01-06-2009 - Traces, n. 6


“La Brianza”
in Paraguay

From charitable work in a juvenile detention center to a real carpentry business, thanks to the help of an Italian carpenter and the two containers of machinery he sent from across the sea.  

by Stefano Regondi

Here in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, young men just out of prison, clinging to a new friendship, have begun to work with their hands, building furniture and chairs (maybe not high design but, nonetheless, well-made objects).  In this land, Giovanna Tagliabue, a Memores Domini member, has been working since 1987 as an educator and nurse. She was here in the capital in 1994 when the charitable work in the Panchito López Juvenile Detention center began with young men without families, between the ages of 13 and 17. Every Sunday, a small group of young workers of the Movement in Asunción, including Pedro, did an hour of catechism on the Spanish translation of Traces of Christian Experience by Fr. Giussani and, out of this, a friendship was born. Between one Sunday and the next, a powerful need emerged to truly educate these young men, so that once they were released from prison they could avoid returning to the fighting, stealing, and murders of their former lives. The group decided to start a serious project, the Virgen de Caacupé Halfway House for minors, named after one of the country’s main shrines. “We welcomed them to the home, and then looked for  jobs for them as gardeners, supermarket clerks, or the like. The important thing was to work. Now there are twelve young men,” says Giovanna. The road to creating this home was torturous, especially because of the economic difficulties. This, above all, affected Pedro, who was seeking some guarantee of a regular paycheck that, after a great deal of insistence, finally came from the Health Ministry, which granted him a monthly salary and acknowledged his social commitment.

The guys at work. And so the story continued. They tried to improve the quality of work, looking for new jobs for the young men, and an idea took shape: “We set up a carpentry workshop here in San Lorenzo, right in the center of the city,” says Giovanna. “I bought some machines for building furniture and asked my brother Luigi, who has always worked as a carpenter, to come visit me from Brianza, Italy, and take a look at how we were working.” In May of 2006, Luigi crossed the sea separating him from his sister, and stayed two months. “Giovanna asked me to go there to give it a look-see. I got them started on this work by teaching workshop safety, giving them very rigid instructions. Then I had them begin with some small jobs. What I saw there, though, was too obsolete. Their instruments weren’t even used in my grandfather’s time.” When he returned home, wonderstruck by the goodness of the charitable work, he decided to donate some of his family company’s used machinery. “With the machines they had, in addition to the risk of getting badly hurt, they couldn’t learn anything and, above all, couldn’t make anything beautiful. So I sent a container of instruments that for them were fifty years ahead of their time. Here in Italy, everything is electronic, and those machines weren’t usable anymore, but for them…” When the container arrived, the kids immediately took advantage of the new equipment, and even before all the packing material was removed, they were already at work, under the careful eye of the architect Carolina Esteche, who follows all the projects of this unusual carpentry workshop called “La Brianza.” The sounds of hammers and planers punctuate the hours and the young men care attentively for every little detail. Here, Charles Péguy’s words take on flesh: “Every unseen part of the chair was crafted with the same perfection as the visible parts, according to the same principle of the cathedrals.” Luigi adds, “I’ve seen photos of the kid’s work, and I have to say that they’re beginning to make some beautiful things. With time, they’re starting to get good.”
Although the halfway house, also built with care for every detail, is twenty miles from the center of the city, fenced in, and in the middle of a forest, sometimes some minors will run away. As the Brianzan carpenter recounts, “The problem is that then they have to be given back into the hands of the official criminal justice system.”

Another load. He says this with emotion, as if thinking of a wasted opportunity. Then he speaks about the days he spent in Paraguay: “You see that they’ve encountered something that has given their lives hope. It’s incredible how they obey Pedro. He proposes praying, and they do it. He invites them to Mass, and they follow him without ever rebelling. A couple of times, we took the van that doesn’t hold more than six people and went to the Shrine of the Virgen de Caacupé to pray. It struck me. Some of these guys have even committed murder. And yet, with Pedro and the others, they’re changing.” This story has changed Luigi, too. When he retired, he had to close his workshop. Rather than just sell his machinery to a nearby firm, he packed it all up and sent a second container to Paraguay. “I even sent them a hydraulic press, with surfaces a yard by a yard and a half. Maybe it’s too much for them, but it’s better this way. They can start to work really well.”