Oaxaca Missions: Then and Now

Nearly as remote as when Fr. Theodore “Ted” Pfeifer, OMI, began the mission in 1964, the state of Oaxaca stretches from the ocean into steep mountain ranges in southern Mexico that borders Guatemala. Father Ted started this ministry among the poorest of the poor in rural Oaxaca, where the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate have faced everything from generational poverty to violent drug cartels as they minister to the people.

It was this challenging environment that Olivia Lopez Huggins and Bro. Pablo Henning, OMI, chose to help people in need a half century apart.

Oaxaca Missions, Early Years
San Pedro Huamelula

Olivia Lopez Huggins worked with the Missionary Oblates in their new mission in San Pedro Huamelula, Oaxaca, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a nursing student, she spent a few months working there in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille. The Missionary Oblates were waiting on the shore to greet her when she arrived.

Conditions in the region were rough. Olivia said she “delivered many babies in a dark hut on a dirt floor. A man had cut off his finger chopping bananas and he brought it in, wrapped in a banana leaf.” Impoverished villages had no electricity and people would have to walk as many as 12 miles to reach a medical clinic. But Olivia said the people there were “the most religious and spiritual I’ve ever known.”


After graduating from college, Olivia returned to Oaxaca to work in the mountain town of Quiechapa. It took two months for Olivia to receive the news she had passed her state board examination and was a licensed nurse.

Travel from Quiechapa to remote mountain villages was challenging. A 30-mile trip could take six hours by Jeep. If the roads were too rough, Olivia and Fr. Ted would ride horses and lead a third horse carrying medicine. Upon nearing a village, they were often met by a local brass band and the entrance to the village turned into a parade. She would work at a medical clinic set up in a donated room, while Fr. Ted would hear confessions, celebrate Mass and minister to the people.

Olivia worked with the Missionary Oblates daily and witnessed Fr. Ted’s energy and variety of talents. Father Ted was a mechanic, a carpenter and medical service provider to people in rural areas. He “presided over many of their wedding ceremonies and delivered about 250 babies and baptized them,” Olivia said. “He supervised the building of water ways so that the water would stay clean.”

Father Ted also defended the indigenous people against drug cartels intent on seizing their land. During the 1980s, Fr. Ted’s truck was shot up by the cartels, but he emerged unharmed.

“There was never a dull moment,” recalled Olivia looking back on her years working with the Missionary Oblates in Oaxaca. “I would not trade my experiences and learning, and who I am was molded by the Oblates. The Oblates to me are just saints and I knew I could count on them.”

Oaxaca Missions Now
Fast Forward a Half Century

This past summer, second-year scholasticate Bro. Pablo Henning, OMI, gained his pastoral experience by spending nine weeks shadowing the Missionary Oblates serving San Pedro Apóstol Huamelula in Oaxaca. Brother Pablo says the pastoral experience is “sort of putting your money where your mouth is.”

“You’re learning all these great theological and philosophical things in school, but can you apply them? Do you really believe them?

The people here in Oaxaca do not distinguish between priests or brothers,” Bro. Pablo said. “They see us as men of God. They call every Oblate, ‘Father.’ I carry that weight, I must always present myself as a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate.”

Summer Ministry in Oaxaca, Mexico

A partially paralyzed woman living with her 93-year-old mother was crying when Bro. Pablo arrived for a visit one day. The mother had gone on an errand, “and she was praying to God that someone would come, because she felt all alone. I have to tell her that she is not alone, so I have to believe that when I tell her.”

The Missionary Oblates were some of the first people to bring modern medical care to the area, Bro. Pablo said. They brought in the first Jeep, they dug wells for water, and more. Their legacy of going the extra mile to serve their neighbors continues.

“We drove three hours to this one town where we had a Mass with only 10 people. But that’s what the Missionary Oblates do. They go to these places where nobody wants to go.”