Amid El Salvador Turmoil, Irma Chavez Discovers Faith to Touch Souls

Melissa McNally, Staff Writer, The Catholic Advocate

NEWARK-It would be profoundly accurate to say Dr. Irma Chavez is fluent in many fields: languages, academics, international relations and a broad spectrum of spiritual outreach encounters.

Working with Plainfield-based RENEW International for the past 25 years in areas such as her native El Salvador, Chavez has been to the poorest communities in Central America, spreading the Gospel. Interaction with dangerous young gang members in rural El Salvador is a far cry from her previous role traveling the globe as a diplomat's wife, college professor and poet.

Born to an Irish-American mother and a Nicaraguan/Spanish father in Cojutepeque, El Salvador, Chavez speaks Spanish, English, Italian, French and German. She was educated in Europe, earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Bologna, Italy, and master's degree in theology from Saint John's University, New York.

Chavez and her husband, Waldo Chavez Velasco, were married in front of the tomb of Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy. Although a significant Catholic landmark, Chavez, at the time, was not devoutly religious. "I was only a social Catholic," she confessed. "I never had a Bible in my hand. The notion of God was very far way from me. I was always a career-oriented person."

Her husband, who passed away three years ago, was a lawyer and diplomat who worked in Europe and America. While negotiating a busy social calendar, she taught philosophy at the National University in El Salvador and was the founding director of National Education TV. Chavez's home country was wracked by civil war from 1980 to 1992.

The Salvadoran Civil War predominantly was fought between the government of El Salvador against a coalition of four leftist guerrilla groups and one communist group known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The violent insurgency began in the 1970s and the United States supported the Salvadoran government. In total, the civil war killed 75,000 people.

While working in El Salvador, Chavez had a "Paul-at-Damascus experience," a spiritual awakening where she felt a yearning for something more in her life.

"Everyone said I was crazy," she recalled. "I had this big call from Jesus and went to study theology at Saint John's University in New York. I am not a degree collector; I just fell in love with Jesus."

During the turbulent political climate in El Salvador, Chavez was in the United States and began working at RENEW International. "I started looking for a place of religion; someplace that fit. I felt so welcomed at RENEW and worked with the Hispanic community in the States," Chavez said. Founded three decades ago, (Web site: www.renewintl.org) RENEW's mission fosters spiritual renewal in the Catholic tradition by empowering individuals and communities through education and outreach programs.

After the war, Chavez moved back to El Salvador and worked as the director of the Department of Cultural Heritage. Years of war left her native country in a desolate state, with poverty-stricken young people turning to gang violence. While at the Department of Cultural Heritage, Chavez aided in the restoration of churches and pre-Columbian monuments. She realized that a place of Catholic community was needed and contacted RENEW International in America and became founder of the RENEW office in El Salvador in 1987.

Chavez also taught philosophy at the National University in El Salvador, was Dean of the School of Theology at The Salesian University of Don Bosco and taught theology in the United States at the College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown. She has published many faith-sharing materials and poems. All the education and training has been essential while working at RENEW.

"Whatever I did before was preparation for my mission today. I was always a teacher and I feel that God was preparing me to be a servant of the Lord. The last few years have been the best of my life. My life was not as full before as it is now," Chavez explained.

The first years at RENEW in El Salvador were dangerous as the country was still at war. "We were in the center of it all," she said. "There were bullets flying all around us. There was a lot of blood and many young people were dying. In the midst of war and chaos, RENEW began to flourish."

Half of the population of El Salvador is composed of young people and most are poor. Chavez and her RENEW office have encouraged a sense of community and purpose through faith. Job skills training programs were organized for the young people, most of whom were gang members. "We train them in carpentry and sewing. Most of them come to the United States because they cannot make a living in El Salvador. We want them to be well prepared and have skills with them when they get to America," Chavez noted.

In 1992, Chavez helped establish a RENEW office in Honduras. "There were about 250,000 people in one parish and only three friars. The lay people were doing a lot of work. Now there is a wonderful community there."

Working with the poor in El Salvador is where Chavez feels closest to God. In bustling cities, Chavez believes, it is easier to be further away from Christ. "Community is essential and the way I found Jesus was through the love of community. The poorest people are closest to God and faith. I felt as though I met Jesus in these poor communities; it is a mystical experience. Visiting these poor, rural areas gives me the sensation of being close with Jesus. I am happiest when I am there."

On June 5, Chavez was honored with RENEW International's "President's Award" for 25 years of service and implementing programs in Central America (see The Catholic Advocate, June 18). The award coincided with her 75 birthday. "It was a huge thing for me and I did not expect it."

Sister Theresa Rickard, O.P., executive director of RENEW International, believes that Chavez and her work are invaluable to the organization. "She has a tremendous sense of missionary zeal. She just radiates and embodies God's presence. She had a tremendous conversion experience and has unyielding commitment and dedication to service," Sr. Theresa said.

Sr. Theresa visited Chavez in El Salvador and was impressed by how much the young people loved "La Doctora" as they referred to her. "Here is this beautiful, sophisticated older woman riding in a truck for over two hours into the woods. There are young men covered in tattoos, but she is fearless. Irma brought these people the Gospel and changed their lives. Some of these kids used to be gang leaders and now they are youth ministers. She has a tremendous heart for the youth and they all love and trust her."

Chavez shows no signs of slowing down. She plans to launch an initiative for RENEW youth in the Dioceses of Sonsonate and San Vicente in El Salvador. She also plans to commit her life story to paper. "I would like to dedicate a little more time to write my story. I plan to write about the love story I have with Jesus."

Courtesy of The Catholic Advocate, the Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Newark. Used with permission.