Rhiannon O’Keefe went on a missionary trip to El Salvador last year as a young high school graduate seeking to help those in need.
When she returned eight months later, that is exactly what she had done and become the godmother of a young man.
O’Keefe, from Beverly, lived in San Salvador, El Salvador, from last December to August, working with Con-solatio, a Catholic volunteer network program, to provide companionship to people living in poverty.
From praying with residents to listening to their life stories, she enjoyed every minute of her time in Central America.
“I fell in love with the country, the people and the mission,” said O’Keefe. “I really, really liked the whole experience.”
O’Keefe, a 2020 St. Ignatius College Prep graduate, was already considering a gap year between high school and college, and after the pandemic prompted her college choice, Stanford University, to move all classes online for the year 2020-21, her decision has become clearer.
Living in a home with other young missionaries from around the world, O’Keefe spent 15 hours a day helping others and drawing closer to God.
The day started at 7 a.m. with morning prayer, followed by breakfast and some free time for laundry or shopping.
Then she would pray another hour, go to mass in the afternoon and pray the Rosary.
From 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., she and other missionaries visited homes, talking to residents and “being with them in their suffering” or any personal issues they were battling.
The group then prayed together and enjoyed dinner to end the evening.
As she says it took a while for her to adjust to her new lifestyle, including improving her Spanish skills, O’Keefe settled down.
“I would say the biggest help has been having this prayer structure throughout the day,” O’Keefe said. “That sort of thing gave us something to work on and also gave us a lot of strength.”
At night, teenagers visited her, she said. The missionaries were happy to socialize with them.
“Sometimes we would go and play football with them,” O’Keefe said. “Our door was always open to receive anyone who passed by. “
Her most memorable moment, she said, was a relationship she built with a 17-year-old boy who had previously lost his father and then watched his mother get shot. After a difficult upbringing, the boy lived with his mother for about a year, which he called “the best year of his life”. Witnessing the shooting left a mark on him, O’Keefe said, and he faced anxiety, depression and a diagnosis of diabetes.
The boy grew up in the Protestant faith, O’Keefe said, and started coming to the missionary house a few years ago. He asked to be baptized, and during O’Keefe’s stay he visited the house regularly, helping the missionaries cook and joining them at Mass.
On O’Keefe’s last day, she said, the boy received the sacrament of Confirmation, which made his leaving party even better. The celebration took place on August 15, which is the birthday of Saint Oscar Romero, Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, and the feast of the Assumption of Mary.
To top it off, the boy asked O’Keefe to be his godmother.
“I have an eternal bond with him,” O’Keefe said. “It was a very, very nice way to end my assignment.”
According to its website, the mission of Con-solatio is “to offer a ministry of presence to those who suffer most – the poor, the lonely, the abandoned, the rejected and the isolated”. Cities and nations that benefit from it include Brooklyn, NY; Argentina; Brazil; Cuba; Peru; Senegal; Greece; Italy; India; Japan; and the Philippines.
For most of her stay, O’Keefe lived with missionaries from Argentina, Poland and Turkey, although another missionary from Argentina was with her at first and a boy from France arrived in the end.
O’Keefe said that “by the grace of God” the group was able to work together and overcome their differences, and she learned about the culture and values of others.
“The community aspect was very, very important,” said O’Keefe. “Because the other people you live with completely understand what you are going through, pretty much. They live the exact same lives and know the same people. Really, we could talk to each other and support each other.
O’Keefe’s parents Camilla and Matthew visited him and they went sightseeing for six days. O’Keefe also took a 10-day trip to Guatemala to share more information about his mission and recruit other leaders.
O’Keefe shared stories from his mission after Mass at St. Barnabas Roman Catholic Church on August 29, thanking people for supporting his trip and explaining how there are different ways to give to God.
O’Keefe will begin classes on the Stanford campus in mid-September. She will fondly remember her trip to El Salvador.
“Spiritually, I grew by a ton,” O’Keefe said. “I feel much closer to God. … It was the best decision I think I ever made.