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

Updated booklet documents 50-year history of Guatemala Mission

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the Sept. 9, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

In 1958, when Pope Pius XII asked his U.S. visitor about helping support a Third World Diocese, Spokane’s Bishop Bernard Topel replied “I will do something about it, Your Holiness.”

Bishop Topel chose to help the impoverished Mayan Indians of Northern Guatemala. During the 50-plus years that followed, the Diocese of Spokane has faithfully carried out that promise to the ailing pope and his successors.

Spokane joined with the Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala, in a covenant relationship that has bonded the residents of the two dioceses in a uniquely personal and close partnership. The affiliation has profoundly impacted the economic and spiritual lives of thousands of people in Guatemala. It has also given Spokane parishioners a direct link to the “Third World poor,” and an opportunity to participate in missionary work in a very tangible way.

An account of major events that have taken place in the Spokane Mission over the past 50 years has recently been published by the Guatemala Commission of the Diocese of Spokane. The new publication updates and extends an earlier version. It also provides additional background on the political, economic, and social environment in Guatemala from the time of its independence from Spain in 1821.

Organized in a chronological format, and written in a concise and outlined form, the booklet offers readers an easy-to-find reference to personnel and events that embodied life in a remote missionary setting. The 24-page booklet is divided into historical periods and includes eight pages of photos.

Early History

Fifty years after independence from Spain, the Catholic Church, which had been identified with the country’s conservatives, was subjected to a discriminatory campaign to erode its influence. During the 1870s and 1880s, priests were expelled, church property was expropriated, and protestant missionaries were imported. Nevertheless, local groups of men (cofredia) and women clung to some church traditions.

United Fruit Co. moved in to exert major influence and control in Guatemalan politics after 1901. It was destined to play a pivotal role in the years to come.

By the 1930s, the faithful of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán succeeded in bringing the only priest to the highlands. (Note: Santa Catarina is the home of Father David Baronti, the Spokane Diocese priest currently serving in Guatemala.)

Following the overthrow of Ubico’s dictatorship (1944), and establishment of a democracy by Jacobo Arbenz (1951), missionaries were allowed to return. The democracy and land reform program was short-lived, however. United Fruit lobbying about a communist fear led to a CIA backed coup in 1954. Military leaders, supported by the United States, then assumed control of Guatemala, and remained in control for many years to come.

Beginning of Mission

Following Bishop Topel’s visit with Pope Pius XII (1958), the Spokane Diocese funded two priests, Fathers Cornelius Verdoorn and Francis O’Neil, for work in the Highlands in 1959.

The Spokane mission was located in the 7,000-12,000 ft elevation among the volcanic mountains of the Western Guatemala. Between 80-90 percent of the native people were illiterate and lived in dirt-floored huts without water or electricity. Mortality was about 50 percent by age 5, and the average life span was only 30 years.

Father David Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese, has ministered in the Guatemala Mission for nearly 40 years. Among Father Baronti’s efforts is a translation of the Missal into Quiché, the Mayan dialect spoken in the area served by the mission. (IR photo by Deacon Eric Meisfjord)

Father John Rompa, who later began the “Voice of Nahuala” radio station, became the third priest from Spokane in 1960. Additional priests, and Religious Sisters followed during the 1960s and 1970s. As more Spokane parishes began offering their support, the pastoral missionary work expanded to agricultural and credit cooperatives, clinic and health programs, and educational activities.

Father James McGreevy became the seventh “Padre de Spokane” in 1970, and the Sisters of Charity of New York took over the health programs and medical clinics of the mission. David Baronti accepted an assignment from Bishop Topel to the mission in 1975 and took up residence in Ixtahuacán.

Among the many challenges faced by the missionaries was a 7.6 earthquake in1976 that destroyed the Catholic school in Nahualá. It damaged the churches and most houses in the mission area. Spokane parishioners sent $150,000 in assistance.

Times of Violence

The years 1980-1998 were times of overwhelming violence in the Highlands. The Spokane-Guatemala Mission booklet provides background and includes some previously unpublished details of assassinations of religious leaders and other events that occurred during the Guatemalan Civil War.

Many of the catechists and native people that were associated with the Catholic Church were among the 200,000 that were killed or missing. Father Stan Rother was a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City was gunned down in his rectory on July 28, 1981. That same year, seven men were assassinated behind the Nahualá church. The names of both Father David Baronti and Sister Immaculata Burke were reported to have been death lists, but both continued their service to the poor.

The process for possible canonization of Father Rother began in 2007.

Father Brian Mee, who joined the parish at Nahulá in 1983, reported that he and Father Baronti were baptizing about 1,000 children each year.

Despite the ongoing violence, the 25th anniversary celebration of mission took place in 1985, attracting a delegation of 50 people from Spokane. The late Bishop Lawrence Welsh, then Bishop of Spokane, accompanied the group to Guatemala, and Bishop Fuentes of Sololá reciprocated later with a visit to Spokane.

Peace Accord and 50th anniversary

The 1990s saw reduced violence, and a movement toward peace on the national level. A Spokane contingent delivered a bus and ambulance to the mission. Pastoral activities and road, school, and chapel construction moved ahead. Training centers were constructed and several economic development projects, such as weaving, carpentry, trout production and reforestation were fostered.

Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala in 1996, and signed four copies of Father Baronti’s translation of the Missal into Quiché, the language of the Indian peoples of the Highlands. The signing of the peace accord later that year brought hope of ending four decades of violence.

Sister Immaculata Burke of the Sisters of Charity of New York ministers through health care and education in the mission. (IR photo by Deacon Eric Meisfjord)

However, natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch (1998) continued to challenge the people of the Highlands. Following torrential rains, most residents of the 400-year-old village of Ixthauacán left and moved to cold, barren, but flat, land in Chui Patan on the top of the continental divide.

The aftermath of the violence also took its toll. Bishop Juan Gerardi, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City, was murdered in 1998, two days after releasing a report implicating the military in the civil war. Sister Barbara Ford, who was helping victims cope their losses of loved ones, was killed by gunfire in 2001.

Medical support to the poor rose to a new level when teams from Spokane conducted cataract surgery projects in the mission area in 2004 and 2006. Dr. Jose Miguel, the Quiché-speaking native physician in Novillero, was honored in Spokane for 20 years of outstanding service.

In 2008, after being under construction for 21 years, the first vehicles negotiated “Father Baronti’s Road,” connecting Ixtahuacán to the Pacific Coast. Father Baronti also managed construction of a Marian Community Center. Construction of a bakery/training center also got underway in Ixtahuacán.

Life was gradually returning to Ixtahuacán, as it welcomed the 50th anniversary group of 32 visitors from Spokane in November 2009. The visiting pilgrims, accompanied by Bishops Skylstad (Spokane) and de Villa (Sololá) also received enthusiastic welcomes in Nahualá, Chui Patan, and Novillero as the native communities celebrated 50 years of partnership in mission.

The booklet includes many more entries than the brief summary above. It is available from the Guatemala Commission, P.O. Box 1453, Spokane, WA 99210. Please include a check to cover the cost of $2/copy plus $6 for postage and handling.

(Jerry Monks is a member of the Spokane Diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)

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