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Robin Huebner, Published September 21 2012

Robin Huebner reports: North Dakota priest aims to stay closer to his South American parish

FARGO - A white sign with simple blue lettering hangs on a worn brick wall inside the Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish compound in Chimbote, Peru.

In Spanish, it reads “Mi cansancio que a otros descance.” The English translation is “My tiredness that others may rest.”

Borrowed from a Spanish hymn, the phrase epitomizes the work of the parish’s spiritual leader, the Rev. Jack Davis.

The North Dakota man’s selflessness has affected and inspired many others all over the world in many different ways. Together, they help carry out Father Jack’s mission. Now, he’s in the midst of another push for assistance that he hopes will keep him closer to the community he wants to serve until he dies.

“I’m hoping to be allowed to die in Chimbote,” he said. “Up in the sand cemetery… I want to be buried there.”

Born in Devils Lake and ordained in the Fargo Catholic Diocese, the Rev. Jack Davis left Nativity Church in Fargo for Chimbote in 1974.

The Peruvian city still was reeling from a massive earthquake that left 60,000 dead five years earlier. At the time, Father Jack only planned to stay a short while. But 38 years later, he has no intention of leaving.

At age 70, he ministers daily in this parish of 30,000, with sunrise walks through the barrios, morning prayer and evening Mass. He presides over countless funerals for people who died from easily preventable diseases and violent crimes perpetuated by poverty. And, he’s been stabbed, robbed at gunpoint and singled out for execution by terrorists.

That pace, and that setting rife with turmoil and heartbreak, would make many people want to give up. But like the line from the hymn posted on the brick wall, Father Jack looks at it differently.

“When I would sing that song, I realized this phrase meant so much,” he said. “When I get tired, discouraged, depressed, overwhelmed, I try to remember that my tiredness means other people’s burdens are less.”

Much of that tiredness comes from time spent in airports and airplanes. He and Sister Peggy Byrne, who joined him at the Chimbote parish in 1985, log thousands of travel hours each year to raise funds for parish programs. Both were in Fargo on Thursday night for the “Friends of Chimbote Gala,” attended by 450 people. They will travel to Bloomington, Minn., next week for a similar event.

“Supporting us financially or spiritually means the burden is shared. Sharing in suffering also means sharing in hope,” he said.

While Father Jack cherishes seeing friends on his trips, it’s a part of his work he’d like to back away from. The travel is taxing and pulls him away from the parish, he said.

At the same time, he’s not willing to compromise on donation-supported parish programs he says are crucial.

“Our goal is to help poor people in Chimbote get an education as a road out of poverty. Parents in Chimbote want the same for their children as parents in North Dakota do. They want a good life for their children,” he said.

Many of the programs are aimed at that goal.

Children suffering from malnutrition can’t study. “That’s why we have soup kitchens,” he said.

Children with typhoid or diarrhea can’t study, and 70 percent of those served at the parish’s medical post are children.

“When you have children sleeping on the ground covered with rodents, they can’t get a good night’s sleep,” Father Jack said. “And if they can’t sleep, they can’t study.” So volunteers buy beds and mattresses.

Many youth don’t have tables, chairs or electricity at home. “That’s why we have libraries where they can study,” he said, as well as tutors for students whose parents can’t help with homework because they can’t read or write.

He hopes the events in Fargo and Bloomington bring in enough money so the nonprofit Friends of Chimbote can secure the resources to keep Father Jack’s legacy going, without all the travel. It would give him more time to do what he loves – ministering to the people.

“The resiliency of the poor is something that’s outstanding. They have so little material things, yet they have great faith,” he said. “There’s a sense of optimism, a certain joy, they’re very appreciative.”

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