond Lima - beyond its sealed roads and new mega-malls. Here sit clumps of half-built block houses, metal rods shooting up from each corner, waiting for a time when a second storey can be afforded. People gather round lean-to shops with hand-painted signs, and dust is everywhere - red-brown, greyish, rising like a dry wave.

Four years ago, Kevin Rudd, on a visit to Peru for an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, trekked out to the clinic and presented it with an X-ray machine. The place made the evening news in Australia. But mostly the sisters have just been left to get on with it.

FULL STORY Sisters' practical mission of mercy (Sunday Age)