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 missionaries continue to turn dreams into realities

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 6, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

  • Father David Baronti is working to restore the centuries-old church in the Guatemala village of Ixtahuacán.
  • Sisters Marie Tolle (left) and Immaculata Burke of the Sisters of Charity of New York have been ministering in the Guatemala missions for decades. (IR photos from the Guatemala Commission)

    The challenges faced by two missionaries in Guatemala provide some unique insights into the struggles they encounter in their efforts to serve the people of the Spokane mission area.

    For seasoned troopers such as Father David Baronti and Sister Immaculata Burke, one might think that success gets easier with time. But in reality, every major project presents a new challenge.

    One of Father Baronti’s highest priority projects is completing the restoration of the beautiful, centuries-old church in the town of Ixtahuacán. After years of work, the end is in sight, but funding is scarce.

    Sister Immaculata’s dream is for equipment to do cataract surgery in her clinic in Novillero. She longs for the day when she can respond to the hundreds of people she knows who would like to voice a request similar to that heard by Jesus: “Lord, that I may see.”

    Father Baronti’s church reconstruction in Ixtahuacán

    Although Father Baronti has had to struggle against both natural disasters and political/economic barriers, much progress has been made. However, restoring a church in a 400-year-old Mayan village has not been an easy task.

    To envision some of the problems, picture the village of Ixtahuacán, perched on a mountainside at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. It had already suffered from numerous earthquakes, including a 1976 jolt that resulted in the condemnation of the landmark church.

    Then came the ravaging storm tabbed “Hurricane Mitch” in late 1998. Torrents of rain eroded the mud-soaked streets and even flowed into a few of the houses.

    Shortly after that onslaught, the frightened residents were bombarded with loudspeakers enticing them to flee the village and rebuild near the top of the mountains on safer, more level terrain.

    The new, tundra-like site was located about 12,000 feet above sea level, within a quarter mile of the highest point of the Pan American highway south of Mexico. It was destined to be much colder than the old townsite; it lacked water and firewood; it was more distant from the people’s cornfields. Nevertheless, outside funds flowed to selected community officials to prompt the move. With this came newspaper and TV coverage that heightened the frenzy.

    To the dismay of Father Baronti, the political and monetary enticements prevailed. On Jan. 11, 2000, about 75 percent of the 1,200 families of the village set out, parade-style, on an eight-hour hike up the mountain to the “New Ixtahuacán.”

    The paradox of the evacuation scene would have been fodder for any political cartoonist. As the caravan of movers climbed up out of the village, the most prominent structure in the background was the skeleton of massive steel beams that had already been joined to form the main body of the restored church. While those caught up in the emotions of the past were leaving, the central and monumental structure of the community they left behind was receiving new life. It was a tangible edifice of hope to the nucleus of a community that was to stay and rebuild for the future.

    In the intervening four years, Ixtahuacán has indeed begun to recapture its vitality. The open air market has returned and schools are back in session. And the church restoration project, which has continued during the interim, is even approaching completion.

    The final step needed to convert Father Baronti’s dream into a reality is to finish the entrance and some remaining inside work. His challenge is to find contributors who would help supply the $40,000-$50,000 he needs to complete the work. The funding challenge is especially difficult for this Spokane-based priest because most of his Guatemalan parishioners have incomes in the neighborhood of $1 or $2 per day.

    Sister Immaculata’s new cataract center in Novillero

    Each year, a team of doctors from the U.S. travel, at their expense, to Guatemala to volunteer their services at one of Sister Immaculata Burke’s clinics. While there, they screen local people for the possible use of glasses and examine them for eye disease.

    Recent screenings have revealed that many of those screened are found to have cataracts; some have suffered from cataract blindness for several years. There are currently no medical facilities available to correct cataract blindness in this area, and it is virtually impossible for local residents to make the trip to a large city for this type of surgery.

    Sister Immaculata’s dream is to obtain the equipment needed to have doctors perform cataract surgery in her clinic in Novillero. The Novillero Clinic, which is very close to her own living quarters at the convent, is an ideal site for the surgeries. It is a clean, efficiently-designed facility, with sufficient room to house and use the equipment on a temporary basis.

    Cataract surgery is a type of operation that can be done in remote areas such as Novillero. It requires neither general anesthesia, nor an extended hospital stay. And, unlike many other corrective operations, cataract surgery does not necessitate significant follow-up care.

    Beyond that, the actual cost of the operations is reasonable, especially when volunteer physicians are willing to perform the surgeries, which is the case here. Physicians from Spokane have already expressed their willingness to volunteer their services at the clinic in Novillero, once the surgical equipment is in place.

    In view of the relatively large amount of blindness due to cataracts, and the absence of any other facilities in the area, Sister Immaculata is hoping that she can realize this dream within a matter of months. Along with members of Adopt-A-Family in Spokane, she is currently searching for approximately $80,000 in equipment donations, or funds, to acquire the needed phacomulsifier, microscopes, and associated equipment She has been blessed with donations totaling nearly half of this amount ($36,000) and is praying that some donors will want to help out with the balance.

    Anyone wishing to help with either Father Baronti’s church project or Sister Immaculata’s cataract operation center is welcome to send donations to the Guatemala Commission at P.O. Box 1453, Spokane, WA 99210. Please be sure to indicate which project you wish to support.

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