Tara Hunt McMullen ’12 | November 7, 2019
It’s difficult to picture the now 95-year old priest, reclined in an armchair, worn, leathery hands folded gently, as a smuggler. Even one commissioned by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. But once he clears his throat, as he oft does in his storytelling, he’s as sharp and fiery now as he was then about the atrocities happening in Chile and across Latin America.
Beginning in 1964, Pelton was given the unexpected assignment of becoming the religious superior and rector and president at Saint George’s College, an institution overseen by the Congregation of Holy Cross, in Santiago, Chile. He was in his 40s, spoke no Spanish and had spent his time in the priesthood in traditional studies in Rome or in academia. But he had taken a vow to serve where the Church had a need. The Vatican had declared a severe priest shortage in Latin America and had put out a call for 10 percent of U.S. religious to move there by 1970. Despite his inexperience as a missionary, his number was up.
Although Saint George’s was a school for the children of Chile’s wealthy, Pelton witnessed extraordinary poverty in Santiago, with slum neighborhoods packed full of people, many malnourished and lacking adequate medical care. He realized it was there, with the campesinos, the peasants, that he was called to serve. Guided by the rising popularity of liberation theology and Catholic social teaching, he knew he was not meant to come in and impose his beliefs on the people.
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