Don Bosco Visits Bolivia (and Casa Maín)

February 28 finally dawned – the day we had long been preparing for (which in Bolivian standards is actually about 2 weeks). An even greater event than the coming of the inspectora from Italy, the relic of St. John Bosco, the founder of the Salesians (the religious community that I serve with), was coming to visit Bolivia on it´s world-wide tour with it´s first Bolivian stop at Casa Maín. The gardens were trimmed and raked clean, banners were made, the floors were scrubbed, the basketball court was re-painted, flags were hand-crafted, balloons inflated and even new matching t-shirts for all the girls were ordered. The week previous, in place of the bell, the girls would wake up in the morning to the blaring CD of the songs they were to learn, and would practice them every night until about 10:30pm with the generally off-key band from the local parish. Every conversation at the table for the long 2 week prep time was surrounding Don Bosco (see NB below) and his eminent visit and the whole house was a general bustle of added activity of preparation. This was going to be big – bigger than anything we had seen yet at Casa Maín.
And so the day dawned. Sor Carmen Elena, the mother superior of the Salesian province that I work in had come in for the event, which coincidentally fell on her birthday. The day also happened to be the last of a two day visit from Adam, the director of the Salesian volunteer program that I work for. After a festive but slightly hurried breakfast, I was walking with Adam to the gate when the news came that Don Bosco was arriving two hours earlier than expected and therefore we needed to be ready, like, now (which is especially difficult news in a laid back country). The flurry quickened and any that were not preparing for Don Bosco were preparing for the big birthday lunch we were hosting for Sor Carmen. The rest of the morning passed in a hurry and the hour arrived when the sisters and a few girls were off to the airport for the welcoming ceremony. While they were mid-route another call came informing us that now the schedule was delayed and Don Bosco would not be arriving until very late that night and upon arrival would be detained by customs until the next morning: which goes to show that the inefficiency, corruption and disorganization of the Bolivian goverment is stong enough even to delay the plans of a Holy Saint. The rest of the afternoon passed in continued preparation (at a slower pace) and great anticipation as to whether or not the urn would still be coming to Casa Maín. Since the band was already set up, the balloons in place, the grounds looking more beautiful and clean than I have ever seen them, and the girls were in high spirits of great anticipation, we decided to have a party anyway still not knowing whether all of our preparations were to be a disappointment. Many people from the neighborhood and the parish came to see Don Bosco so the girls at least had an audience while they sang their long-practiced songs (complete with hand movements, of course) and did their long-practiced dance. Just as they finished the dance the confirmation call came that indeed Don Bosco would be coming the next morning and the girls errupted in loud cheers and right on cue the traditional bolivian dance party began (which means the girls stand in two lines facing each other and dance the traditional dances that they all seem to have been born knowing) and lasted until late hours.

And so the next day dawned. Bright and early, sometime before 7am all the girls were dressed in their new shirts and lined up for last minute intructions on how the event was to go. We stood in our places and awaited the arrival and practiced the songs one last time. And then, finally, the van showed up: the music began, we waved our flags and as the urn was lowered from the truck, an unexpected wave of emotion overcame me. The urn was wheeled out of the van and set in it´s place and the ceremony began. Sor Inés was the first to speak and her emotional, teary-eyed welcome nearly set us all to crying, I think. I was also asked to speak briefly on behalf of the volunteers. I hadn´t understood very well what was meant by “Don Bosco” coming and we were only told something about his arm being preserved, nor was I raised with a deep undertanding of how to honor relics, so every time I would think about what to say, I only became distracted by funny imagines of a detached arm waving at me. However, I pulled it together at the last minute and I think I spoke well. Everyone had a chance to pass by the urn, to touch it and to marvel at the significance of the moment. Then our time was up and Don Bosco had to be off to the next scheduled location. I was overwhelmed with indescribable emotion the entire time and I was mostly succeeding in appearing to hold myself together until the time came for the urn to be placed in the truck and for the truck to leave. Because during that time all of the girls were also overcome with emotion and I would look in their faces and see tears of sadness at saying goodbye to the relic of a Saint that they truly are bonded with as their leader, as their pápa and as their friend. We comforted the ones that didn´t run down the street after the van and at some point I just couldn´t hold the tears back anymore and cried along with the girls. Despite the tears, the overall ambience was one of great joy at such a moment of blessing and at some point in the crescendo of emotion Sor Inés decided that we were going to take all of the girls to the Mass at the cathedral later that morning. By the time we got there, the girls were exhausted and several of them fell asleep in the corner of the cathedral. There were so many people at the Mass that we could hardly see the urn, which made me all the more grateful for the tranquil and private hour we had had earlier that morning.

As the day wore on and the inevitable let down started to overcome me, I decided to go to Montero where Don Bosco were headed the next day and where Adam was visiting the Montero volunteers. So, I got to see Don Bosco yet again, but in a much more bombastic and pep-rally type setting. Yet, it was truly a providential moment for us as Salesian volunteers to be in Bolivia with our director when Don Bosco came to visit. I can´t say that even now I completely understand the honoring of relics, but I do know that we were blessed by the visit and that we all received special graces from the patron saint of our mission.

St. John Bosco, pray for us.

NB – when I refer to Don Bosco I mean the elaborate reliquery made of a crystal and aluminum urn that contains a likeness of the saint and his right arm bone.