“We were a great enrichment for one another.”
(Alois looking back on his assignment in Colombia)
“Sad night, the death of Hermanito Luis troubles me. He will always be present in my soul and in my heart.” This is how Célida, a long-time employee in Colombia, reacted. One Hermano Wisi employee wrote: “Many people are grieved, especially those who learnt a lot from Hermano Wisi. We will remember him and think of him for the rest of our lives.” What Hermano Wisi writes in his résumé about the people who will not forget him seems to me to be an answer: “Today I look back on the 27 years in Colombia with joy and fulfillment. We were a great enrichment for one another.”
He experienced first-hand the situation in which he met people in Colombia. He grew up with a brother and four sisters in simple circumstances in Spiringen. In summer, the family managed an alp on the Urnerboden which had sufficient summer grazing for 18 cows. This explains why none of the children could learn a trade. Wisi was privileged. At the age of 16 he received a plane from his mother. Since there was no workbench, he worked on a piece of wood, kneeling on the floor. When he joined the Mission Society of Bethlehem, a dream came true for him. In Buochs he was able to complete an apprenticeship as a carpenter and – also typical for Wisi – he remained connected to his teacher whilst in Colombia. A photocopy of his certificate of proficiency as a carpenter hung in the carpenter’s workshop of the Regional House. He occasionally pointed it out when someone claimed to know something about carpentry.
In 1972 Wisi traveled by ship from Genoa to the Colombian port city of Buenaventura. Instead of studying Spanish at the beginning, he had to travel to Popayán straight away because, boxes, beds, bookshelves and dining tables had to be made for the new Regional House. The belated language study was followed by a period that took him through southern Colombia. Again, it was work that could not be delayed: In Argelia, for example, it was the expansion of the health post, a housekeeping school and a rural youth home and in El Rosario the expansion of the rectory. Anyone traveling in the south will experience how quickly the conversation comes to Hermano Wisi.
His dream of leading people out of a situation that he had experienced first-hand came true in the Diocesan Education Centre, La Josefina. He supported his Urner compatriot Rosmarie Gisler. She was the first lay helper of the Immenseer missionaries in Colombia. Rosmarie set up projects for the advancement and further education of women with young women. Wisi did the same with men in woodwork courses. He taught handicrafts that were adapted to the situation in the hamlets of the Cordillera. Working in a group and spending free time together in the La Josefina course centre, was a new experience for the women and men. Fairness, tolerance and mutual respect determined the coexistence as new values. Similar to his mother, who bought him a plane, he encouraged men to buy tools. As a rule, they received some financial help. He never felt offended when former apprentices earned a good reputation as carpenters and even surpassed their master in terms of quality.
In 1974 the Bishop of Ipiales planned a reorganization. He wanted to have the La Josefina Educational Centre in the episcopal city. Hermano Wisi was not enthusiastic about this move to the city. He quickly found a new challenge in the Agricultural and Industrial College in Juan Tama. The college, built for indigenous people, was an hour’s drive from Popayán. As a supplement to academic lessons, the students helped out in organic farming one day a week or worked in one of the workshops. Opportunities existed in the locksmith’s shop, gardening, kitchen and carpentry as well as in the health and electrical team. The impetus for this practice-oriented training meant that high school graduates could hardly make enough money for university studies. However, with a broader education, it was easier for them to open their own workshop or find employment. Wisi shared the lessons in carpentry with a workshop teacher. The periods of silence also made things difficult for Wisi while teaching. Then he taught without words. The students understood his silence. In this learning community he felt comfortable and protected even in his silence. He told me several times that he missed the religious atmosphere in that secular educational institution.
In the El Rosal monastery of the Missionary Benedictines 30 km from Bogotá, he experienced a spirituality determined by the Benedictine “ora et labora”, a daily programme divided into times of work, prayer and relaxation. Even days before the bus trip to Bogotá, there was only one topic of conversation: El Rosal, Brother Georg, boss of the monastery carpentry, whom he had to represent, the tasks that he had to fulfill. Between 1976 and 1999 he was a regular deputy in the monastery carpenter’s workshop, where he felt at home.
La Josefina, Juan Tama and El Rosal – three topics Wisi could talk endlessly about, all sense of time lost. When he returned from El Rosal, he did not bring clothes in his suitcase like other travelers, but tropical wood that was not available in Popayán. As he unpacked, he raved about all the things he could do with it, how tropical wood had to be processed. Sometimes he let people know for whom he was going to make something. Most women who worked with us received sewing boxes, each one a jewel; no two identical. He combined differently coloured and variated woods. An inexhaustible topic was his collection of planes. In his narration you saw the plane being made, the inserting of the plane horn, the gluing of the plane sole with the plane case. The information about the plane knives was no less detailed. These could be made from the leaf springs of a car. Each plane had a serial number and year of manufacture. This would have given enough material for a planing story. I only once saw a booklet with entries (number and year) on the first page. I am one of the lucky owners of a plane (No. 38/1994). I probably wouldn’t get one today. He was disappointed several times to see how I sharpened my pencils with his plane. For him it was an abuse of the plane. To soothe matters, I brought him a carpenter’s pencil over a year ago so that he could convince himself what fine writing tips are possible with a plane. He refused my attempt to convert him. I now keep Plane No. 38 and an unsharpened carpenter’s pencil in memory of Wisi.
For our thanks as a community and the thanks of the employees in Colombia, I return to the words of Hermano Wisi: We look back on the years together in Colombia and Switzerland with joy and fulfillment. We were a great enrichment for one another.
Ernst Peter Heiniger