By Mary Kay McPartlin
Photography by Mimi Emmel, a Casa Hogar volunteer
When Abigail Schreiner, from Athens, first came to Peru in 2013 as part of a pilgrimage, God showed her the dignity and beauty of the South American country. “I was just awestruck by everything I saw and the people I met,” says Abigail. “I felt a very big attraction to this country and the people. It intrigued me.”
Along with her mother and the Wisconsin pilgrims, Abigail spent time at Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II Orphanage in Lurin, Peru. It was there that she felt a great impact. Even after returning to life in Athens, Abigail found Peru still pulled on her heart.
“I knew I really wanted to come back to the orphanage and Peru,” Abigail says. “As I was leaving the orphanage after the first time, I told myself two things: I want to be able to speak Spanish and to play the guitar.”
Continuing to study Spanish her senior year of high school and getting a guitar for Christmas only propelled Abigail’s preparation to go back to Lurin. In 2014, she returned to Lurin for a two-month visit in summer, and then again for a month-long stay at Christmas during her freshman year at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn.
“In that time, I became close with a lot of kids. My Spanish was improving and my guitar was improving,” says Abigail.
Back at college, Abigail kept thinking about the people in Lurin and debated her next steps: “I spent a lot of time in prayer and discernment because I really felt the Lord calling me to take a year off of college and come to Peru.”
Abigail was raised in a home where the Catholic faith was important and modeled by her parents. “I know without them being the example of what it means to have faith and to love the Lord, I wouldn’t be here today,” she says. “They were supportive of me coming to Peru, a little hesitant, but they let me come. My family is such a blessing. They are so wonderful. I remember my mom telling me that no matter where I go, no matter what the Lord calls me to do, they will support me and they will pray for me.” With the blessing of her family, Abigail’s dream came true when she returned to Lurin in the summer of 2015. During her two shorter stays, Abigail’s volunteer time was spent focused on fun and games, but this visit introduced her to a different side of the orphanage.
“I began to really start working a lot more with the kids one-on-one,” Abigail says. “My relationships with the kids
became a lot stronger. They know they can talk to me about anything. I’ve been able to share in a lot of their sufferings with them.”
The children Abigail lives with in the orphanage are not just those with no family, but children with parents unable to care for them due to extreme poverty and other factors. Drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, prostitution and violence were a part of their lives before Casa Hogar. These children carry physical, mental and spiritual wounds.
“They are social orphans and many lived in extreme poverty. We know that it is very important to maintain a relationship between the children and their families, especially because at the time the children leave Casa Hogar, many return home to live with their family. Even though these kids have many wounds and so much hurt, they are always joyful,” says Abigail. “I know they are suffering inside, but they are always joyful. It’s definitely been a challenging year. It’s so hard to see the children suffer, because I love them, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m blessed to be here.”
At Casa Hogar, Monsignor Joseph Hirsh asks children the dangerous question, “Lord, what is it you want of my life?” Abigail has made that her question to God every day.
“Just last week I was in prayer and thinking about this,” says Abigail. “I realized the Lord has been putting things in my heart and showing me what He wants of my life. I’ve grown so much in my faith and it’s due to these kids. The Lord is using them to teach me so much. The Lord calls everyone to all different places. As for my vocation, if I’m not living for other people, then I’m not living. If I am not suffering and loving people, especially children, then I’m not really living. I just know that the Lord is asking my life to be one of suffering with people. I can’t save anyone, only the Lord can save someone, but I am able to be the Lord’s hands and feet and comfort others.”
When she started her studies at St. Thomas University, Abigail focused on business. She could feel the fit was wrong, and turned to God for guidance.
“I knew that it was not the right thing for me,” says Abigail. “I couldn’t do it. I am not a businesswoman.”
Her time spent with the orphanage social worker has helped guide Abigail. The ministry has resonated deeply with her, and she plans to return to St. Thomas in the fall to study psychology.
“If I am not suffering and loving people, especially children, then I’m not really living. I just know that the Lord is asking my life to be one of suffering with people. I can’t save anyone, only the Lord can save someone, but I am able to be the Lord’s hands and feet and comfort others.”
“First and foremost, what will help these children heal is God, but after that comes the psychological aspect,” she says of her decision.
Solitary prayer is a life-affirming part of Abigail’s day in Lurin. “I realized it’s very important for me to spend time alone with the Lord,” says Abigail. “If I don’t pray, then I’m not able to be filled up; and if I’m not filled up, I can’t pour out to others.”
I realized it’s very important for me to spend time alone with the Lord,” says Abigail. “If I don’t pray, then I’m not able to be filled up; and if I’m not filled up, I can’t pour out to others.”
Life in Peru is very different from Abigail’s life in the U.S., but she never experienced culture shock. “Everything has felt very normal,” Abigail says. “I feel like I have lived here forever. It’s been a blessing to adjust so well. Down here, the simplicity is beautiful. The humble homes that people have are amazing.”
Her favorite Mass is held in a chapel that is basically four walls and a tarp roof. The building also serves as a community center.
“It reminds me of Christ saying, ‘When two or more are gathered in my name, I am with you,’” she says.
God has guided Abigail to a life not typical for a 20-year-old American woman. Finding direction has not always been easy, but she trusts the Lord to guide her where he knows she will be happy and able to do His work. She sees many of her peers finding happiness in the wrong places, not understanding that, in the end, the question may be: ‘Am I happy in what I did with my life?”
“I would say that you need patience. The Lord isn’t going to put a blimp in the sky and say, ‘You will do this with your life,’” Abigail says. “Where do you find happiness? It’s so important to think and to realize what your ultimate goal is in life. When I die, I want to ask myself, ‘Abigail, did you live your life?’ I want to be able to say my life impacted other people’s lives. I would tell my peers, ‘Challenge yourself and ask yourself, if tomorrow you died, can you say you really truly lived?’”
Abigail believes God has many jobs for his servants that are all rooted in love. “Not everyone is called to leave their family and go to be a missionary,” she says. “Everyone is called to be a missionary where they are. Deep down there is a part in every human being to love others. There is not one thing that is better than the other.”
God calls Abigail to live and minister in Peru. She feels peace knowing her life after college will very likely be in Peru, caring for the children and people she has grown to love. Her wish is for everyone to connect with God and know where He needs them to carry out His mission of love.
“I’ve been teaching a lot of guitar. A month ago, I learned a new song, ‘Be Not Afraid,’” says Abigail. “I sing it every day. I truly believe this is the vocation song. The Lord is telling us we do not need to fear. No matter what he asks us to do, no matter who we leave behind, even if we lose our lives, He has chosen us for a special purpose and will stay with us. I was at Mass a couple weeks ago and the priest said something that hit me deeply. Yes, this year is a Year of Mercy, but it’s not just this year that we should practice mercy. In every moment, we should show mercy to others. Our lives need to be lives of joy and mercy. If we can do that, then our lives are beautiful.”
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Donate online or learn more about Casa Hogar at homeajpm.org