Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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:
The day we went out to meet God on the mountainside

Story and photo by Deacon Gary Franz, for the Inland Register

(From the Dec. 15, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Above: Father David Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese ministering in Guatemala, prepares to celebrate Mass for refugees on a wind-swept spot in the Guatemala highlands. Refugees displaced by Hurricane Stan still live in tents, awaiting aid. (IR photo)

(Editor’s note: Deacon Gary Franz recently returned from a visit to the Spokane Diocese’s Guatemala mission, seeing for himself the impact of Hurricane Stan on the already difficult lives of people in the Guatemala Highlands.)

It was 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 22 when Sister Marie Tolle tapped on the door of our room in Novillero, Guatemala, and woke us to the news that breakfast would be at 5 so that we could get an early start on our trip to the mountains.

We had arrived in Novillero on Nov. 16, and had been working on our plans for painting the convent and repairing the plumbing. We’d had a few intermittent glimpses of the damage from Hurricane Stan. The Pan American highway was significantly damaged in nearby Nahualá, which was part of the reason for the early departure.

Father David Baronti, a Spokane Diocese priest ministering in Guatemala, was scheduled to say Mass at 9 a.m. for the people camped on the mountainside. Sister Immaculate Burke was taking 600 pounds of corn and sugar to supplement what had been supplied by the government. The people we were to visit are the refugees of mudslides and unstable hillsides west of Ixtahuacán.

After a hurried breakfast, we loaded into Sister Immaculata’s and Father Baronti’s Toyota pickups, wiped the dew off the windows, and prepared to leave. Unfortunately, Father Baronti’s pickup’s headlights wouldn’t work, even though they were okay the night before, when he arrived at 9:30. Troubleshooting revealed a blown fuse, no spare, and quite a bit of loose wiring in the fuse block – clearly a site for much previous work. I also noticed that there was a cap missing from one of the cells in the battery, and could not see the battery fluid in the open hole. But the truck had started, so it must be okay for now. With the troubleshooting delay, the light had improved with the coming dawn, and so we set off, re-wiping the windshield and peeking out the side window for a clearer view.

Fortune was with us as we reached the roadblock for the two major highway outages in a six-kilometer section of highway around Novillero. We were the last two vehicles through before it was closed for traffic in the opposite direction. We quickly reached the high point in the Pan American highway at 10,300 feet, at a place lovingly called Alaska, and immediately thereafter turned south on the dirt and gravel road heading toward Tzamjuyub.

We had been passed by three large buses coming out the road heading to the highway. We reached a section of road that wound to the east directly into the sun. My son Loren and I were in the first pickup with Father Baronti. We were all unable to see anything in front through the glare, so we looked out the side windows and got past that section of road. Then the fourth bus passed us. Shortly thereafter, we noticed that the second pickup with Sisters Immaculata, Marie, and Sarah, and my wife, Pat, was not following closely. Backing up, we discovered that in trying to avoid the bus and navigate in the morning glare, they had experienced a clutch failure and were unable to go on.

We backed Sister Immaculata’s pickup to the side of the road, loaded all the supplies into Father Baronti’s pickup, where we noticed that a slow leak made for a somewhat flat rear tire. The four women got in the pickup with Father Baronti; Loren and I got in the back of his pickup, on the opposite side of the low tire, and off we went to be on time for Mass.

When we arrived on the top of the bare hill at about 11,000 ft, we were greeted by the people who were getting ready for Mass in a wind break near their temporary shelters. I estimate the temperature at about 45 degrees. The wind was a fairly steady 15-20 miles per hour, and the clouds were blowing through the area for an additional chilling fog.

The men emptied the supplies from the pickup and took them to their supply tent, where there was little or no sign of food supplies from the government. The people were all bundled up against the cold as best they could, but many women and children had no shoes and some were in short sleeved shirts. Almost every woman and older girl had a baby that they were also carrying and sheltering from the cold. The children had chapped cheeks and tried their best to find shelter behind their elders.

The men carried in a marimba for music at the celebration of the Mass, then stood behind it to the side of the wind shelter that the women were all huddled within. On this cold Tuesday morning, there was no sign of the evangelicals who were said to be very present on the weekends.

Through the whole of the Mass, our attention was riveted on the cold women and children as we fought off our own cold shivers. Surely, these are the kind of people that Jesus identified with as he indicated those times when we would have helped him.

Father Baronti read, preached and catechized in the native language. At the Offertory, they all found a coin to pitch in. The Communion line was an additional fight against the cold. After the Mass, the people insisted that all of us have something to eat. We couldn’t bring ourselves to take from their very meager fare, so Father Baronti begged off for us. Still, we were somewhat bound by their custom to have a few bites of rice, beans, boiled egg and tortillas. Discussions were also held regarding means to get socks, shoes, and coats for the children in the near future.

As we left, Father Baronti arranged to get a small rope, which was part of our towing apparatus, to get the other pickup out from the mountainside and down the highway to Quetzaltenango. I piloted Sister Immaculata’s pickup behind, with Loren at my side, and all the rest traveled in Father Baronti’s rig, which threatened to overheat with the harsh duty. On the way out the dirt road, we paused the towing to stop at a camp where Cuban physicians were caring for the people on the mountainside, to leave medications brought by Sister Immac-ulata.

When we were safely in the city, we waited for the end of the lunch and siesta break, found a capable mechanic, and left the clutchless vehicle. Father Baronti dropped us at a bus station for the trip back to Novillero while he went in search of an electro-mechanico to service his vehicle in order for him to be able to be at the novena in Ixtahuacán at 7 that night. The two tooth crowns he needed would have to wait for another day.

On the very long bus ride back, I was struck by the plight of the people, which Father Baronti described in his most recent “Guatemala Dateline” article (“’There is no place there – not a single continuous acre – without a landslide cover,’” IR 12/1/05), and the difficulty in providing aid. The temporary shelters were a start, but there was no sign of water or power and it was unlikely that the area would support farms. The aid agencies were promising more permanent houses some day. Try as I might, I was unable to find any way immediately to ease their suffering. Likewise, I was struck by the dedication of our missionaries and the inadequate equipment they have to provide service to these people in need.

Two days later, at the Thanksgiving dinner we ate in Novillero, the plight of those on the mountain and the politics that allow such suffering to continue was the topic of the evening for the 15 who gathered to give thanks. I am still wishing I had some way to act to help the people on the mountain-side, and still hoping there is a way to better support our own missionaries who serve there. I know that our Guatemala commission provides support, as does the Family to Family network that Jerry and Clara Monks organized. But our support has dwindled over the years and the bankruptcy in the diocese taxes everyone’s ability to focus on those in need elsewhere.

If you would like to help, please contact Jerry and Clara at Family to Family, 505 W. St. Thomas More Way, Spokane, WA 99208, or give to the Guatemala mission fund in the diocese – P.O. Box 1453, Spokane, WA 99210.

(Deacon Gary Franz is chairman of the diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)

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