Susan FITZPATRICK-BEHRENS. The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru, 1943-1989: transnational faith and transformation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. pp. 240. $31.00 Paperback. ISBN 978-0-268-02905-0.
Reviewed by Reviewed by Karen Monique GREGG, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wane, Indiana 46807

Fitzpatrick-Behrens uses a multi-method approach to her research combining archival data, qualitative interviews and participant observation from several stints in Peru in the 1990s and early 2000s in order to produce a well-footnoted 240 page monograph that is well worth the read. Covering a span of 46 years, Fitzpatrick-Behrens expertly writes a detailed account of the Maryknoll Missionaries’ role in the emergence of liberation theology in Peru. As her story unfolds, the reader feels as if she is working alongside the missionaries she describes fighting against poverty and for social justice and experiencing the obstacles and frustrations that the Maryknoll priests and sisters obviously dealt with in an on-going basis from 1943-1989. The main argument of the book is that the Maryknoll Missionaries in Peru transformed from being allies of the U.S. in that country to contributing to the revolution because of the chronic crisis of poverty and inequality they witnessed in the indigenous population they so hoped to religiously transform. Fitzpatrick-Behrens contribution with this work is that she adds the missing ingredient of the Maryknollers’ role to the mixture that resulted in historic transformations in social as well as religious organization in the region.

The book is expertly organized in a chronological manner detailing the shift in the Maryknoll method of missionizing she aims to point out to us. Chapter 1 begins with an explanation and history of the Maryknoll mission in the U.S. She argues that when the mission began, there was distinct impression of a bond which derived from a cultural ethos, a particular experience with immigration in the U.S., and the specific labor practices from the period. By Chapter 5 (and 40 years later) the social context in the U.S. and the world scene had shifted so considerably that she is able to point to the structural and social conditions which lead to the transformation in the Maryknollers’ mission practices, as well as their contribution to the emergence of liberation theology. She claims that the Maryknoll Missionaries became part of a larger social movement within the progressive Catholic Church, which aimed to support human rights in Peru. Specifically, she states:

“the Catholic human rights network evolved from the church structures established during the preceding decades to serve the poor. The legitimacy earned through their efforts and in fact the church was targeted by both the Shining Path and Peruvian armed forces allowed it to serve as a mediating force in society. This role culminated in the formation of the Peruvian Commission for Truth and reconciliation in 2001” (2012:18). In the epilogue Fitzpatrick-Behrens brings us to-date, explaining Maryknoll’s contemporary position in the U.S., as well as their plight with the conservative forces in dominating the local church in Peru today. Fitzpatrick-Behrens laments that by 2000 as she was doing her research in the Maryknoll Center, the place looked abandoned. The Maryknoll Missions’ ascendancy had come and gone. And today there is threat to turn the old building into a Maryknoll archive, rather than a training ground for priests and missionaries. The picture of the convent for the sisters is painted with similar strokes – disrepair, abandoned, and mostly retired sisters living out their days with no new novices. Perhaps Fitzpatrick-Behrens rendition of the Maryknoll history can spark a new wave of commitment to peace and justice in the mission.

Praises of this book? Fitzpatrick-Behrens can write history. Her attention to detail is worth applauding. She left no stone unturned in uncovering the Maryknoll Missionaries’ role in the region of Peru. By the end of the book her argument rings clear – the Maryknollers had transformed the social and religious culture in Peru, but at the same time they were also transformed in their beliefs, methods, and practices. I also praise the way she included the often overlooked work of the sisters’ contribution to the order. In any order there are many roots and branches. The sisters are often one of the main branches. For example, she states, “[i]f foreign clergy were invisible base of the progressive Peruvian church, sisters were nearly subterranean” (16). But Fitzpatrick-Behrens was not afraid to do the digging to bring their part of the story to light. Kudos to her for that work.

Critiques of this book? At several points Fitzpatrick is unnecessarily repetitive for the reader. But this only means that there is no losing track of her story. By reiterating her stance and back-tracking over the decades at several junctures, her meaning is made abundantly clear.

With these praises and criticism in mind, this book could well-serve undergraduates as well as graduates introducing the concepts of liberation theology and the history of the Maryknoll Mission in the U.S. and in Peru. It also explains how religious values such as generosity and faith can be combined with efforts toward social justice.

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