Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Father David Baronti, the ‘four-wheel-drive missionary,’ handles life on the edge in the mountains of Guatemala

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the April 16, 2015 edition of the Inland Register)

Father David Baronti is a priest of the Spokane Diocese who has ministered in Guatemala for nearly 40 years. (IR photo courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)

A gritty, overloaded four-wheel-drive Toyota grinds to a halt as Father David Baronti tries to coax it up the steep incline of a mountainous trail Guatemalans call a camino (road). The priest relents and presses down hard on the brake pedal. He calmly turns to one of his passengers,

“Could you please jump out and put a rock behind the back wheel?”

Rocks are not difficult to find. But the passenger hesitates to follow the instructions because the tire is so smooth.

“Don’t worry about that,” responds Father Baronti. “I’ve had to deal with this before. I think we’ll have to walk from here.”

So begins another routine venture – this time to an isolated area along the Nahualette River where Father Baronti is building a retreat center. It will be a prayerful gathering place for the Mayan people that live in the 7,000 to 11,000 feet region of the volcanic mountains.

A former sports writer for the Eugene Register Guard in Oregon, David Baronti was ordained by Bishop Bernard Topel for the Diocese of Spokane and spent his diaconate year in Guatemala in 1975. The next year he was assigned to the Spokane mission as the eighth “Padre de Spokane.” The experiences of his 40 years in the mountains could well serve as the plot of a movie tracking the life of one who lives on the edge, surviving what others might perceive as one crisis after another. Some would say he is under the protection of a very challenged guardian angel.

Father Baronti serves as a parish priest in one of the most isolated areas of a Third World country. Yet, like some U.S. pioneers and inventors, his interests, talents, and activities have expanded in all directions. His interests range from archeological diggings to the banking strategies of Asian governments. His talents extend from those needed to earn his Ph.D in anthropology and linguistics to community organizer and author. Activity-wise, he may be giving first Communion to youngsters at one of many remote parishes in the morning, and drilling a hole in rock for a dynamite stick in the afternoon.

Father Baronti has developed a modus operandi that enables him to bring a unique set of skills to a very impoverished people while at the same time being accepted as one of the most endemic members of the community.

When he arrived in the remote area of Ixtahuacán in 1975, the region was estimated to have about 40,000 people, three-quarters of whom were Catholic. In addition to attending to their spiritual needs, he engaged in ambitious programs of education, health care, and the seemingly impossible challenge of building a road down the mountains to connect with communities on the Pacific Coast.

Shortly after his arrival in Guatemala in 1975, the military took substantial control of the country’s political, economic, and social structures, and Guatemala’s Civil War ensued. Many of his friends and co-workers were killed because of their association with the Catholic faith. In 1980, the father of future Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu was burned to death in a Guatemalan army assault. Included among the victims was the mother of Bishop Gonzalo de Villa S.J., current bishop of the Sololá-Chimaltenango diocese where Father Baronti serves.

Father Baronti and his catechists did not escape the danger. His name was reportedly on a “death list” during the violence. On one occasion in 1980, he accompanied a young woman to the Quiché city of Santa Cruz. The woman was working to settle a labor dispute. Upon returning, the two participated in a rosary procession at another site. Helicopters hovered over the procession, and Ladino men stood on the roadside taking notes.

Sometime later, armed men surrounded Father Baronti’s parish house in Ixtahuacán. It became prudent for the Spokane priest, living on the edge of survival, to leave Guatemala for a time. When he returned after two months, he learned that all of the other participants of the rosary procession – more than 50 people – had been murdered. That was the first of many massacres that occurred in the Quiché province during the following years.

Human rights organizations have reported that over 200,000 people were killed during the violence in Guatemala. Many of them were native Mayan Indians, Catholics, and catechists. Father Baronti’s co-worker and friend, Father Stan Rother, a missionary from Oklahoma, was gunned down in his rectory in 1981. (Pope Frances is currently in the process of advancing Father Rother’s name for canonization.)

Building upon his academic pursuit of language skills, Father Baronti has become a recognized linguist in the Quiché Indian language. Within the first few years of his stay, he published Quiché translations of three epistles of St. Paul and the Gospel of Mark. By 1994 he had completed translating the Catholic liturgy into Quiché. When St. John Paul II visited Guatemala in 1996 he personally signed four copies of Father Baronti’s Quiché Missal during his visit to Guatemala.

Earthquakes and storms have intensified the challenge of ministry in the Highlands. Following 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, about 500 of the 600 families living at an elevation of 7,300 feet in in Father Baronti’s village of Ixtahuacán evacuated to move to higher ground, near 11,000 feet. Although Ixtahuacán served as a center for perhaps 30,000 other native people living in the surrounding mountains, the Guatemalan government declared the village uninhabitable, cut off funding for education and other needs, and threatened to bulldoze the remaining houses.

After over 10 years of negotiation, the restriction was recently removed, thanks in large part to the persistent efforts of Father Baronti. The Saturday market place is active again, and a gradual rebuilding is in process. During recent years, the Ixtahuacán pastor has managed to construct a two-story community center dedicated to the Blessed Mother. The structure includes meeting rooms, a kitchen, and bedrooms (with hot showers) available for visitors to his village. A training center/bakery complex has also been constructed on the church property.

Among Father Baronti’s many projects to enhance the ability of the native people to better support themselves has been the development of ponds for the raising of trout. Raging waters from tropical storms have damaged the ponds at times, and have threatened the existence of the project. Nevertheless, Father Baronti has secured funding from organizations like the North Spokane Rotary Club, and has managed to rebuild the ponds in an even better condition for continued survival.

With the limited space of a newspaper article, it’s hard to do justice to the varied activities of this missionary priest who serves in Guatemala on behalf of the Diocese of Spokane. The Highlands are a challenging location, from both a pastoral and natural environmental perspective. Father Baronti, in his four-wheel-drive manner, has continued to serve the needs of the native people, even at the risk of his own life.

He will be making his annual visit to Spokane at the time of the third annual Guatemala Commission event at Barrister Winery on Monday, May 18th, and will give a brief update on activities in the mission. Anyone interested in the activities of the Guatemala Mission is welcome to attend; there is no charge.

(Jerry Monks is a long-time member of the Guatemala Commission.)

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