Twelve years ago, three Aussie nuns decided they were needed in the crowded slums of Lima.

Tens of thousands of Peruvians had fled to their capital to escape the depredations of the Maoist Shining Path terrorist group, or simply to find work.

The refugees were wary of one another and suspicious of strangers as they existed in desolate shanty towns like Cerro Candela (the Hill of Candles), and Cerro Choclo (Corn Hill).


 HELPING HAND: Sister Tricia McDermott at a children's centre in Lima where the nuns and local helpers ensure kids receive at least one meal a day in a clean and bright environment.


"It's not that we're here to do something for the people but it's something reciprocal; that we very much receive from the people a sense of God working through us all.'' 

- Sister Tricia McDermott.

At an age when most Australian women are counting their super and looking forward to retirement, Sisters of Mercy Tricia McDermott, Joan Doyle and Jacqueline Ford are working on.

Sister McDermott turned 64 last week, Sister Doyle, is 57 and Sister Ford will be 70 next month.

With not a blade of grass in sight, the district they've chosen is a bleak and desolate landscape of dry black dirt that the wind carries into everything, and of shacks with no piped water supply or sewerage.

The roads are deeply rutted and a bus ride delivers what Sister McDermott has dubbed ``a free back massage''.

``Life is really difficult there for the people,'' she says. ''It's certainly not easy for us either.''

Despite the starkness of the landscape around them, the sisters have a deep sense that they've been rewarded already.

They've brought laughter back into many very tough lives and they find the gratitude of the locals overwhelming.

"It's not that we're here to do something for the people but it's something reciprocal; that we very much receive from the people a sense of God working through us all,'' says Sister McDermott.

The big challenge for the nuns was to help develop in the local people a sense of trust and of community.

They had built three spotless ``women's houses'' in which the Peruvians are taught basic skills such as how to read and write so that they can finish secondary school, hairdressing and makeup, to sew and use a knitting machine, to crochet, to make souvenir dolls, rugs, clothing and toys they can sell, to read and write, and basic computer skills to help them get a job.

With all this comes lectures on health,  hygiene and dealing with stress.

"The aim is to empower the women to feel good about themselves; to feel that they're worthy and they've got dignity,'' says Sister McDermott. "That is really important to those women so they are not just dependent on their partner.

"And if the women feel good about themselves that has a real ripple effect in the way they confront domestic violence and bring up their own children.''

She says the women are beginning to feel that they are worthwhile, that they shouldn't be put down and that they have a real part to play in society.

In children's centres, the nuns and teams of local helpers they are training ensure the kids get at least one good meal a day in an environment that is clean and bright. That also gives their mothers time to go to work or to vocational classes. The sisters' goal is to empower the local people enough for them to take over running the facilities.

"That's our aim. That it's not just our work but the work of the people in the area. I guess another thing is we're not going to be there forever. We're all getting on.

"The women have responded tremendously. They have a tremendous sense of owning the projects and being proud of them. They have real pride in keeping them beautiful.''

Joan up on Candela Hill

EMPOWERING OTHERS: Sister Joan Doyle overlooking the shanty town of Cerro Candela where the three nuns work.

Last year an Australian couple donated $250,000 to build a desperately needed medical centre. The couple had received money from mining interests in Peru and wanted to give something back.

Early this year a reinforcement arrived in the shape of Richelle Douglas, a young doctor from Perth specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, who came to Peru with her diplomat husband, David MacLennan.

Dr Douglas used her spare time helping out in the local hospitals and was horrified to find the rate of cervical cancer - the main cause of cancer deaths among women in Peru - was 48.2 per 100,000 women compared to the world rate of 16 per 100,000.

She and the sisters and other helpers used their influence to gather the resources they needed to vaccinate 150 of the estimated 3000 girls in the area aged from nine to 16. There were big queues of mothers and daughters this week. Many would miss out.

Dr Douglas is pregnant with a baby due on Christmas day and heads home this week.

"It's been fantastic, definitely the best thing I've ever been part of!'' she says.

Despite the sisters' energy, there's always a concern about where the money's going to come from to keep the facilities afloat.

"There is a sense, though, that God provides,'' says Sister McDermott. 

The three nuns are close. "I guess you need to be able to work together to be able to survive and to enjoy the good things and the bad things,'' says Sister McDermott.

How do they keep sane? "We've a lot of laughter and a lot of sharing with the others the ups and downs of life.  It's important too to take time for quiet prayer so as to keep things in perspective."

They also like to head into Lima from time to time for a beer or a glass or two of wine.

''You have to keep all things in balance,'' says Sister Patricia.

Brendan Nicholson is foreign affairs correspondent for The Age newspaper. This article was first published in The Age.