Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Colbert parish teens encounter mission life first-hand

by Natalie Pilgeram, for the Inland Register

(From the September 20, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)

At last, Father Baronti’s worn pickup truck pulled into the dirt parking lot at the entrance of the Guatemalan village. People began to gather in the pews of the church. Father Baronti emerged in his vestments, and Mass finally commenced – an hour and 45 minutes later than had been anticipated by us, but, in a certain sense, perfectly on time for the Guatemalan people who knew the time wasn’t the important thing.

Father David Baronti celebrates Mass.

We departed from the Spokane airport for Guatemala early on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 1. There were eight of us in all – four youth group members and four adults from St. Joseph Parish in Colbert. This was the first year our parish had decided to send youth representatives along for the ride: Charitee Hyman, Kylie Mack, Kara Rondeau, and myself. We were accompanied by adult parishioners Don Baldwin, Jim Tate, Davida Condron, and Tracie Gyllenhammer.

After a full day of flying, we touched down in Guatemala City. We stayed there one night, and the next day, we drove into the highlands in our four-wheel-drive rental vehicles. One stop was made at the medical clinic in the town of Novillero to drop off the donated supplies that had been collected and purchased during the last year. The hardworking Sisters that run the clinic were grateful to receive all of the vitamins, infant clothing, medical equipment, and pharmaceuticals, and graciously invited us to stay for cookies and conversation.

Then we were off again, continuing the climb to our true destination: the little mountain village of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán. We parked in the space next to the town church, perhaps the largest and most recognizable structure in Ixtahuacán, and the Marian Center, the building that would serve as home base for the duration of the mission. The Marian Center serves as a community meeting center as well as the home of Father Baronti, the Spokane Diocese priest who leads all the church services in the area. Jim and Don had traveled down a few days early to carry out various repair projects on the Marian Center. In addition, one of our major activities over the next few days would be to repaint several of the guest bedrooms. But this night, we went straight to bed after setting up our rooms, falling asleep to the sounds of rain on the roof and dogs skirmishing in the streets. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that Father Baronti’s church bell that normally rings out the hours of night was temporarily out of service!

The next morning, Friday, we drove the short distance out of town to visit the locally run fish hatchery. The Spokane Diocese assisted with the establishment of the hatchery a few years ago to provide an extra source of income for Ixtahuacán. The fish raised there are shipped out and sold in nearby cities. A recent mudslide caused damage to the structure, but it is still in use, albeit not at its original capacity. We visited just in time to help with the feeding of the fish, which are now about six inches long. The man who runs the hatchery also invited us to visit his home, allowing us to see what a typical Guatemalan dwelling looks like. Two families shared the house, which had a tin roof, floors of hard packed dirt, and the large wood stove typical of most households in the highlands. While there, we had the privilege to observe one of the young women of the family weaving a colorful pattern on a traditional back strap loom. Later in the afternoon, we visited Ixtahuacán’s “upper” school to present the principal with the donated laptops we had collected as well as some downloadable educational software. The students had also prepared a presentation for our enjoyment, which was well worth the wait. (This event was perhaps when we first became aware of the phenomenon that is Guatemala time.) We were presented with an intricately embroidered wall hanging to bring back home as a reminder of our parish’s relationship with the people of Ixtahuacán. Three of the students also demonstrated a Mayan ritual involving dancing with lighted torches and even fire blowing.

Most of Saturday was spent visiting “New Ixtahuacán,” also known as “Alaska” because its higher elevation results in lower temperatures. New Ixtahuacán was founded after Hurricane Mitch (1998) caused great damage in “Old Ixtahuacán,” where we were staying. The government offered to help the devastated townspeople rebuild at a higher, more stable location. More than half of the Ixtahuacán families left to settle in this new location.

Students from Ixtahuacán’s “Upper School” perform a Mayan fire blowing ritual.

While there, we visited with Adela Tambríz, the Mayan woman who runs the Family-to-Family program that assists the poor of the area. She showed us where the various classes are held teaching vocational skills such as carpentry and sewing, and also gave us a tour of the tree nursery that provides the trees for her reforestation program. We passed off to Adela the children’s coats and boots that had been donated to help keep warm the young residents of the village of “Alaska.” In return, we left with a selection of hand-sewed and hand-knitted articles made by the women participating in the skills training program. These will be sold back in Spokane to support the Family-to-Family Program.

On Sunday, we took the chance to visit Chichicastenango (“Chichi”), home to an overwhelmingly huge and bustling Mayan marketplace. As we battled the crowds in search of the perfect souvenir items, we tried our hand at haggling in Spanish. We learned how to ask “lo menos?” when we wanted a lower price, how to know when to accept the price and when to strategically walk away.

The four youth representatives from St. Joseph Parish, to Guatemala: from left to right, Natalie Pilgeram, Kara Rondeau, Kylie Mack, and Charitee Hyman.

After returning home from a long, hard day of shopping, we began preparing for the youth group meeting planned for that evening. The night proved to be a surreal experience. We listened to joyful Spanish worship music and played ridiculous dancing games. The youth had also prepared several traditional dances for us to watch. Then came the presentation of gifts. We had brought a soccer ball to give to each casario, as well as medals with the image of St. Joseph to give to all the youth group members. We were each presented with a bracelet and a unique handmade basket. I was glad that I had not found a souvenir for myself in Chichi; these items would surely be enough to remember my trip by.

The next morning, we traveled to the town of Nahualá in order to pay a visit to the headquarters of the local radio station, which is financially supported in part by the Spokane Diocese. The station broadcasts content in the native Mayan language of Quiché as well as in Spanish, and covers topics ranging from religious ideas and medical information to household tips. There is even a special segment every week geared specifically towards women. The staff was in the middle of a prayer meeting when we arrived, but they paused to talk with us out about what the station does and its current situation. The rest of our day was spent seeing more of the Guatemalan countryside. We visited the town of Panajachel on scenic Lake Atitlan, and we girls as well as Jim and Davida had the amazing opportunity to go zip lining over the jungle near the water. It was an incredible way to spend our last full day in the Guatemalan highlands.

Boys enjoy the playground equipment at Ixtahuacán’s Marian Center. (IR photos courtesy of Natalie Pilgeram)

On Tuesday, we had to pack up our rooms, say goodbye to Father Baronti, and leave Ixtahuacán. We would be traveling to the old colonial city of Antigua and staying the night there before flying out of Guatemala City the next morning.

I could spend pages describing the grandeur and ornate architectural details of the Spanish churches we viewed in Antigua. But right now, to conclude, I’d like to return to that Saturday evening Mass in the little casario in the mountains.

First of all, I didn’t understand a word of the service, as it was held in Quiché. The songs were in Spanish, however, and we were all impressed by the unabashed forcefulness with which the worshippers in the pews raised their voices. Afterwards, we were invited into a side room that functioned as the meeting hall of the church and offered (as we were at every gathering throughout our trip) bottled water and packaged crackers.

What took place next is what will always stand as my personal favorite memory from our mission. Some of the youth went to Don (the only fluent Spanish speaker in our group) and asked whether any of us girls spoke Spanish. When he told them we knew just a little, they accepted the challenge of holding a conversation with us. We found ourselves practically swarmed with eager teenagers asking questions rapidly (or at least it sure seemed rapid) in Spanish. We did what we could to keep up with the talking and to remember names. There was much laughter at our expense. They taught us how to say a few select phrases in Quiché; we taught them a little English. And even though the whole experience was a little strange, completely overwhelming, and often embarrassing, I didn’t want that night to ever end.

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