The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru, 1943–1989

Transnational Faith and Transformation

Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens

From the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies

Maryknoll Catholic missionaries from the United States settled in Peru in 1943 believing they could save a “backward” Catholic Church from poverty, a scarcity of clergy, and the threat of communism. Instead, the missionaries found themselves transformed: within twenty-five years, they had become vocal critics of United States foreign policy and key supporters of liberation theology, the preferential option for the poor, and intercultural Catholicism.

In The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru, 1943-1989, Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens explains this transformation and Maryknoll’s influence in Peru and the United States by placing it in the context of a transnational encounter among Catholics with shared faith but distinct practices and beliefs. Peru received among the greatest number of foreign Catholic missionaries who settled in Latin America during the Cold War. It was at the heart of liberation theology and progressive Catholicism, the center of a radical reformist experiment initiated by a progressive military dictatorship, and the site of a devastating civil war promoted by the Maoist Shining Path. Maryknoll participated in all these developments, making Peru a perfect site for understanding Catholic missions, the role of religion in the modern world, and relations between Latin America and the United States.

This book is based on two years of research conducted in Peru, where Fitzpatrick-Behrens examined national and regional archives, conducted extensive interviews with Maryknoll clergy who continued to work in the country, and engaged in participant observation in the Aymara indigenous community of Cutini Capilla. Her findings contest assumptions about secularization and the decline of public religion by demonstrating that religion continues to play a key role in social, political, and economic development.

Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens is an associate professor of history at California State University, Northridge.

“Maryknoll is America’s major Catholic missionary society, and its history not only embodies all of the contradictions in the American Catholic Church but is deeply implicated in many of the triumphs and tragedies of American foreign policy in the twentieth century. At turns deeply sympathetic and analytically critical, this book tells the story of the Maryknoll mission to Peru and situates that story in the broader political and cultural context of U.S. engagement with Latin America. It sets a new standard for histories of the American missionary enterprise.” — Richard Madsen, University of California, San Diego

“As Maryknoll celebrates its 100th anniversary, this volume shows both intimately and on a broad scale how the group attempted to transform traditional and indigenous religion in Peru over decades and was changed in the process. This fascinating study was created by years of research and by tracing missionary activity in the context of a turbulent society in the late twentieth century. The study also illustrates the experiences of valiant missionaries dealing with the changes of Vatican Council II and neglected peoples on the edge of modern life.” — Edward Cleary, Providence College

“This is a careful study of the transformation of human lives through the quest for social justice, where Catholic missionaries’ lives and theology are changed by the very people they serve. Beautifully written and highly accessible, Fitzpatrick-Behrens’s work should be read by anyone with an interest in liberation theology, Peruvian history, or the intersections of religion and culture.” — Virginia Garrard-Burnett, University of Texas at Austin

“Exhaustively researched and very well written, Susan Fitzpatrick-Behren’s account of the Maryknoll congregation in Peru from 1943 to 1986 is a remarkable history. During these decades, the Catholic Church and Peru both underwent very profound transformations; Fitzpatrick-Behrens has analyzed those changes and the interaction between the church and the Peruvian government with great skill and insight.” — Scott P. Mainwaring, Eugene and Helen Conley Professor of Political Science and director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame


“Here is a work of painstaking scholarship that tells us much, not only about the evolving mission theology and strategy of the women and men missionaries who went to Peru over more than half a century, but about political machinations and ecclesiastical politics far beyond Peru and the era delimited by the book’s title.” — Catholic Library World

“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.” — Catholic Books Review

“Historian Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens’ work, The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru, 1943-1989, offers an insightful analysis into the religious foundations of twentieth-century Peruvian history . . . . The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru skillfully carries the subtleties of Peruvian history into the global sphere. The work is important to historians of the Americas for demonstrating the centrality of religion to the political and socio-economic development of a nation and the highly influential role mission played in the region.” — American Catholic Studies

“Combining archival research, interviews, and personal observation, Fitzpatrick-Behrens does an excellent job of meticulous narration in her account of the history of Maryknoll’s transformation as it pertains to Peru. . . . [This] book is an outstanding contribution to the history of the U.S. Catholic missionary movement and should prove valuable to scholars and a more general readership as well.” —_The Americas_

“The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru, 1943-1989 provides an absolutely outstanding ethno-history of one particular conjuncture—that of Maryknoll missionaries and the Peruvian faithful—while also contributing creatively to a much larger conversation about transnational efforts at advocacy. . . . A model for scholarship, a gripping history, even a window onto the past, it speaks to progressive politics in Latin America today.” — American Historical Review

“. . . [B]eautifully written, richly documented and passionately argued.” — Journal of Latin American Studies

“[The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru, 1943-1989] is accessible and offers a great deal of information in such a way that someone who is not familiar with Peruvian history or Maryknoll’s mission can easily be drawn into the saga. . . . This book narrates their dramatic story in such a way that we can feel the passion and the challenges of all these men and women of God.” — The Way