Solar panels for a mission boat in the Amazon region of Brazil
In a large portion of the Upper Amazonas Region, where Brazil, Peru and Colombia meet, there are scarcely any roads. People either live in the big cities, like Manaus, or else on the banks of the Amazon and its tributaries, including the Jacuraçá, the Acuruí and the Içá. Many places can be reached only by boat.
The center of the Parish of Santo Antônio de Lisboa is the town of Santo Antônio do Içá. It has a population of 17,000 and is situated at the confluence of the Rio Içá and the Rio Solimões. Within the city, the Italian missionary, Frei Gino Alberati ministers to 5 smaller communities, with the help of two other Capuchin missionaries and two novices.
At the same time, these missionaries also care for 34 riverside communities along the Rio Içá and another six on the Rio Solimões. Twelve of these settlements are entirely indigenous communities of the Tikuna tribe. They all need pastoral care, but the Tikuna in particular also need support and development aid, including medical care, education and help in developing some form of agriculture.
For the first 20 years of their mission the Capuchin Fathers still used wooden boats in order to reach the people, but these were unwieldy, heavy and in frequent need of repair. Major work had to be done on them every other year. And besides, with the new measures to protect the Amazon rainforests, the price of timber has soared to dizzying heights. And so, in 2003 a new era in their mission began with a new, aluminum boat, the Itinerante, which they were able to buy thanks to the help of the benefactors of ACN.
Since then, Frei Gino has had the Itinerante cut in half and a new 14.8 foot long section added in the middle in order to extend it. Now the boat is 67.8 feet long and no longer sits so clumsily in the water, with the additional bonus that the fuel and oil consumption has been considerably reduced. For even though Frei Gino drives very gently, at a speed of just 6 knots (7.5 m/h – he could travel at more than double that speed – up to 16 m/h) he still needs 120 gallons of diesel for the 211 mile journey up the Rio Içá and back. In fact when the river level is low he uses as much as 211 gallons due to all the additional twists and turns in the river.
Only when there is an emergency does Frei Gino increase speed. Once, he was able to save the life of a child who had been bitten by a snake by taking him quickly to the hospital in São Paulo de Olivença. Another time, an 18-year-old girl with appendicitis was also saved with the mission boat.
Thanks to the retrofitting, the boat can now carry up to 40 people, and this is a real gain. Many activities, such as the training of catechists or community leaders and development help projects, take place in Santo Antônio. With the boat, Frei Gino can carry all the participants there and back.
There is also a largish multipurpose room on board the boat so that Holy Mass, marriages and baptisms can be celebrated on the spot and meetings can be held. Sometimes Frei Gino also takes with him development aid workers or members of the Equipe Itinerante from Tabatinga. On other occasions, he is helped by a missionary Sister from the Hallel Community or by missionaries from other regions.
One journey up the Rio Içá takes 20 days, and each year he undertakes two such journeys, plus an additional 48 shorter, weekend journeys. Last year he even made four such major journeys. Frei Gino and his confreres certainly do not give themselves an easy life.
Thanks to the help of our benefactors, who have given $15,900, we have been able to somewhat ease the rigor of these difficult journeys by helping to install an efficient solar energy system on the Itinerante. Now they have an electricity supply on the boat and can have a refrigerator, for example, which is a great bonus on these weeks-long journeys. They can also use a satellite phone, a source of greater safety and security.
Frei Gino says a heartfelt thank you to all the benefactors and asks God's blessing on all who have helped.
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