After a three-hour ride on mule-back under a burning sun, Father Van Hager finally arrives at a small village, set in the middle of guerrilla-controlled coca-cultivation lands. The American priest first goes to the school, which becomes a church for a few hours. He celebrates Mass and preaches in faulty Spanish to the 30 faithful.
"These are the trenches of the Church and of Colombia," said Father Van Hager at the end of Mass. "Not even Colombians want to come here.
That makes Father Hager, a Consolata missionary, an anomaly. His order generally works in the poorest areas of the world, and he is believed to be the only American priest living in the southern demilitarised zone of this country, ceded by the Government to the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces (FARC).
Father Hager, 57, is the only priest ministering to 15 isolated villages. To reach the remotest areas, he rides on a mule for eight hours over rough terrain. He travels to other villages by boat, the same transport used by the locals to transport coca leaves.
Colombia has seen violent internal conflict for 37 years. The Catholic Church, the only institution present in the whole of the country of 39 million people, has had difficulty finding religious capable of going to areas marked by violence and isolation.
"It is very frustrating work, because of the low religious level of the people," said Father Hager. "However, we continue to work. There are already more couples married in the Church than in the parish«s entire history."
The priest who preceded the Consolata missionary remained only nine months before requesting a transfer; and the one before him lasted only a year in this region where the guerrillas are the law.
The missionary's faithful feel he is close to them, though they only see him about once every two months.
Said Martha Montoya, 22, one of the residents of this village, "He is very good, because he explains the serious things of life to us."