The Unsung Work of Padre Manuel Freire

by Ken Wishnia

Mr. Wishnia, a free-lance writer whose home base is Setauket, New York, recently returned from a two-year stay in Ecuador.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 17-24, 1988, p. 737. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The author tells about what one Catholic priest is doing to improve the status of the undernourished and depraved children of the poor in the tropical seaport of Guayaquil in Ecuador.

Ecuador is an oil-producing country, and most of its wealthiest citizens are connected with the international oil community -- people who use gold credit cards, live in high-security mansions and drive Mercedes-Benzes. For the country’s poor, however, life is one long struggle to survive. Despite laws prohibiting the hiring of children under 15 years of age. the cities’ streets are filled with barefoot, unkempt youngsters peddling whatever it takes to bring home the equivalent of 25 cents a day. Public schools are free, or nearly so. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of parents cannot afford to lose the pittance that a four-year-old child can earn; thus even free primary education is an unaffordable luxury for many. The official minimum wage in Ecuador is 3,000 sucres per week, which works out to less than 600 sucres per day -- or $1.50 at the current exchange rate -- as the average work week is five and a half days.

Teachers in Ecuador’s public schools often must contend with overcrowding (60 students per class) , a dearth of books -- even at the university level -- and students fainting from hunger (according to the government’s own figures, half the nation’s children suffer from malnutrition)

One of the Ecuadorian cities that has more than its share of deprived, undernourished children is Guayaquil, a sweltering coastal metropolis of nearly 2 million inhabitants. Built on a former swamp, humid, tropical Guayaquil is pervaded by a festering stench that rises out of the sewer-like waters of the inlets that crisscross it. Drinking water is often unobtainable for a week at a stretch, so people store it in open tanks. But those tanks breed mosquitoes, and in recent months mosquitoes have brought an epidemic of dengue, a painful viral disease that has affected almost one-fourth of the city’s population. Government health officials have advised the people not to store water in open tanks, but they have no alternative.

Such is the world to which Padre Manuel Freire has given the past 20 years of his life, in an effort to bring affordable, relevant education to La Chala, an extremely poor neighborhood in Guayaquil.

Manuel Freire was born in 1924 in Solano, Ecuador, a tiny village high in the Andean province of Cañar. The ninth of ten children, he entered the Salesian seminary in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1940. His first assignment after ordination to the priesthood was in the city of Manta in the province of Manabi. The parish house there was so poor, he says, that "we went each day to the beach to pick up what the fishermen threw away and made our dinner from it. We lived that way for three years." (To this day he rarely eats fish.) Padre Freire is the administrator of two schools, the Instituto Stabile and the Colegio O’Neil. Coming from the healthier climate of the Ecuadorian Sierra, Freire does not like Guayaquil; but, he says, that is where he is needed most.

Built in 1967, the Institute Stabile was originally intended to house the homeless. In order for it to serve as an educational center, parts of it had to be rebuilt, and it was opened as a school (grades one through eight) for the first time in 1969. Since then, thousands of students have graduated from it.

In 1974 Freire began raising the money for a new school, the Colegio O’Neil (which includes secondary as well as elementary grade levels) "I found this spot and started to build on it. At that time, it was nothing but a garbage dump. There were no plants, nothing. We opened in 1975, but not with the whole complex; we started with only two classrooms, and for three years we added on to that. Every time we received some help, we would build a little more."

How did Freire come to choose education as his life’s work? "I used to belong to a Salesian community," he explained. This community is completely dedicated to teaching. But it was generally dedicated to the teaching of the rich. I taught in Riobamba, Quito and Cuenca, but always the students were from families who were more or less rich. And I feel -- coming from a poor family myself -- that I prefer to be among poor people. It’s much more satisfying, compared to what I was doing before. It’s much pleasanter to be helping the poor. They work hard, they are more open-minded, more receptive and much more appreciative. And I feel personally much more at home in this environment than with rich people. Because I have seen over the years how children who have had an opportunity to go to school now have a change to help themselves and others too. Just giving them handouts of money or food is not enough in itself. The salvation of our country is education. At the beginning of each school year I tell the students that we must help ourselves -- that we shouldn’t wait for the United States to come here with money, that if we don’t lift ourselves up, nobody will do it for us. And the way to lift ourselves up is to develop our minds."

Padre Freire went on to speak of the complications involved in dealing with people. "The interrelations between individuals are always the hardest part of building a school -- or anything. else, for that matter. To transform the students is always more difficult, and takes more time, than the actual building of a school’s physical structure. But this is also the work that is the most effective and rewarding, because what you do with a student on all levels -- Christian, developmental or intellectual -- is the work that lasts."

The padre admits, however, that his work is not always 100 per cent effective; progress is very slow, and there are a lot of failures. Every student who graduates constitutes a triumph; so few Ecuadorians complete college-level education that the title Licenciado ("One with a college degree") is still used in front of people’s names with as much solemnity as others might use "Doctor." Hence the motto of the Instituto Stabile: "Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.’’

Says Freire: The satisfaction is in seeing these children growing not only in height. but in every sense of the word -- developing a future for themselves, being good children and eventually good parents. They have the chance to progress much further than their parents could ever hope to do. To see that a child is following the right path, is building a better life and is able to continue his or her studies in a university -- that affords all the satisfaction in the world! My triumph is seeing the students triumph." When asked what part his faith plays in his efforts, Freire replied, "Without my faith, I could not do this type of work. I learned how to empathize with hardship when I was with the Salesians during a major part of my formative years, and this is what keeps me going. For there are many difficult moments, and they stem primarily from solitude. A priest is always alone. There are economic difficulties, as well as problems which arise due to people’s incomprehension: until you are established, people refuse to put their trust in you. They don’t know you. Now it’s easier. At the beginning no one liked me, because they thought that I had come to put them out of their homes, that I was going to take what little they had away from them. Now that the neighborhood families are sending their children to classes here, the situation is changing. At first they were afraid, because they have always associated priests with power. It does happen that the government comes and takes land away, especially from poor squatters without legal claims to the property. I received death threats . . .

"But the principal difficulty for me is the sheer immensity of the problem: all of the homes are in need of so much help, and what we are actually able to do is only a small part of what is needed. Compared to what needs to be done, what I am doing here is very little indeed. So sometimes I get discouraged, and I imagine how much would really be required to help all of the people around me to rise above their present condition, which is one of constant poverty and misery."

Guayaquil has a very large number of squatters, who invade landfills and build whatever type of dwelling they can. The largest of these squatter neighborhoods, El Guasmo, houses over 200,000 people within a vast network of unnamed, unmapped streets. The area has neither water nor telephones, and electricity is stolen, via occasionally fatal, jerry-rigged splices, from the power lines that pass overhead on their way to the busy commercial seaport. Sometimes the immense problems facing Padre Freire -- and all Guayaquil -- appear to be utterly unsolvable.

"If I did not have God as an intermediary in my life," Freire says, "I would have almost no reason for continuing. God gives me strength, and at the same time I believe that many are in fact benefiting from the small things that I am doing to help them, and that as a consequence things are changing for the better. The little that I can do is at least something -- and something is better than nothing."

Many of Freire’s students go on to trade schools -- such as SECAP (Servicio Ecuatoriano de Capacitación Profesional) , where in two years they can learn to become electricians. Some of them start their own small businesses, and many of them enroll in universities. Having new students with new problems each year breaks up the monotony, says the padre. Each year has its new personalities to adjust to and new worries: "Often it’s a matter of parents getting divorced or separated, or abandoning the children; another problem is that often the children who come to us are malnourished, or have other health problems that have not been properly treated. Last year we set up a tiny infirmary here, staffed with a doctor. But the medicines he prescribed were too expensive for the families to buy. So even though I had brought in a doctor who diagnosed the students’ ailments, telling them, ‘You need such-and-such medicine,’ many of them were unable to obtain it. This problem of health and malnutrition is one that cannot be allowed to continue, but neither can it be easily resolved. We need to find a way to restructure our system. We have to feed these children before we can educate them."

But adding a kitchen, or some kind of food service, to the schools "is going to be difficult," says Freire, "First of all, we would need to hire more people -- to cook, to serve, to clean up -- and of course we would need to build a place to put it all."

In terms of the future. Padre Freire has been thinking that the schoolchildren should derive some benefit from their winter vacation by spending some time at the seashore. The hottest months in Guayaquil are February, March and April, and schoolchildren have these months off. Owing to Guayaquil’s proximity to the equator (about 130 miles) , this season is called "winter." "The sea is always healthy," says Freire, but as a rule the children cannot go there because transportation is very expensive for them -- and once they were there, where would they stay? Hotel accommodations are out of the question. And of course they have to eat. So for them it is prohibitively expensive. The padre points out that although the people spend all of their lives on the coast -- Guayaquil is by far the busiest seaport in Ecuador -- many of them never see the ocean. "So if we built some dormitories in Playas, we could put up a busload of children for the night." Playas is the nearest beach town, about 65 miles from Guayaquil.

"I have been thinking that it would be a good idea to build a better school than the Instituto Stabile, which, to tell the truth," Freire acknowledges, "is quite ugly. But at present in Guayaquil it is very difficult to find a piece of property on which to build. It’s very expensive, and I do not think that I am likely to have either the time or the money to do that. But I am also thinking of building a small school in Playas -- attached to the dormitories, of course -- for the children of the fishermen."

I couldn’t help asking Padre Freire why the Bible in the institute’s chapel is in English. "That is to show the children that the word of God is the same in your country as it is here -- and so that people won’t steal it," he says, laughing.