Medic by day, priest by night: a Gozitan missionary in the Amazon

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

What’s it like to be a doctor and a priest in one of the most remote cities on earth?

Fr Raymond Portelli, a Gozitan priest who has called Peru his home for the past 26 years, recounted his experiences on 103 Malta’s Heart, on the programme Newsbook Hour presented by Fr Joe Borg.

Fr Portelli is based in Iquitos, a city of around 400,000 people located in the Amazon basin. The city is the world’s largest city that cannot be reached by road: it is only accessible by river or air.

Portelli is the parish priest of the St Martín de Porres parish, with a population of 18,000 people. Around a fifth of his parishioners are comfortably middle-class, but the vast majority are poor, with around a tenth living in extreme poverty. Households do have running water and electricity, but many live in simple wooden shacks on dirt roads.

Due to the city’s isolation, job creation efforts are limited and unemployment is a significant problem. Many people try to eke out a living through fishing, agriculture or by selling trinkets on the streets of the city.

Caring for the body and soul

As the only priest in the parish – though a number of laypeople do help out – Fr Portelli seeks to look after his community’s pastoral needs. But he also identified another need: for healthcare.

“I have always been interested in medicine, even before I joined the seminary,” he explains. Consequently, he obtained a dispensation from Gozo Bishop Nikol Cauchi to study medicine at Iquitos’ university part-time, and graduated as a medical doctor after nine years.

He often sees patients at the parish, but notes that his parishioners clearly distinguish between his two roles.

“They call me doctor by day, and father by night,” he notes.

Helping out in the jungle

Though he is based in the city, Fr Portelli regularly ventures outside the parish to provide religious and medical services to isolated communities along the Momón River, a small tributary of the Amazon. Travelling by speedboat to reach a series of tiny villages, with the most distant one 12 hours away, the priest encounters a completely different reality.

These communities are virtually inaccessible most of the year, as a drop in water levels reduces the river to a muddy path, and are thus mostly self-reliant. People live in small huts with no doors – theft not being a concern in such an isolated place – in communities with no shops or facilities.

Stocking up on medicines for the journey, Fr Portelli takes care of common ailments such as diabetes and malaria. If more serious health issues are identified, he offers to take patients to the city, but they often refuse, as they are unwilling to leave their families behind.

Once all patients are treated, Fr Portelli holds a catechism session and celebrates mass, often illuminated by candlelight or kerosene lamps – electricity is unheard of so deep in the jungle. Though most are baptised Catholics, even non-Catholics attend mass out of respect.

Living conditions may be harsh, but Fr Portelli also notes that there is a strong sense of community in these villages, with people helping each other out. Everyone knows everyone else, and everyone helps out whenever a new house is built.

But every so often, village inhabitants try their luck in the city, effectively severing their ties with the community they grew up in. And as a result, they often feel lost among the city’s 400,000 inhabitants, struggling to fit in.