Former student brings area Maryknoll priest back into the spotlight

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff

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MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — The Anchor often gets its stories in press releases from schools or organizations, individuals calling and asking the paper to send a reporter to cover an event, or emails from random folks thinking the paper may be interested in doing a story on something they found attention-grabbing and worthwhile.

Then there’s Frederick Murga, a California resident whose innocent inquiry about a long dead priest uncovered a lasting legacy by a local son done good.

That isn’t to say there hadn’t already been articles written about the late Father John “Red” Lawler, M.M., but it’s hard to stay relevant when you’ve been dead since 1977. But after speaking to Murga and hearing his story, this reporter did some digging in The Anchor archives and combined with Murga’s interview, will help shine a light once again on the Maryknoll priest who left a permanent impact on the impoverished people of Lima, Peru.

One of the first associations Catholics have with Lima, Peru, is St. Rose of Lima, the first person born in the Americas to become a canonized saint in the Catholic Church. So deep was her desire to live the life of Christ, she spent most of her time at home in solitude. During the last few years of her life, St. Rose set up a room in the house where she cared for homeless children, the elderly and the sick. This was a beginning of social services in Peru. It seems fitting, then, that when Father Lawler was assigned to South America more than 300 years later, he would name a parish and the first parochial school in Lima after her.

Born in Preston, England on Christmas Eve in 1915, Father Lawler’s parents moved to New Bedford when he was still young. He attended Holy Family High School, entered Maryknoll in 1933, and upon completion of his studies in 1942, he was ordained and assigned to Bolivia — one of the first Maryknoll missionaries assigned to South America. He founded a Maryknoll school in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and was also the founder of St. Anne Parish in Cala Cala, a residential area of the city. 

But Father Lawler left his true legacy to the people of South America when he was transferred to Lima, Peru in 1951, and established a parish, and then built a parochial school — the first in Peru — that served double duty as a school and temporary church. The parish expanded so rapidly that in 1963, Father Lawler wrote to Bishop John W. Comber, M.M., then-superior general of the Maryknoll order, that his completed church now had more than 7,000 assisting at Mass.

By 1960, Father Lawler was putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive parochial complex that included grade and high school buildings, rectory, convent, auditorium and a social service center. In August of that year, and on the feast of St. Rose of Lima, he joined with Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston in dedicating Lima’s first church named in honor of St. Rose.

“Today the Church in Latin America is placing it emphasis on the building up of the native clergy,” said Father Lawler in an Anchor article during a surprise visit he made back home to New Bedford in October 1960. “The Spanish conquistadors brought their own clergy from Spain. Then fewer Spanish priests came to the country and there were few native clergy.”

At the time of the article, Father Lawler had just completed building the school in Peru and hoped “to start a native sisterhood in Lima, dedicated to teaching in the parochial schools.” 

He continued to be active in Lima, even as his health deteriorated. Father Lawler passed away on Jan. 13, 1977, at age 61, with his Funeral Mass held at his beloved parish the next day.

Murga was born in Lima and attended St. Rose of Lima School from 1973-1983, and then the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, graduating in 1990. He stayed in Peru until 2004, and then immigrated to the United States, settling in Monterey Park and eventually becoming a real estate agent. 

St. Rose of Lima School was bilingual, and coed, recalled Murga, “and we had a very active life in the school; our activities, trips to different companies, visiting to learn about nature — we were always under the cover of our parents association, and teachers were very involved in our education.”

Father Lawler died when Murga was in his fourth year at the school, and Murga never forgot the impact the Maryknoll staff members had on him as a student. Murga used social media to reach out and contact his former schoolmates in 2013 through a Facebook page set up for alumni. Murga also felt compelled to begin research on the Maryknoll order and its history, “but when they referred to the Maryknollers in Peru, the line about Father Lawler was very short,” Murga said. “His name was kind of buried in the shadows.”

Murga began to look online for more information on Father Lawler, saying that when the priest arrived in Peru, he wanted to create the same model of a Catholic parish with a corresponding school, just like the United States had, said Murga; “He started building up a school and then the parish. The magic of Father John is that when he arrived, he received a lot of good intentions and good ideas, but nobody had the resources. He started doing fund raising and talking with everyone, and he was able to convince government officials, clergy, neighbors of where the school and parish would be built up, and Americans living in Lima — he started convincing them to create this American-style school with a high level of education in a neighborhood that was still young, where poor families were trying to live. That was the success of Father John.”

Murga traveled to Peru to research more on the priest, and many of the stories he heard about Father Lawler were mainly through word-of-mouth, but “the school seemed to be forgetting his story. They refer to Father John as the founder, but that’s it,” said Murga. “All the works and the achievements he did are in booklets, but the students don’t know all that he did.”

Murga continues to pile up research on Father Lawler, and hopes to write a book that fills in the details of the priest’s life and his accomplishments but because he has limited resources, he’s acquiring his information piecemeal through emails, social media and online research.

St. Rose of Lima School will also be celebrating its founder on what would have been his 100th birthday with a Mass at St. Rose of Lima Parish on December 23, with a gathering afterwards in the school auditorium, and on December 24, there will be a pilgrimage to Father Lawler’s tomb at the British Cemetery in Callao, Peru. 

Murga hopes his book will help highlight all that Father Lawler did for his people, not just for the education of the youth, but for the entire faith-filled community of his parish. Father Lawler was a leader who was humble about his achievements, and Murga feels “that’s the reason all the references about him are low profile and in the shadows; he didn’t want everyone talking about him. He was always a man of God, a missionary; he was always focusing on the parishioners, helping them.”

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