Rosa Frias, third from right, poses with young people, in Limpio, Paraguay, where her charity Children of Paraguay recently opened a children’s medical clinic. The Ottawa woman was inspired to continue her work after an audience with Pope Francis. Photo courtesy of Shannon Kalyniak

Pope Francis’ trip to Paraguay brings joy to Ottawa woman

  • July 5, 2015

OTTAWA - Nine months ago Rosa Frias was blessed to meet Pope Francis and tell him about obstacles she faced in opening a children’s clinic in her home town of Limpio, Paraguay. So the Pope’s visit to Paraguay July 10-12 has special significance for Frias now that her dream has come true and her clinic has been opened.

“He is going to be a wonderful blessing to the people of Paraguay,” Frias said. “They need that. Paraguay suffers so much already.”

The Holy Father will visit Paraguay on his second trip as pope to South America. He will also go to Bolivia and Ecuador. Frias hopes the Pope’s travels will raise awareness of the plight of the poor, a plight that has grown worse since she was a child.

Nine years ago, with the help of the Companions of the Cross in Ottawa, Frias founded Children of Paraguay. The charity raised the money to open a fully equipped medical and dental clinic May 17 in Limpio, about an hour’s drive from Paraguay’s capital Asuncion.
Frias said she hoped the Pope would be able to visit the new clinic and bless it, but she understands his schedule will be tight.

During her papal audience on Sept. 24, 2014, with her husband of 40 years, Tito, Frias explained the many hurdles she faced in pursuing her dream.

“He told me, ‘Do not worry, because Paraguayan people are very strong and God knows the project is His,’ ” she said. “He said, ‘Everything will be fine,’ and it happened!”

For Frias, the clinic’s opening is clearly a work of God. As an immigrant to Canada, it’s a project she never imagined she could take on.

She came from a poor family that lived off the land. Her “very loving parents” had eight children. Her father had a Grade 3 education. Her mother, who had no education, traded food they grew with the native people for blankets.

Frias came to Canada in 1970 at the age of 23 to work as a nanny. At the time, she had only a Grade 6 education. She learned English and attended church regularly. There she met Louis Ramone (Tito) Frias. A native of the Dominican Republic, Tito befriended Rosa and they married in 1974. She then trained to become a hairdresser and worked at that until the first of her two children were born.

Twenty-six years ago, Frias began going to St. Mary’s Church in Ottawa, where Fr. Bob Bedard, the late founder of the Companions of the Cross, was pastor. Two years later she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“For sure, I knew I was going to die,” she said. She sobbed, wondering what would become of her young children. But in this crisis, Frias turned her life over to Jesus Christ.
“He healed me. Then I started to know Him, little by little after that,” she said. “And now I cannot live without him.”

Frias lived in Canada 24 years before she could afford to visit Paraguay. By then both her parents had died. Frias found her heart broken to see how poverty in her home town had worsened.

“It was really sad to see so much garbage around,” she said. “It wasn’t like that when I left.”

The forest where she used to walk with her dad had been cut down to build houses.

“I saw so many children in the street begging, with bare feet and torn clothes,” she said.

“This was different from when I was young. You didn’t see really poor people because you could always count on your neighbour to give you some bread, fruit or veggies.”

Returning to Canada, Frias finished high school while raising her boys and working part time at a community centre daycare. In 2003, she returned to Paraguay.

“The poverty was worse than in 1995,” she said.

While riding a bus, a child of about six boarded to sell pencils and erasers, “anything she could carry.” Her feet were bare, her clothes dirty and her hair “had not been combed in years,” Frias said.

“Why aren’t you in school?” Frias asked the girl.

“My mom just had a baby and I need to make money to buy food and milk, otherwise the baby will die,” the girl said.

“Tears were rolling down my face,” Frias said. “Oh my God, what has happened to this country? Why does Canada have so much and they don’t have anything?”

That evening, her brother-in-law asked if she would help him raise money to build the community a Quincho, a facility with a roof but open on the sides for community gatherings.  “I said to him, ‘The Canadian people will not give you any money for that.’ If you give me part of the land to build a clinic and a community centre, I will help you,” she said.

She returned to Canada to continue her studies and work part time. In 2005, when she finished school, she approached Fr. Bedard, because she was having trouble obtaining charitable status. He suggested going through the Companions of the Cross.

Frias then started holding annual variety shows to raise money. The first raised $4,000.

Then she added a spring walkathon. In nine years, she raised more than $126,000.

Meanwhile, her brother-in-law lined up dentists and doctors to volunteer their services at the clinic. The charity will pay a nurse and a receptionist, and requires about $500 a month for salaries, Frias said. “So many times there was disappointment after disappointment; block after block,” Frias said. “I asked the Lord, do you want me to quit? And every time I asked Him, He brought me more joy in my heart and He would bring people to me to help me.”

In 2011, Frias went on a mission trip to Paraguay, led by Companion Fr. David Bergeron, where they saw the clinic being built, all by hand, and assisted in the cleanup of the site.

“It was just unbelievable. We are here to do this!” Frias recalled.

“I can still feel the warm welcome, how they called, Viva!” she said. “The children would follow us all over the place.

“You never know how much love they can show you, even through the poverty,” she said.

The clinic’s grounds include a Quincho, as she had promised her brother-in-law, as well as a soccer field. The project now enters a second phase, she said, which includes building a community centre where people can be taught how to sew,  cook and become self-sufficient.

As Pope Francis promised, everything is working out just fine.

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