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Pope’s visit to Paraguay has significance for Frias

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — For Rosa E. Frias, the visit of Pope Francis to Paraguay July 10-12 takes on special significance now that her dream to open a clinic in her home of origin has come true.

“He is going to be a wonderful blessing to the people of Paraguay,” Frias said. “They need that. Paraguay suffers so much already.”

Pope Francis will visit Paraguay during his second a trip as pope to South America. He will also visit Bolivia and Ecuador. Frias hopes his visit will raise awareness of the plight of the poor, a plight that has grown even worse from the time she was growing up.

Children of Paraguay, a charity Frias founded nine years ago with the help of the Companions of the Cross here in Ottawa, has raised the money to open a fully equipped medical and a dental clinic in her home town of Limpio, which is about an hour’s drive from Paraguay’s capital Asuncion. The clinic opened its doors May 17 and the charity will continue to support the operating costs and proceed with the building of a community centre.

Frias said she hoped the pope would have a chance to visit the new clinic and bless it, but she understands his schedule will be very tight.

During an audience with Pope Francis on Sept. 24, 2014, with her husband of 40 years, Tito, Frias was able to tell the pope about the clinic, which at the time was meeting obstacles.

“He told me, ‘Do not worry, because Paraguayan people are very strong and God knows the project is his.’

“He said ‘Everything will be fine,’ and it happened!”

For Frias, the clinic’s opening is clearly a work of God, a project that she as an immigrant to Canada had no idea she could take on.

She came from a poor family that lived off the land. Her “very loving parents” had eight children. Her father had a Grade 3 education. Her mother, who had no education, traded food they grew for with the native people for blankets.

Frias came to Canada in 1970 at the age of 23 to work as a nanny. At the time, she had only a Grade 6 education.

Determined to make a better life for herself, she learned English and attended church regularly. It’s there she met Louis Ramone “Tito” Frias, who is originally from the Dominican Republic. He befriended her, showed her the ropes, and taught her to stand up for herself. He became her husband in 1974. She then trained to become a hairdresser and worked at that until the first of her two children were born.

Twenty-six years ago, Frias began going to St. Mary’s Church in Ottawa where Rev. Bob Bedard, the late founder of the Companions of the Cross, was pastor. She had been suffering from ill health for a long time, and in 1991 was diagnosed with breast cancer. “For sure, I knew I was going to die,” she said. She sobbed, wondering what would become of her children, who were still young. But in this crisis and suffering, Frias was able to turn her life over to Jesus Christ.

“He healed me. Then I started to know him, little by little after that,” she said. “And now I cannot live without him.”

Frias lived in Canada for 24 years before she could afford to visit Paraguay. By then both her beloved parents had passed away but the airport was full of friends and family who greeted her with love and hugs.

But Frias found her heart broken to see how much poverty had worsened. “It was really sad to see so much garbage around,” she said. “It wasn’t like that when I left.”

Hardly anything was familiar. The forest where she used to walk with her dad had been cut down to build houses. “I saw so many children in the street begging, with bare feet and torn clothes,” she said. “This was different from when I was young. You didn’t see really poor people because you could always count on your neighbour to give you some bread, fruit or veggies.”

Upon her returned, Frias finished high school, between raising her boys and working part time at a community centre daycare.

In 2003, she returned again. “The poverty was worse than in 1995,” she said.

When she got on the bus to visit her sister, a child of about six years old boarded trying to sell pencils and erasers, “anything she could carry.”

Her feet were bare; her clothes dirty and her hair “had not been combed in years,” Frias said.

“Why aren’t you in school?” Frias asked the girl. “My mom just had a baby and I need to make money to buy food and milk, otherwise the baby will die,” the girl said.

“By this time I was just shocked,” she said. “Tears were rolling down my face. O my God, what has happened to this country? Why does Canada have so much and they don’t have anything?”

She started to give money away and hugs to the poor children she kept meeting. “So my sister said to me, ‘You are going to die here if you keep doing this.’ ”

That evening, at supper, her brother-in-law asked if she would help him raise the money to build a Quincho in the community. It’s a facility with a roof but open on the sides for barbecues and parties and get togethers. “I said to him, ‘The Canadian people will not give you any money for that.’

“If you give me part of the land to build a clinic and a community centre, I will help you,” she said.

She returned to Canada, continued going to school, and working part time. She told the student counsellor Jane Forest her dream of starting a clinic, and the counsellor gave her some advice on how to get the project started.

In 2005, when she finished school, she approached Bedard, because she was having trouble obtaining charitable status. He suggested going through the Companions of the Cross, and sent her to Rev. Francis Donnelly who was then in charge of missions for the poor, including some work in Peru.

With help from Forest, she went to order was ready to issue charitable receipts for the Children of Paraguay charity.

Frias then started holding an annual variety show to raise money. The first raised $4,000. Three years ago, she added a spring walkathon because the variety show was not raising enough money. In nine years, Children of Paraguay raised more than $126,000. This spring’s walkathon had 41 walkers and raised more than $6,000.

Meanwhile, her brother-in-law was working with some ex-seminarians to line up the dentists and doctors who would volunteer their services at the clinic. The charity will pay a nurse and a receptionist, and will need to raise about $500 a month for their salaries, Frias said.

“So many times there was disappointment after disappointment; block after block,” Frias said. “I asked the Lord, do you want me to quit? And every time I asked him, he brought me more joy in my heart and he would bring people to me to help me. Because I asked him, Lord, I am little; I cannot do it on my own. This is your project, please help me and bring people to help me.”

In 2011, Frias went on a mission trip to Paraguay let by Companion Father David Bergeron where they saw the clinic being built, all by hand, and assisted in the cleanup of the site. “It was just unbelievable. We are here to do this!” Frias recalled.

“I can still feel the warm welcome, how they called, Viva!” she said. “The children would follow us all over the place.”

Frias said she taught the children how to keep the area clean. She put garbage cans around and showed them where to put the trash. “I bribed them,” she said. “I got candy. I told them if I see garbage there would be no candy.”

“A week after, you should see the place!” she said.

The clinic’s grounds include a Quincho, as she had promised her brother-in-law, as well as a soccer field. The project now enters a second phase, she said, which includes the building of the community centre where people can be taught how to sew, to cook and to become self-sufficient. It will also have a bedroom for the volunteer doctors and dentists to stay in, she said.

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