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 Colegio nears 50th year of operation

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the December 15, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)

Children enjoy the playground area of Colegio Nahuala in the Spokane mission in Guatemala. The first colegio was started in 1963 by SisterJanet Druffel of Colton, Wash., and two other members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame at the request of Bishop Bernard Topel. After being destroyed by an earthquake in 1976, the school was rebuilt as shown here. Parishes in the Diocese of Spokane have helped support the colegio over its 50 years of operation. (IR photo courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)

Fifty years ago, Spokane’s Bishop Bernard Topel made a loud and convincing plea to the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) in Mankato, Minn. As part of his response to the request of Pope John XXIII, the Bishop of Spokane sought teachers to open a school for Indian youngsters in a mountainous village in Northern Guatemala.

Nahualá was a Mayan Indian community of about 1,000 Quiché-speaking natives lying at the 8,000 feet elevation level along what was to become the Inter-American Highway. The homes of the people were very primitive. Most had dirt floors, adobe walls, and a grass or tile roof. None had running water and only about 30 homes had electricity – which amounted to one or two light bulbs.

But Nahualá was the central location of the Spokane mission in the Diocese of Sololá. Bishop Topel and Bishop Angelo Melotto of Sololá had signed a “Sister Diocese Program” agreement one year earlier. The 1960 covenant gave Spokane responsibility for helping serve the 35,000 Quiché Indians in the nearly 100 villages of the area, 80-90 percent of whom were illiterate. Fathers Cornelius Verdoorn and Francis O’Neil were already on board, and Father John Rompa had arrived in Nahualá as the third “Padre de Spokane.”

The School Sisters were receptive to Bishop Topel’s plea. Plans for a convent were made, and the school was to be held in a renovated section of the Nahualá parish church rectory. Sister Irene Feltz, one of the School Sisters, later recorded some events that followed.

In August 1962, Sister Janet Druffel, of Colton, WA, along with two other members of the School Sisters community, arrived in Guatemala City. They made the treacherous journey to Nahualá, making note of the “... sheer cliffs on one side” and “unprotected drop-offs” down the other.

In Nahualá, the Sisters were greeted with songs, signs, and pathways strewn with fresh pine needles and rose petals. Children ran up to the sisters for their blessing. Later they sang songs for them in Quiché, Spanish, and one in English: “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

The Sisters then settled in, worked on their language skills, and got supplies for the first school year that began in January 1963. Early instruction was especially difficult because only a small percentage of the children spoke Spanish, the official language of the country.

The massive 7.6 earthquake in February 1976 destroyed the Nahualá school building, and damaged most of the houses in the mission area. Approximately 30,000 inhabitants of Guatemala lost their lives. The School Sisters community then funded construction of the new school, which is in operation today. Among the innovations that followed was a “family days” program that included days of ongoing education for all members of the families of the students.

Today, the Spokane Mission programs encompass a much broader range of activities, including medical care, seminary, radio, youth and pastoral activities. Nevertheless, Colegio Nahuala continues to be one of the key components of the mission program. Although the Colegio lacks the latest in technology, and struggles with poorly paid teachers, its students attest to the Catholic environment and educational standards that prevail. Students are motivated, teachers are dedicated, and the school is continuing to make the solid contribution to the community that Bishop Topel must have prayed for 50 years ago.

Several Spokane Diocese parishes have helped the Colegio over its half-century of operation. Foremost among long-term support for teachers and instructional materials has been St. Augustine Parish of Spokane. They have been joined by the fourth grade class at Assumption School in Walla Walla, and more recently, Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Parish, Spokane.

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

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