From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala Mission Team sets challenging course for future

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the April 11, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

Life in the Guatemalan Highlands has always been a struggle. But conditions were more primitive in 1960, when Bishops Bernard Topel of Spokane and Angelico Melotto of Sololá, Guatemala joined together in a Sister Diocese Program.

In the early 1960s, the 35,000 Quiché-speaking Indians of the Highlands lived mostly in dirt-floored huts. They had no running water, power, or septic facilities. Only about 10-20 percent of the natives were literate.

There was little work available in the area to provide income for families. The native people of Santa Lucia and surrounding communities had to hike “many kilometers” on trails through the steep volcanic terrain, and then down the 12,000-foot mountains to the coastal plains. Once there, they sought work picking coffee beans, or cutting and hauling cane in sugar plantations.

Families were frequently separated for months at a time while those old enough to work made the long journey to the tropical lowlands. The work itself was exhausting. And the transient living conditions were makeshift and marginal.

For all their effort, the migrant workers got a wage that was hardly enough for a man to feed his family back home for more than a few months.

As a consequence of poor nutrition and disease, the infant death rate was high in the 1950s and early ’60s. Some reports put the mortality rate at 50 percent by age 5. The average life span was estimated to be about 30 years. There were no clinics operating in the area, and educational programs for the natives were virtually nonexistent.

Conditions began to change with the arrival of the first two priests, Fathers Cornelius Ver-doorn and Francis O’Neil in 1959. They were soon followed by Father John Rompa and others. Then came several School Sisters of Notre Dame, followed by Sisters from New York. In addition to religious activities, they introduced educational and health programs.

The missionaries convinced local villagers to begin tilling the fertile volcanic soil and planting corn. In addition to changing the economy of the region, the accompanying transition brought more stability to family life, and enhanced community activities. Weaving and craft work became more widespread and more local markets emerged in the villages.

Youngsters in the mountains of Northern Guatemala are still undernourished. The lines of women with sick children at the Novillero clinic are still long. And families in Tzamjuyub still struggle to get their children through a third grade education.

However, much progress has been made in Spokane’s Sister Diocese of Sololá over the past 40 years. This is evidenced by the growth of clinics, schools, seminaries, pastoral activities, and numerous entrepreneurial projects.

As might be expected, this progress has also generated significant cultural changes that must be accommodated by those working in the mission area.

During the past several months, the Spokane missionary team has devoted some extra time to analyzing the social, economic, and religious changes that have taken place in the Spokane Mission area. While their focus might justifiably be on their achievements (which are many), it has instead been on the challenges that lie ahead.

Meetings held in Guatemala in February, with representatives of the Guatemala Commission from Spokane, set a challenging course for the future. The following areas were deemed to be deserving of special emphasis:

• Religious Education. Insofar as the national government is now providing more support for public education, the team felt it could be more effective by shifting more of its general education support into religious education.
• Pastoral Activities. Pastoral activities have become increasingly important to counterbalance the activities of some religious organizations that have saturated selected areas of Guatemala. Some anti-Catholic groups have well-financed campaigns that use emotional and economic appeals to lure prospects into their congregations. Once persuaded, the new enlistee joins a group that frequently fosters an exclusivity, e.g., in job opportunity, that discriminates against nonmembers.
• Youth Activities. The need for special “youth activities” was not so prevalent in earlier times. Children typically worked with their parents until they moved directly into a married adult status. Today’s youngsters are more likely to travel outside the home, and engage in activities such as school, sports, shopping, etc. with their peers. Special programs are needed to support the ethical and moral development of this age group.

The emphasis on religious education, pastoral, and youth activities does not mean that current activities of the missionary team will necessarily be curtailed. Many of the clinic, educational, and other activities have already been adjusted to better meet today’s environment. The Voice of Nahualá radio station, for example, has recently undergone a significant divestiture to give it a stronger focus on educational and community objectives.

The Spokane missionary team looks upon the upcoming period as a time of transition to meet the challenges of the future. They are proceeding with confidence that is based upon the continued support from parishes of the Diocese of Spokane.

Spokane’s missionaries seek to encourage more direct sister parish type of support, where groups from various parishes in the Spokane Diocese communicate more frequently with them on a one-on-one basis. They invite parishes to use them as a direct link to help some of poorest and underprivileged people of our modern world. They also look forward to the more frequent interchange of visitors to and from the Spokane mission area of Guatemala.

(Jerry Monks is Co-chair of the Spokane Diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)


Guatemala bishop extends Easter blessings to Spokane Diocese

In an Easter message to Bishop Skylstad, Bishop Raul Martínez of Sololá, Guatemala, extended his blessings and appreciation to the people of Spokane for their long-standing support of the Diocese of Sololá.

From his office in the seminary in Sololá, Bishop Martínez expressed his personal thanks “for the missionary service of Sisters Immaculata and Marie and Father David (Baronti) in the Diocese of Sololá-Chimaltenango.”

He concluded, “May the Lord grant you and the people of the diocese my Easter greetings, grace and peace.”

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