A missionary priest becomes a master builder in a booming Bolivian metropolis
For decades, missionary priest Sebastián Obermaier has built churches, schools, and clinics in the poor Bolivian boom town of El Alto.
El Alto, Bolivia
Every day hundreds of people fly into El Alto, Bolivia. Circling to land, the passengers stare down on a vast, windblown city of unpainted brick houses and tin roofs, sitting on narrow streets and squares.Skip to next paragraph
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The most arresting aspect of El Alto is its churches, placed with precision like chess pieces on a grid. Dozens of them, each bright white or blue, punctuate the drab landscape.
Thirty-two years ago when Father Obermaier arrived in El Alto it was a town of 80,000 people growing on the high plains next to La Paz, Bolivia's de facto capital. Today El Alto has surpassed La Paz and is the second-largest city in Bolivia, a boiling pot of 1 million people.
"No one could imagine this," Obermaier says. "The city of La Paz is now a little thing compared with El Alto."
In Obermaier's early days there were precious few services for Bolivia's indigenous rural population – no health centers, little electricity or running water, few schools. When these people, mainly Aymara Indian subsistence farmers, migrated to El Alto, they lived the same way.
Few formally trained doctors or dentists lived in the city. Residents were cut off from the traditional healers in their villages. Infant and maternal mortality were high, and emergency medical care nearly nonexistent.
"For the first eight years I acted as a doctor, taking out teeth, delivering babies. Not because I knew how, but because I had to," he says.
Today, instead of pulling teeth himself, Obermaier has built a health center attached to his home church. For little or no cost, doctors provide basic medical and dental care.
Other projects in the works include a hospice; a shelter for victims of rape and sexual abuse; low-cost senior housing; and a center for treating patients with HIV, only the second such center in Bolivia.
Obermaier has organized teams to go into El Alto's schools to teach about the disease.
"We're struggling so this doesn't become a city with AIDS," he says.
His approach to AIDS prevention flies straight as an arrow. His health center's walls display large posters encouraging condom use and detailing how HIV transmission can be prevented.
"They're small things he's doing," says Dr. Silvia Villarroel, health director for CARE, the nongovernmental aid agency, "but he's covering needs of the people that the health system can't cover."
Obermaier has also built schools and churches – by a conservative estimate, 30 of each. But trying to pry the exact number of projects out of him is impossible. "I've never counted them and I never will," he declares.
Dr. Villarroel from CARE laughs when asked to estimate how many churches he has built. "He's the only one who knows," she says.
"When I came here I had a clear vision – I'm never going to build a church," Obermaier says. "We celebrated mass in my living room, in the open air. But the population grew, and I did what I never wanted to do: I built a church."