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

Spokane Diocese priests have served the Church in Guatemala for 50 years

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the April 30, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Father David Baronti baptizes a child during a recent Easter celebration. Father Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese, has served in the diocese’s Guatemala mission since ordination as a deacon in 1973. (IR photo courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)

Modern Guatemalan history dates to the 1520s, when Pedro de Alvarado brought conquistadors into the region from Mexico in search of gold. Unfortunately, the Spanish conquerors encountered more tropical diseases than riches. Nevertheless, they established cities in the lower elevations and picturesque locations such as Antigua.

The Spanish also brought their Catholic religion to Central America. The Diocese of Santiago de Guatemala was established in 1534. By 1546, much of the Mayan resistance had been overcome in areas of Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. As a result, many of the native people were forced to move to the higher mountainous terrain.

In 1570, Antigua was designated the capital of the region. The next 200 years brought some development of the agricultural and mineral economy, but Antigua was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, and the capital was moved to Guatemala City.

After nearly 300 years under Spanish rule, the republics of the region declared their independence from Spain and their allegiance to Mexico in 1821. Border disputes and political dissent grew into civil war, and by 1839 the provinces of Central America took on political independence.

In 1871, General Justo Rufino Barrios brought in a “Liberal Revolution.” It confiscated church property and drove out the (mostly Spanish) priests. Following that came oppressive leaders (Manuel Estrada Cabrera and Jorge Ubico) who permitted United Fruit Company to take over controlling interest in the nation’s railroad, electric utility, and much of its best land.

That unpopular dictatorship situation was overthrown in the mid 1940s, and a democratic government established under Jacobo Arbenz in 1951. Arbenz initiated a land reform program that would expropriate some of the United Fruit Co. land. However, officials of the U.S. government, with links to United Fruit Company, fostered the organization of a CIA coup to overthrow Arbenz. The government was toppled by U.S. -backed forces in 1954, and military leaders were installed.

A period of violence followed from 1960-1996. The first Spokane priests, Fathers Cornelius Verdoorn and Frances O’Neil, arrived in 1959, near the beginning of this period. After language school they were assigned to the mountainous area of Sololá. At that time, most of the K’iche-speaking Indians were illiterate and lived in dirt-floored huts without water or electricity.

Father John Rompa joined the others as the third “Padre de Spokane” in 1960 and soon opened an educational radio station. He was followed by priests in 1961, 1964, and 1966. The missioners focused on pastoral activities, farming methods, credit cooperatives, and health programs. As new volunteers came, some of the veteran priests returned to Spokane.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the missionaries were joined by the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) and the Sisters of Charity of New York (SCNY). School Sister of Notre Dame Janet Druffel, from Colton, Wash., assumed responsibility for the radio station in 1965. Sisters of Charity Marie Tolle and Immaculata Burke arrived in 1971 and immediately launched catechist and health promotion programs.

By the time the seventh padre, Father James McGreevy, began his tenure in Guatemala in 1970, the mission had embraced a wide range of projects. The radio station and farm cooperatives were functioning, and the Novillero clinic had satellite operations in Nahualá and Ixtahuacán. Over 300 students were enrolled in the primary Catholic school in Nahualá, and scholarship programs were in place for high school and seminary students.

The eighth “Padre de Spokane,” Father David Baronti, spent his diaconate year in Guatemala in 1975. The following year, Bishop Bernard Topel assigned him as the first permanent priest in the remote village of Ixtahuacán. The surrounding highlands witnessed a considerable increase in violence over the next several years. Missionary efforts were targeted for ruin, catechists were killed, and priests were assassinated. One of the tragic deaths was that of Father Stan Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City serving that archdiocese’s mission in Solola. He was shot in 1981; the native people have enshrined his heart in their village of Santiago Atitlan.

Father Brian Mee, the ninth “Padre de Spokane,” accepted an assignment in Nahualá in 1982 during the ongoing violence. Seven men were assassinated behind his church in November of that year, but he steadfastly carried out his pastoral activities. As pastor of the church in Nahualá, he commissioned a statue to Manuel Tzoc, the founder of Nahualá.

The 1996 peace accords brought an official end to the 36-year-old civil war, a terror-filled time that took the lives of at least 200,000 native people. A Guatemalan Truth Commission later blamed the army for over 90 percent of the wartime atrocities.

Father Baronti remains the only active “Padre de Spokane” in Guatemala, where he has served the mission for 34 years. In addition to the innumerable Masses, baptisms, and other pastoral duties he has performed (in native K’iche), he has been an ennobling influence in the lives of countless native people in the Highlands. Some of his projects include the development of remote chapels, the rebuilding the Church of Santa Catarina, and building of a Marian Center in Ixtahuacán. He has also spearheaded the construction of a road through Ixtahuacán to the Pacific coastal area. After two decades of work, the first cars are now navigating the mountainous road.

Like many countries, Guatemala has had a tumultuous history. The missionaries have been a constructive, stabilizing, and faith-filled part of that history for the past 50 years. The blessings they have brought to the native people of the area could not have been accomplished without the support of the people of the Diocese of Spokane, and the personal dedication and courage of the “Padres de Spokane.”

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