A Parish Priest Battles Poverty in Peru

By Josh Stowe '01
Notre Dame Alumni Association

When Rev. Joseph Uhen ’80 makes the rounds in his diocese of Piura, Peru, he savors the impact that he and his team have made in the lives of so many needy people.

Families who once went hungry have food on their tables. Drug addicts who received treatment have turned their lives around and now work for the Church. And farmers who almost lost their land now have the money and knowledge they need to support themselves.

These changes have unfolded in the two decades since Father Uhen arrived and began working to help the city’s neediest people, a vocation he uncovered during his time as a student at Notre Dame.

“It’s been a privilege living here that God has given me this kind of life,” Father Uhen says. “And it was something that took root at Notre Dame. I’m very grateful to ND for that experience.”

Discovering a Mission to Serve the Poor

Father Uhen’s vocation was a natural choice after his undergraduate experience at Notre Dame, where he absorbed the importance of faith and service. After starting out as a Business major, he switched to Psychology. He knew he wanted to help people, and he credits Notre Dame’s environment with preparing him for service work.

“What a great education, what a great place of faith, and also a great place to open our eyes to the other peoples of the world who don’t have the same opportunities, who live in underdeveloped circumstances,” Father Uhen says.

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., was a strong influence on him.

“Father Hesburgh was very close to us and would talk to us and speak from the heart,” he says. “So that was very powerful. I know the Lord used him to help me see a lot of things. I remember in a Mass toward end of senior year, Father Ted said to appreciate what you have. He told us that while about 20 percent of the world’s population enjoys 80 percent of its resources, 80 percent of its population enjoys only 20 percent of its resources.”

Father Uhen also drew inspiration from prominent Catholics who worked to alleviate poverty. During his senior year, Mother Teresa won a Nobel Prize for her work on behalf of the poor in Calcutta, India, and Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador, a social justice advocate, was assassinated.  

“My mission was pretty clear,” Father Uhen says. “I should dedicate my life to serving others, especially the poor—and if possible, the poor in an underdeveloped country.”

The next decade saw him further develop this passion. After graduating, he first worked at the University of Portland, where he helped connect students with the poor. Later, he spent three years in Oklahoma helping a parish tackle pastoral problems. During a three-month stint in Mexico, he learned Spanish and experienced another culture. Then, in 1985, he volunteered with the Missionary of Charity sisters in the South Bronx, where he saw the power a priest could have in helping the poor. He studied to be a priest, came to Peru in 1993, and was ordained two years later.

Making a Difference

When he arrived in Peru, Father Uhen was touched by the strong faith he witnessed amidst staggering poverty.

“People lived in bamboo homes with dirt floors working odd jobs. Grown men were weeping because they hadn’t fed their kids for the past two days,” he says. “To see people of faith struggling with their needs was very powerful. I was seeing right before my eyes that suffering and that reality—and the need to do something about it.”


Father Uhen quickly got to work to help tackle the systemic poverty with programs that targeted specific needs. He now leads a team of about 30 employees—lawyers, doctors, nurses, social workers, and therapists—who help the Church deliver a variety of services.

“We’ve been able to put together a team as a parish that can help serve the entire city,” he says. “That kind of stability has allowed these programs over 22 years to develop into what they are now.”

Hunger is a pressing problem, so the team started a family-to-family food program that allows donor families to help feed Piura’s hungriest for $25 a month. Donors receive letters and photos from the families they help, and about 1,750 local families currently benefit, Father Uhen says. “Really, it’s a relationship of hope. Prayers are being answered.”

Domestic violence is all too common, so Father Uhen and his team built refuge for victims. Drug addiction is widespread, so they created a drug rehab center that serves up to 20 men at a time—most of them recovering from crack cocaine addiction. Graduates of the program have gone on to work for the diocese.

The team also operates a hospice, complete with 24-hour nursing care, and they built a school in a poor neighborhood that serves 900 students. A year ago, the team started a trade school that aims to give people much-needed job training.


In addition, Father Uhen has spearheaded a program to help farmers in the area. Decades ago, a well-intentioned government program redistributed more than 20 million acres to Peru’s poor, many of whom lacked the money and management savvy to run their own farms. The program Father Uhen runs has raised some $300,000 for education and for micro-loans that allow farmers to buy seed. So far, it has helped more than 250 farmers keep their land and begin to make a sustainable living.

Father Uhen is quick to credit God and his fellow team members for crafting solutions that have made a tangible difference in people’s lives.

“We can really thank the Holy Spirit,” he says. “Really, everyone has continued to help form this team.”

Connecting Campus and the Community

Father Uhen and his team haven’t done their work alone. Over the years, he has invited countless friends and acquaintances to do service work in Piura. A former Notre Dame roommate who works as an urologist sees patients during his visits. Other doctors have performed hernia surgeries and removed cataracts, and volunteers have helped distribute food.

“Many friends and Notre Dame students and alumni have come here,” Uhen says. “A nice bridge has been formed between the area and people interested in helping. Now we have over 700 visitors a year come down from North America. They’re very generous with their time, talents, and treasure.”

Father Uhen nourishes these connections during his annual visits to parishes in Milwaukee, his hometown, and in Oklahoma, where he worked before coming to Peru. And he shares details about his work with Notre Dame classmates when he visits for his class Reunion or the occasional football game.

He sees his work, and his ability to build connections between Notre Dame’s campus and Piura, as a blessing.

“I just came down here to be a good Catholic pastor in a diocese in which many of the people are struggling with poverty and want a chance to develop their own vocations,” he says. “Poverty is an evil that can make it very difficult for people to develop their gifts. And that causes another form of suffering. How painful to know that ‘I could do that, I believe that God has given me the potential, I just don’t have the circumstances.’ So it’s exciting to try and provide some of that and to see people grow and develop.”



Giving the Gift of Sight

Dr. Bill Hurd ’69 has been many things over the course of his life: an elite student, a record-setting sprinter, an inventive entrepreneur, a successful ophthalmologist. Most inspiring, he’s been a servant to those in need, traveling internationally to impoverished areas to offer free—and often life-changing—eye care. Learn more:

Healing Hands, Clean Water Change Lives in Uganda

By Julie Sobel

Amy (Facinelli) Stone ’84 went all out for her husband Lincoln’s ’86 J.D. 50th birthday: She had a well drilled in his honor in rural Uganda.

Not exactly your typical birthday splurge. But helping people in remote villages access clean water is something the Stones are passionate about—and just one piece of the work Amy has done through Hope 4 Kids International, a Christian non-profit group that works to help children living in poverty around the world.


In 2010, Amy had recently retired as an emergency physician when a friend from church told her that Hope 4 Kids needed doctors for an upcoming mission trip to Uganda. Amy, her husband, and their son went "kind of blindly on this trip with 25-30 people that we had never met,” says Amy. “And then became really inspired by all that they do.” For the last six years, the Stones have journeyed to Tororo, Uganda on the organization’s two-week mission trips annually, with plans to return again this summer. While the organization works all over the world, the Stones always return to Uganda because of the relationships they’ve formed there.

Amy has focused on medical outreach during her six trips to Uganda. Hope 4 Kids partners with local clinicians on the ground and sets up in clinics or sometimes even under trees, shifting position as the sun moves. Hundreds of people show up and wait as long as they need to for the chance to see an American doctor. She sees a lot of malaria. They treat a lot of open wounds because many people aren’t wearing shoes, and things don’t heal properly.

For Lincoln, who has been on every trip with Amy, it’s gratifying to see her put her medical skills to help those desperately in need.

"People might say 'oh, you're not really fixing anything over there, you're there for a couple weeks,’” says Lincoln. “And to some extent that's true. On the other hand, if you were to interview those people and ask them why they walked a couple of hours, or ten miles, to sit in the hot sun for three hours, to wait to be tended to or just listened to, I think you would come to a different conclusion.”

The need for doctors and medicine in poverty-stricken areas is obvious, but Amy, who had previously done medical outreach clinics in Tijuana, is adamant that one doesn’t need a medical degree, or even a specific skill, to go out and have an impact. “They give people a way to do things,” she says of Hope 4 Kids, noting that she thinks many people would love to go somewhere and help but are unsure who they can trust or what they can really do. “There’s so much you can do. And just visiting them, and loving them, gives them hope. Even if you don't have a skill you can do that."

High school students have come along on medical outreach trips and done organizational tasks like checking people in. The Stones’ son has painted a school. They’ve built ovens. The family has sponsored two children through Kids 4 Hope, and their kids visit with them and play basketball together.

“People say ‘oh, you can take your kids, you can show them how good they have it,’” says Amy. “But to me, it's more to show them that people around the world are really all the same. They want the same things. The mothers want the best for their children. The children just want to play. They want to be happy; they want to be healthy.”


The experience isn’t always uplifting. “The first year I went I thought, I can't fix everything,” says Amy. “It's depressing, almost, at the end of the day—you saw 300 people this day, but there were 300 people that didn't get seen. So that's discouraging. But you have to say, well, I did what I could and what I could take care of I tried to do well.”

A particularly upsetting experience came when they tried to save three severely malnourished children. They raised money to send them to a hospital and get them on a feeding program, but one of the children ultimately didn’t make it. “To me that was really devastating,” says Amy. “Because I thought, we can come in here with all our money, and all our care and all that, but we can't fix it all.”

Amy won’t try to convince people to travel to Uganda, she says, because the experience is challenging. “I don't think it's something you should talk people into doing, because it's not easy, and if they're not ready, they shouldn't do it,” she explains.

“But we love what it's done to our family,” she adds, emphasizing the importance to her and Lincoln of serving as a family and instilling in their three kids the importance of serving the poor. “Our kids just have a better view of the world in general. And how other people live.”

“You can have your life,” Amy says, “and then have two weeks and go and do something really life-changing. You can.”

Even those who can’t or don’t want to go on a trip can help, she notes. Their church has a meeting every year to see if people want to join the trip, and over the past five years about 30 people have come. But they’ve also had a high school student organize a Walk 4 Water to raise money for wells, and the church has raised money for two additional wells. Lincoln’s stories about Uganda inspired one of his clients to donate money for several more wells over the last few years.

The Stone family recently sponsored another well, for her father’s 80th birthday. Amy describes going to the well dedications as an incredible experience. “You show up and the people are running, and singing, and welcoming you—you see how grateful they are for just the gift of having clean water,” she says. “It makes such a big difference in their health. And we've seen that over the six years. We go back to the villages when they have wells, and they're healthier and people are living longer.”


Share Your Stories

Do you know Notre Dame alumni and friends who serve as forces for good somewhere around the world? Share their inspiring stories with the rest of the Notre Dame family on Facebook!