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

Guatemalan bishop identifies key ingredient of successful mission activities

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the Sept. 15, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)

The Diocese of Sololá-Chimaltenango spans a mountainous terrain that extends from beautiful Lake Atitlan, at the 5,100-feet elevation level, to the Chuquisis area at over 11,000 feet. Some of the villages, like Ixtahuacán, are several hundred years old. Others, like those in Chiquisis area, (also known as “Alaska”), have sprung up within the last 10 years. These communities have arisen as storms and mud slides prompted hundreds of families to move from their dirt-floored homes on mountainsides to less steep, but cold and barren land, in hopes of a better life.

Under the Sister Diocese Program begun in 1960, the Diocese of Sololá and the Diocese of Spokane share missionary responsibility for Ixtahuacán, Chiquisis, and other areas of the mission. The head of the Sololá-Chimaltenango Diocese is Bishop Gonzalo de Villa SJ, former president of Landivar University in Guatemala City. Bishop de Villa’s diocese serves over 800,000 native people of the area, most of whom are very poor, and about 80 percent of whom are Catholic.

Bishop Gonzalo de Villa SJ, Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala

During a recent interview at his home in Panajachel, Bishop de Villa was asked to single out the missionary activity that was the most essential toward improving the lives of his native people. After a brief moment, he responded that it would have to be education. He said that schooling was critically fundamental to virtually all progress (i.e., spiritual, social, economic, etc.) of any people.

Educational assistance lies at the heart of much of the help that Spokane parishioners currently provide to their sister Diocese of Sololá. Direct monthly support from Spokane parishes helps pay instructors in schools like the Colegio in Nahualá, and Our Lady of the Highway pre-school. Students at Our Lady of Help indigenous girl’s school in Panajachel receive tuition assistance and students in the Ixtahuacán basico school receive aid in the form of computers and educational supplies. Direct aid is also channeled to Bishop de Villa in support of seminary instruction in Sololá and to Father David Baronti, a Spokane Diocese priest serving in Guatemala, for student tuition assistance.

Educational motives also underlie many of the medical, pastoral, economic, and other programs supported by Spokane parishioners. A major element of clinic programs is the education and training of health promoters who go into remote areas and deliver a range of medical procedures. Pastoral leaders go out to over 40 communities and conduct religious training programs. Numerous economic programs train hundreds of families in nutrition and ways to grow their own food, and in self-supportive skills like weaving, carpentry, and tree/coffee production.

The benefits of educational training also extend over many years, and even generations. For example, as a young Quiché man, José Miguel Vasquez received scholarship help from Our Lady of Fatima Parish of Spokane. By 1985, he had finished medical school at San Carlos University. He then became the first native medical doctor at the Spokane Diocese clinic in Novillero.

Dr. José Miguel Vasquez

In December 1999, when St. Mary’s parishioners learned that Dr. Miguel’s salary of $300 per month was not enough to provide necessities for his family and schooling for his children, they came forward with additional support for the diocese’s health care activities. Dr. Miguel was able to enroll his children in professional educational programs.

Now, 12 years later, Dr. Miguel’s son, Robinsson, has just finished medical school. Moreover, he was one of only two students – out of a beginning class of 140 – to graduate. Nine students, who had failed their exams the prior year or two, also graduated at that time. Robinsson’s comment was, “But thanks [to] God and the people who believed in me, I did it.”

Robinsson now seeks to take additional training to become a cardiologist so that he can better help his native people. The additional training will take several more years, and there are no cardiology residencies in Guatemala. His options are (1) pass an exam and become a cardiology resident in Spain, (2) do an internal medicine residency in Guatemala City and then go to Mexico, or (3) pass three exams and study in the U.S.

In Robinsson’s own words, “My only problem is the money.” The Spain option, will cost almost $5,000 for classes, books, airplane fare, etc. However, once he has passed the exam he would receive a salary for the five years of residency. The Guatemala-Mexico option would be more difficult because the Mexican government does not provide salaries to foreign students. The U.S. option, at a cost of about $7,000, is “the most expensive and difficult one, but not impossible.” He would have to take some additional classes in Guatemala and in the U.S. before gaining residency.

Like many other educational programs, Robinsson’s “first barrier is the money.” He said that he could “start working right now,” but he feels he can do his job as a professional and as a servant of God, “much, much better” the more he can study at this time.

As Bishop de Villa has observed, educational programs underlie many of the missionary activities of the Spokane Diocese in Guatemala. Although the diocese does not have a separate “Education” category in its FY 2011-12 budget, donations in support of education and training can certainly be put to good use to help those who lack funding.

Parishioners who wish to help fund educational activities in the Spokane mission are invited to send their contributions to the Guatemala Commission, P.O. Box 1453, Spokane, WA 99210. Please include a note that your gift is a donation to help educational and student programs.

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

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