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 Mission’s roots reach back a half-century

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 28, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)

Father David Baronti, a priest of the Diocese of Spokane, is a member of the ministry team serving the Guatemala Mission. He is pictured with Bishop Raul Martinez (right), who served until last September as bishop of the Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala. (IR photo from the Guatemala Commission)

Fifty years ago, in 1958, Spokane’s Bishop Bernard Topel made his ad limina visit to Pope Pius XII in Rome. The pope asked him if Spokane could help support the Latin American Church.

Later that year, Pope John XXIII assumed the papacy and broadened the request. He asked all first world dioceses to adopt or support a Third-World diocese.

When Bishop Topel sought counsel from the Maryknoll missionaries, they suggested that Spokane link up with some remote and poor areas of Guatemala. Guatemala had expelled foreign (mostly Spanish) priests in the 1870s and not permitted their return until the 1940s. The people had remained largely Catholic, but there were not enough native clergy to serve them.

In the late 1950s, slightly over half of the people of Guatemala were indigenous, illiterate, and impoverished Indians. Most were of Mayan descent, lived in the jungle or the mountains, and spoke a native language such as Quiché. The more educated Ladinos, of Spanish (or mixed Spanish/Indian) descent, lived largely in the cities. They controlled the bulk of the land, wealth, and power of the country.

By 1960, Bishop Topel had negotiated a “Sister Diocese Program” with Bishop Angelico Melotto of the Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala. Three Spokane Diocese priests had traveled to work in the remote area of the Guatemalan Highlands. One was Father John Rompa, who later started the “Voice of Nahualá” radio station to help open up communication to remote areas.

Five more priests from Spokane, plus nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), and Sisters of Charity of New York (SCNY), and others, went to Guatemala in the following years. The Spokane Diocese’s Father David Baronti, along with Sister Janet Druffel (SSND) and Sisters Immaculata Burke and Marie Tolle (SCNY) continue their active work in the mission today.

The fruits of the 50 years of labor of the missioners range from pastoral and sacramental to medical, educational, and economic. One need only visit the area to witness the religious fervor of the people, the clinical care system and schools that have been developed, and numerous ongoing economic self-help programs.

Although significant progress has been made, the Spokane Diocese’s Guatemala Commission has had to face an unpleasant reality. Financial support for the mission activities from parishes has declined over the past several years. This has necessitated reductions in pastoral, clinical, school, and seminary support, as well as in mission personnel. Budgets have been reduced from more than $80,000 a few years ago, to $53,280 for the 2006-07 fiscal year.

At the Guatemala Commission meeting to approve the budget for the current fiscal year (2007-08), it appeared that expected contributions would be $6,000 short, so another reduction was in order. However, committee members could no longer accept the dwindling support for the overwhelmingly beneficial programs that Bishop Topel had put into place so many years ago.

Committee members voted to keep the support at the $53,000 level and undertake a diocese-wide plan to bring in more funds.

The plan has two elements.

One component involves personal contact with leaders of parishes that have not yet taken the opportunity to support the Guatemala mission. With parish approval, a Commission member will make a presentation about the Guatemala mission activities to an interested parish group.

The second component of the fund-raising plan involves making a collection jar available in each parish so that parishioners who wish to support the mission can drop in their loose change. The large plastic jars are well marked (Guatemala Mission) and covered with photos depicting activities in the mission.

Although the fund drive is being conducted to help meet the current year’s budget, the longer-term goal of the drive is to involve all parishes of the diocese in support activities for the Guatemala Mission. Parish groups that would like to participate, or would like to engage in further discussion with a member of the Commission are invited to contact Mike Lemberger (448-6215), the chairman of the fund drive.

(Monks is a member of the diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)

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