The central plaza of the city of Oaxaca in the mountains of Southern Mexico is the heart of this colonial community. Its central gazebo is surrounded by spreading oaks which shade the park benches where women with grey rebosos wrapped around their shoulders watch their little ones toddling off in pursuit of the ever moving pigeons.
On the day I want to tell you about, hopeful shoeshine boys made their way among the diners at the several outdoor restaurants around the plaza. It was nearly 11 am and the bright Oaxacan sun was already heating things up.
I was sitting at one of those restaurants drinking coffee and eating pan dulce with a priest friend of mine. It was 1975 and we were simply passing through Oaxaca on vacation when I saw him.
Padre Francis Pfieffer, OMI didn’t look much like a priest. The forty-something padre, dressed in work clothes and wearing a battered hat, was arranging and securing sixty-gallon drums on the back of his truck with thick ropes.
He was the sturdy kind of a man that you’d expect to find baling hay on a farm and in fact, his truck was the size of what we in the Missouri Ozarks used to call “hay trucks.” Its bed was raised a good two feet above the axles with their heavy, oversize tires.
I had met Ted Pfieffer two years before at a retreat for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in San Antonio. I’d only been ordained a few years and when I heard Ted speak of the mountains of Oaxaca and the indigenous people he served, I was captivated. This man was not only serving the spiritual needs of these people but also trying to apply medical principles to help heal the people of their physical diseases.
I remember he had been particularly affected by the indigenous women who were giving birth without benefit of any medical help in the remote mountains. Complications during labor often led to the death of both baby and mother.
In the late ’60s, Padre Ted was determined to try to minister as a spiritual and physical healer. Eventually, he built a clinic and learned how to assist in deliveries. He even hired doctors to come up from a distant medical school to teach him and a band of “paramedicos” how to assist with deliveries and medical emergencies.
What a coincidence! My priest friend and I were just passing through Oaxaca on our way to Guatamala. I had no idea Ted would be in town and he had no way of knowing that I would be there.
Now, he was getting ready to leave the plaza when I ran up to him re-introduced myself and asked him to have a cup of coffee with us before he left. He was ready, he said, to go back up into the mountains with several hundred gallons of gasoline roped around the dusty bed and sideboards of his truck. His truck was scarred and dented, its red paint faded and pealing from years in the brutal sun of the southern mountains.
“I am a moving bomb,” he said. The Oaxacan roads have to be among the worst in Mexico. They are rocky paths sometimes, and dirt lanes hugging sides of mountains at other times. Lots of vehicles tumble down the mountain sides each year when roads simply give way after years of neglected maintenance.
“I can come down only during the dry season so I have to buy enough gas to last me for the six months of the rainy season when I can’t get back here because the roads are so bad,” he said.
We talked for less than an hour but Ted needed to get going so we said easy good-byes and watched him drive out of the square along the main road leading out of town.
I’d think of him occasionally throughout the years and wonder why I could not do something similar. I had always felt that the vocation of priesthood was a call to heal the broken hearted. To me, that still means healing of body and spirit. Since the age of thirteen, I felt the call to study for the priesthood and to become a physician.
I made several attempts early in my priesthood to attend medical school but it didn’t work out. It wasn’t until the Congregation of the Resurrection, my religious community, began thinking of establishing a mission in Mexico that I had the opportunity to go for medical training with the intent to practice somewhere in Mexico. By that time, I was fifty-two. Too late, for medical school but not for mid-level practitioner school . Study for the profession of physician assistant would give me the tools I needed to practice medicine.
It was 1992 when I finally started physician assistant school and in 1995 I joined two priest friends at our new mission in, of all places, Oaxaca.
We established a clinic there in one of the poorer zones of Oaxaca City and along with my priestly duties, I saw patients most days. All the while I was hoping that I would one day get to see how Father Ted was doing. But, he was in another diocese in the state of Oaxaca and a trip out to see him might have taken two days, some of that travel by horse.
Occasionally, I’d ask someone about him and hear that yes he was still out there in the mountains and still trying to bring the Gospel to the poor, the essence of the Oblate charism.
Now it is 2009 and I am on sabbatical in San Antonio at the Oblate School of Theology. I asked about Ted and the school secretary looked him up in the community roster and couldn’t find him. The news that she was fairly certain that he had died a few years ago saddened me.
But, I kept asking around and Father Collette, on staff there at the Oblate School told me that Ted was alive, here in the States and now retired. He was a five minute walk from where I was staying. He was living at the Madonna House, a retirement home for Oblates.
But, I knew he wouldn’t remember me. After all, it had been nearly thirty-five years since I bumped into him in Oaxaca. He wouldn’t remember me.Why should I run the risk of upsetting him or putting him in an awkward position, I thought. It was two months after that when I finally got up the nerve to visit him
I telephoned him and he invited me to lunch. He was old, of course, but I’m not exactly the youth he’d met thirty-five years ago, either. I didn’t expect him to remember me and, of course, he didn’t.
He’s had a stroke which has left him with his peripheral vision impaired, some deficits of memory and his ability to read is affected. However, he had no problems maintaining a conversation and brightened as he recalled details of his forty-seven years in Mexico.
“Six or seven babies who I delivered have grown up here in San Antonio and we keep in contact,” he said. “Others I’ve baptised and they come to see me,too.” He seemed proud of that relationship. And, I thought, here is a man who never had his own children enjoying those he had helped to be born both physically and spiritually.
I told him that I came to thank him for inspiring me those many years ago and that I might not have gone to medical school had I not met him. Nor, would I have become a missionary in Oaxaca.
He seemed to take the compliment with such ease that I thought he didn’t understand me. So I tried again later in the conversation to thank the man whom God had led me to meet and never forget.
After an hour at lunch it was time to leave. He walked me to the gate surrounding his residence and he mentioned that he’s working a bit these days in the garden . “I like to work with my hands,” he said. “I go out to hear confessions several times a week, too.” He hopes that his vision improves so he can drive again and get some of his independence back.
Just before he opened the gate for me. I thanked him again. Then, he opened his arms and invited an embrace. We hugged briefly and he thanked me for coming.
Walking back along a narrow path through the park-like campus of the Oblate center, a blackbird suddenly flew up and away from me as I passed him. He had been perched on a low post and apparently hadn’t seen me until the last second. He startled me with a rush of wings when I was only three or four feet from him. “You waited a long time before you decided to move,” I said out loud.Then it occurred to me: I guess I did, too.