In the January-February 2013 issue of Scarboro Missions magazine, Fr. Ron MacDonell writes: “In Brazil’s vast Amazon jungle at a place where the Amazon River is at its narrowest lies the small city of Itacoatiara, meaning ‘Painted Rock’ in the Tupi language. Five young Scarboro missionary priests arrived here in 1962 to begin their witness to Christ.” This was the beginning of Scarboro’s mission to Brazil. Celebrating the sacraments was the main focus of the priests who travelled by boat and canoe to the small towns and villages where the riverside dwellers eked out a living by farming cassava root and fishing.
In 1965, Scarboro Father Paul McHugh was appointed the first bishop of the newly created Prelacy of Itacoatiara. A prelacy is a new church region assigned to a religious congregation until it can be staffed with local clergy and become a diocese. That year, Bishop McHugh attended the last session of the Second Vatican Council in Rome. The central document of the council, Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) begins: “The joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the women and men of this age, especially the poor and those afflicted in any way, are the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the followers of Jesus Christ.”
These values affirmed by the council expanded the work that Scarboro missionaries did in the Amazon. They turned their attention to the problems affecting the people. The church, both religious and laity, became a prophetic voice in denouncing injustices and calling people to build more just social relations. Scarboro priests also founded an agricultural school for students from the rural villages near the town of Urucará. In 1978 the prelacy’s second bishop, Scarboro missionary George Marskell, continued to affirm the church’s social responsibility, particularly in defending the cause of landless people. Bishop Marskell served a term as National Vice-President of the Land Pastoral Commission of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference. Scarboro’s legacy lives on through the Bishop George Marskell Association founded by lay people after his death in 1998. The Association keeps alive the social Gospel of the church.
This vision of church lived out by both priest and lay missioners and local lay leaders is best described in the words of Bishop George when he addressed the People’s Assembly of the Prelacy of Itacoatiara in June 1998, just a month before he died. He said, “I know that all of you believe with me that our church is, and tends to be, more and more participative, more and more a church of solidarity. Only so can we become a church with the face of Jesus.”
Fr. Omar Dixon was the longest serving Brazil missioner. At the time of his death in May 2019 he had been retired from active pastoral ministry and living in the riverside community of Itapiranga in the Diocese of Itacoatiara where he is now buried.
Fr. Ron MacDonell is in Roraima where he continues his work in language revitalization among Indigenous peoples who struggle to protect their language and culture.