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 Dateline: Donna Borsos: emphathy is the hallmark of the human spirit

by by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the May 2, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

"(They) are all fullbloods … and that’s the reason Wolf Plume may be hard up now, because (he has) shared with others. Your old time fullblood will always share with others." - A John D. Rockefeller Jr. associate, explaining why the hungry Native American does not deserve help from Rockefeller, despite their long-time acquaintance.

"Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering ... (religion is) the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world." - Karl Marx

"Always a traveler, Donna left her Toronto birthplace while inher early 20s to find a life that mattered to her … and eventually found it in Marcelin, Saskatchewan, and Ixtahuacán … an intelligent, independent person who cared deeply … a fun-spirited teacher, sculptor, cabinet maker and constant casual singer of folk songs … a wonderful person to have known. She carried pride in her Canadianess, and spread a unique, witty sense of humour right into her last days." - Stephanie


There is something contradictory about saying opposites attract, even as there is something odd about the locution, polar opposites.

The North Pole and the South Pole are far more alike than either one is like the bland Keizer district north of Salem, Ore., on this planet's 45th meridian.

The death masks of the atheist Che Guevara and that of Christ of Turin are eerily similar, as were the circumstances of their deaths.

"But when an officer grabbed his hair and tried to take his pipe, shouting, 'Ha! You are the famous Che Guevara,’ he sprang to life. ‘Yes. I am Che. A Minister of State, too, and you're not going to treat me like that!’ and he kicked the officer into the benches. The ranger's commander intervened. Instead of being shot (at that time) Che won respect."

I think about such things now that I think about two women.

Catarina of Alexandria was (at least until the time of the Second Vatican Council) a Catholic saint, patroness of catechists, and the patroness of Ixtahuacán. More people have knelt before her effigy here than pilgrims before the feet of any 19th century pontiff.

Donna Borsos was a communist, atheist, and one-time dipsomaniac. When she first turned up as a volunteer for CUSCO, the Canadian Peace Corps equivalent, in the spring of 1992, she avoided me like something black.

But like you-know-who, Donna was a carpenter, and like the same you-know-who would have, she expressed an ambivalence for the currency of the world's most moneyed country with words that would have won the admiration of a 13th-century Franciscan, befuddled a Rockefeller Jr., and repelled an Interstate of 45th-meridian Christians.

“Did you ever see anything more ironic in your life," she once said, "than putting the words 'In God We Trust' on legal tender? Isn't that a case of 'the lady doth protest too much'? I mean, isn't God the last thing that people who believe in money believe in?"

Consistent with her convictions, she refused to have anything to do with insurances, and agreed with Hegel that money destroys the master as well as his slave, causing the one to see the other less in terms of humanness than function.

Not since the days of Bishop Topel have I met anyone who so made poverty her vocation.

Natalie de Leon, who supervises the mission's Adopt-a-Family program, says that she will remember one phrase every time that she thinks of her: "Pisto. Pisto. No tengo pisto. Shekels. Shekels. I don't have shekels."

Donna worked summers in Marcelin. That gave her enough pisto to buy her winter (Ixtahuacán) bread. She needed Natalie's pisto, on the other hand, for the services which she donated (for that half of the year) to Spokane diocese-supported programs.

Without being Catholic, she waited in the sanctuary to which the post-Vatican II Latin American bishops processed. Like a Latin American Catholic saint placed above the altar, she, without intending to, stood there, as if beckoning them.

The bishops wish to incarnate a preferential love for the poor. Donna, inimitable Donna, before she read anything of Medellin, did that. The Indians who asked for her services in Marcelin (she purposely lived close to the Cree nation) received them. The well-heeled white folk occasionally had to go elsewhere if they wanted a desk.

For those of us who believe – with certain phenomenologists - that empathy, not the ability to shoot a basket, and certainly not the ability to make money, is the hallmark of the human spirit, Donna Borsos was (as the Greeks would have had it) the real human.

On a face which can only be described in terms of Gothic parsimoniousness (bony, elongated, with narrow nose and lips) behind which salt-and-pepper-colored hair fell straight as the fibers on a broomstick onto a body befitting the sister of Abraham Lincoln, her saucer eyes (the only thing you usually noticed about her face, actually) stood out like gravity's opposite. They were seemingly always shining either with laughter, or with the pain of those she was with.

Histrionic only to the people whose souls are dead, she wept when she discussed the plight of Ixtahuacán women who are pummeled far more by their husbands than I wished to admit, and she pleaded – her voice peaking and falling, peaking and falling, higher and higher, like the unrelenting assault of a Swan Lake rendition - that I recognize them.

Donna's empathy went beyond the particular to the culture. It was thus that her only book was a history of Ixtahuacán - published in Maya hieroglyph! It was thus, too, that she gave classes in hieroglyphs, and, too, that there came about the final part of her story, the part that will link Donna and Santa Catarina as indelibly as the latter is linked with Ixtahuacán Catholicism.


On only ones level, this link came about via the explanation that she gave: to wit, how she espied the sobbing old man, and seeking to console him, asked about his sadness, and how he replied (referring to his grandchildren and his grandchildren's friends who raided the church before reestablishing themselves in Chwi-Patan) "they abducted (the statue of our patroness) Catarina," and how she subsequently decided to ask me for permission (her words seemed to me almost sacrilegious when I first heard them) to make another in her stead.

The real story derives from the Ixtahuacán popular faith and Donna's desire to be one with it.

It was that desire, according to her own account, that precipitated her interest in Catholicism. During the mid-1990s, she read every relevant book that I had.

Donna's remarks in those days would have led one to believe that she was a theologian. In the context of a conversation touching on a Gospel, she was liable to respond (her eyes jumping with enthusiasm) with some esoteric account of second-century Palestinian merchants.

But there were two books in particular that held her rapt: Walsh's Teresa of Avila, and the two volumes of the City of God by St. Augustine. The personality of the saints captivated her and must have had something to do with her decision in the latter part of the same decade to relax her carpentry somewhat in favor of a new, related avocation: the carving of nearly life-sized figures from the world of religion.

Fittingly, when she finished her first statue in 1998, meant to be the first of three dealing with the Holy Family, the theme was empathy. It had the child Jesus bending over a wounded bird, tending it.

For a people whose children kick the family dog 10 times for every half-time that they pet it, the statue's homiletic intent was patent.

She asked me to find the K'iche' equivalents for a phrase of Augustine's with which she wished to inscribe it. I did: "Ri oj ujub 'anoj ri q'ab'lah, tajin kujnuk'umaxik chwi taq chak rech loq'on ib'." "We are your handiwork, being created out of works of love."

Her Catarina, started when she thought her illness' face more generous, was finished with the last pulse of strength that she had. She won her battle with the disease that wished to deny her her gift.

During the time of Catalina's absence from Ixtahuacán, devotion to the Blessed Sacred increased so tremendously that there would seem to be little danger that Catarina's effigy will again disturb the sensibilities of traditional Catholicism. This statue, as beautifully elaborated as the one that she replaced, is magnificent in its secondariness.


For some of us, it is hard to explain how this woman who even suggested once that she had a mystical experience in the form of a vision of Our Lord, can remain an atheist. Perhaps she can be compared to the French mystic Simone Weil, who revered the spiritual side of Catholicism while remaining aloof from its bourgeois representations. Like oppositions, faith and unfaith are not only not really opposites; they overlap.


I, too, will especially remember Donna When I see Catarina. I once used this forum to complain that the patroness' eyes never met mine. That alienation from Catarina is past. Donna took her niche's altitude into account when she fashioned the eyes of the patroness.

(Father Baronti is a priest of the Diocese of Spokane. He has been a missioner in Guatemala for more than 25 years.)

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