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


Guatemala mission an ongoing story of struggle, grace, and progress

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the August 18, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)

(Editor’s Note: The following chronicles the beginnings of Spokane’s connection to the poor in Guatemala).

History: independence, expulsion, & return

The Mayan civilization dominated the Guatemala area for about 2,000 years prior to arrival of the Spanish in 1523. After 300 years of Spanish rule, Guatemala gained independence from Spain in 1821. However, the Spanish (Catholic) missionaries had brought a conservative tone with deference to the indigenous of the region that conflicted with the ambitions of landowners and politicians. During the 1870s and 1880s the Guatemalan presidents expelled the “foreign” priests and expropriated all church property. They even imported non-Catholic missionaries to further erode the influence of the Church. Quetzaltenango (Xela), the largest city near the current Spokane mission area, became an important Protestant center.

Although the Church was under siege, local Maya held on to their religion in various ways. The native people of Ixtahuacán finally succeeded in bringing a priest back into their area in the 1930s. Jacobo Arbenz was elected president in 1951. He led the way to democracy and missionaries were allowed to return. However, Arbenz became a victim of a United Fruit lobbying/communist fear propaganda campaign in the U.S. that led to his overthrow by a CIA-backed coup in 1954. Guatemalan leaders, supported and trained by the U.S. military, then maintained harsh (and deadly) control until the late 1970s, when the Guatemalan Civil War finally erupted.

Bishop Topel & the “Sister Diocese” program

In response to a plea from Venerable Pope Pius XII in 1958, Bishop Bernard Topel elected to channel Spokane’s missionary help to the estimated 35,000 poverty-stricken Mayan Indians who had been prompted to take up residence in the volcanic area of Northwestern Guatemala. This was an area where 80-90 percent of the Quiché-speaking natives were illiterate. The mortality rate was 50 percent by age 5. The natives lived primarily on mountainsides in dirt-floored huts on a diet that consisted mostly of two vegetables, corn and beans.

Religious education, for young and old, has been at the core of the Guatemala mission efforts. (IR photo courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)

Under the “covenant agreement” signed with the bishop there, Spokane assumed responsibility for five parishes in the Diocese of Sololá. Having such responsibility for parishes in foreign country was unique for an American Diocese, for it came to include pastoral, educational, medical, and even facility components. Spokane funded two priests for Guatemala in 1959. Father John Rompa was added in 1960 and later founded the “Voice of Nahualá” radio station. A fourth priest arrived in1961 and emphasized the feasibility of growing corn – even in the high elevations.

Schools, clinics, & broader support

Mission activities moved ahead rapidly during those first years. Three School Sisters of Notre Dame joined the mission team in 1962 and proceeded to open a primary school in the village of Nahualá. Agricultural and credit cooperatives were initiated in 1963. This was followed by opening of medical clinics and health programs in 1964 by an order of nuns from New York. The fifth “Padre de Spokane,” Father Thomas O’Halloran, replaced one of the first priests that year, and soon launched a campaign for money to build a sawmill.

Members from St. Patrick Parish, Spokane, visited to teach about financial matters. Five couples from Our Lady of Fatima Parish formed their Sister Parish Committee, a group that continues to help the mission to this day, over 50 years later.

Projects & mission philosophy

As the Guatemala Mission entered the 1967-77 decade, attendance at the mission school in Nahualá was growing dramatically and clinics were providing care for expectant mothers. The cooperative, founded in 1963, grew to include about 1,000 families. It helped provide funds for seed, machinery, and land for crops. Its silos (from Eastern Washington) enabled locals to store corn and wheat seed and to take better advantage of the fluctuations in market prices.

Father David Baronti of the Spokane Diocese became a permanent missionary in Guatemala in 1976. He continues to minister there. (IR photo courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)

Missionary philosophy was not one of a handout, however. As Blessed Pope Paul VI had promulgated earlier, it embodied a doctrine of development. The philosophy of self-reliance has continued over the next 50 years of mission life.

Parish support, Religious, & health care

Parish support also continued to grow, with parishioners from St. Augustine (Spokane), St. John Vianney (Spokane Valley), Sacred Heart (Pullman), and St. Patrick (Walla Walla) providing needed funds. In 1968, Our Lady of Fatima parishioner King Cole (who was later the president of Expo 74), along with Congressman Tom Foley and Ernie Diedesch, took the bold step of sending a school bus to Guatemala. The bus enabled about 100 pupils from the outlying village of Santa Lucia to ride to the mission school in Nahualá. The inclusion of Quiché girls in the student body was seen as a breakthrough.

Fathers Rompa and Verdoorn returned to Spokane in 1968. The next year they were awarded medals in Spokane during a visit by Bishop Angelico Melotto of Sololá. The seventh “Padre de Spokane,” Father James McGreevy, went to the mission in 1970, and was followed by four nuns who took charge of the clinics, health programs, and some women’s projects in 1971. Two of those who remained for many, many years were Sisters Immaculata Burke and Marie Tolle of the Sisters of Charity of New York. Sister Immaculata later reported that there were 40,000 visits to medical clinics in 1973.

A severe earthquake shook the mission area in 1976. The 7.9 quake destroyed the school in Nahualá (mentioned above) and destroyed or damaged most houses in the mission area, including churches in Ixtahuacán and Santa Lucia. Bishop Topel of Spokane responded quickly with $150,000 in relief funds.

Father David Baronti was assigned as the eighth “Padre de Spokane.” After spending his diaconate year in the mission, Father Baronti became its first permanent missionary in 1976. His assignment to the mission, where he continues to serve today, came to have a profound influence in the religious, economic, and social lives of thousands of Mayan people over the next 40 years.

Violence & the Guatemalan Civil War

In addition to dealing with ravages of nature, the native people of the Highlands were some of the main victims of Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war. More than 200,000 people were killed during the 1960-1996 period, of which over 80 percent were Mayan Indians. Considerable violence was inflicted upon the Catholic natives and catechists.

Following the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected president (Jacobo Arbenz) in 1954, the U.S.-backed military leaders of Guatemala imposed increasing imperatives on the native people, who were tagged as communists or guerilla rebels. In 1977, in the village of Panzos, soldiers killed 125 men who had been invited to a meeting after their lands had been confiscated.

In many homes, heating and cooking are accomplished with wood-burning stoves. Gathering firewood is an essential task. (IR photo courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)

In 1980, peasants from the Diocese of Quiché occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to protest usurpations in their area. The Guatemalan army assaulted and burned the building. Among the victims was the father of Rigoberta Menchu, who herself later received the Nobel Peace Prize. Also included was the mother of a young seminarian who, 28 years later, was to become the Bishop of Sololá, Gonzalo de Villa.

The early 1980s were life-threatening times for the priests, Sisters and catechists of the Spokane mission. The names of both Father David Baronti (of the Spokane Diocese) and Sister Immaculata Burke (of the Sisters of Charity of New York) appeared on “death lists.” On one occasion in 1981, Father Baronti had joined with a group of about 50 others to participate in a rosary procession. Helicopters hovered over the procession and strange men stood alongside the route, taking notes. Weeks later, after noting the presence of armed men near his residence in Ixtahucán, Father Baronti decided to leave for the United States. Upon returning two months later, he learned that all participants of the rosary procession had been murdered.

Spokane’s Bishop Lawrence Welsh visited Sololá in 1981 and gave his missionaries the option of leaving Guatemala. All chose to remain. Father Baronti’s friend and fellow priest, Father Stan Rother, of what is now the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, was gunned down in his rectory later that year. Father Rother is currently under consideration for canonization.

Life goes on: the 25th anniversary

Sister Barbara Ford of the Sisters of Charity of New York began a program for the Widows of Sololá in 1981. Later (1984), she helped members of St. Thomas More Parish begin the Family-To-Family (FTF) program. FTF was designed to help poor Mayan families learn productive skills and become self-sufficient. It continues today under new directors.

In 1983, Father Brian Mee joined the parish in Nahualá, becoming the ninth “Padre de Spokane.” Bishop Welsh made another visit that year, noting that Fathers Baronti and Mee serve an area of 60,000 people and baptize about 1,000 children each year. Father Baronti later (1986) began a fisheries project that also continues to this day.

Mission concept redefined

By the late 1980s, the Diocese of Spokane’s included the supplying of nine priests, the funding of pastoral, educational, medical, and other personnel, plus some facilities, vehicles, and ministries such as the radio station in Nahualá. In the words of Bishop Eduardo Fuentes of the Diocese of Sololá, Spokane had “made a very significant difference to our people due to the sacrifice, self-giving, and perseverance of dedicated people like yourselves.”

In 1988, Father Mike Savelesky, then chairman of the Guatemala Commission, began steps for Sololá to assume more direct ownership of the various ministries. This was indeed an added challenge for the Diocese of Sololá, which served a Catholic population of 700,000 with only 40 priests. However, Spokane agreed to maintain and foster the “sister parish” relationships that it had developed in the past.

In 1990, a revised ministerial covenant was signed by Bishop Fuentes of Sololá and Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane. Continued funding for the various ministries was arranged, and local ownership of buildings and properties documented. The renewed covenant (July 1996) did not change the tremendous need of the native people.

So many different “vehicles” and one tough road!

Among the many vehicles transported to the mission at different times were a school bus, ambulance, truck, tractor, and rock crusher. The bus, from a gift to Family-To-Family, (FTF), was for inter-village travel. The ambulance (upgraded by Darrell Sira) was delivered to the firefighters in Nahualá. Twenty-two adventurous pilgrims left Spokane on a cold day in early January 1959 to brave the 12-day drive through the Western U.S. and Mexico to deliver the goods – a momentous trip!

Many years of effort, plus some heavy equipment, resulted in improved access to markets for the villages in the mission. (IR photo courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)

Equally challenging was the transport in 1991 by Dave Dodroe and Ed McCarron of a rock crusher and a 60,000 pound D-9 tractor. The machinery was destined to help on the road project Father David Baronti had initiated three years earlier. His “Road to the Coast” sought to link his 7,500 ft.-level village of Ixtahuacán with a highway in the Pacific Coast region. It would take the next 20 years to forge through the mountainous region of settlements that were included in Father Baronti’s assigned parish of Ixtahuacán.

Power – solar, hydro, & spiritual – & peace

In addition to lacking road access, most villages had no electric power. One of the larger, and extremely isolated, villages was Tzamjuyub. It was reached by a partially completed dirt road that descended from the Pan American Highway at the 11,000 ft. level. In 1993, when an FTF visitor asked three leaders what they wanted most for their community, the answer was, “We would like a road into Tzamjuyub, and electricity for our homes.” FTF helped build three bridges to complete the road, and went on to construct a solar powered training center in the village. That was followed by a school, the first store, 16 new homes, 43 latrines, and 10 chimneys. Later came sewing machines and various training programs so the locals could learn income-producing skills.

Chuisibel was another village without power. Dodroe, a volunteer from Spokane who had just finished building a school in Tzamjuyub, went there to help and located a nearby waterfall. With $8,000 worth of assistance from Spokane, and considerable work, he constructed a hydroelectric station to deliver electricity to 40 homes in the area.

The spiritual progress of the mission was also evident in many, many ways. Sister Janet Druffel of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and Sister Immaculata Burke of the Sisters of Charity of New York were both awarded the papal medal “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” (“For the Church and the Pope”) for their work in Guatemala. Pope St. John Paul II visited Guatemala in 1996, and signed four copies of Father Baronti’s Quiché Missal, culminating 17 years of translating liturgy work. Finally, a peace accord was signed in 1996, with hopes of ending four decades of terror, violence and civil war.

Peace, but Religious still hit with violence

Guatemalans rejoiced with a UN-negotiated peace accord signed in late 1996. They hoped for an end to the nearly four decades of civil war that had been conducted primarily against the indigenous people.

The task of preparing a report on the truth of what happened fell upon Auxiliary Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi of Guatemala. His “Never Again” report concluded that the Guatemalan military was responsible for 85 percent of the human rights violations during the 36 year-long civil war. Over 15,000 catechists, hundreds of Religious, and 20 priests were killed including Father Baronti’s friend Father Stan Rother.

Two days after releasing his report in April 1998, Bishop Gerardi was bludgeoned to death at his home in Guatemala City. Three former military officers were eventually convicted of his murder.

Another significant “after-peace-accord” death was that of Sister Barbara Ford of the Sisters of Charity of New York. Sister “Bobbie” helped create the Adopt-A-Family program (later called Family-To-Family) in 1984. She had assisted in Bishop Gerardi’s historical memory project and in recovering bodies that were buried in mass graves during the war. At the time of her death in 2001, Sister Bobbie was in the process of helping survivors recover from their psychological wounds. She was shot in the head several times in what some called a robbery and others called a political execution.

Hurricanes batter mission area

Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998 with sustained winds of 180 mph. It was the worst hurricane to strike the Western Hemisphere in more than 200 years, leaving 11,000 dead and causing extensive flooding and mud slides. The Guatemala mission village of Ixtahuacán received 36 inches of rain over a two-day period. Homes, clinics, and structures such as the trout ponds were extensively damaged. Most residents abandoned the 400-year-old village and moved up to a barren area 3,000 ft. higher that was to become New Ixtahuacán.

The Spokane Diocese responded quickly with $25,000 in relief for survivors. Some parishes (e.g. Our Lady of Fatima and St. Thomas More) provided additional funds for food and medicine.

Seven years later, another major storm, Hurricane Stan, took 1,000 lives. Downpours washed out homes and roads and isolated villages. Refugees from 10 small villages in the Spokane mission area abandoned their mountainside homes and relocated closer to New Ixtahuacán at about the 10,000+ ft. elevation level. The cold and barren terrain, known locally as “Alaska,” was the site of a Family-To-Family (FTF) reforestation project. Refugees cut some of the young trees for use as beams to build replacement homes.

Sewing, trout, & medical projects break new ground

Despite post-war atrocities and the challenges of nature, mission activities continued to expand. Eighteen industrial sewing machines were flown from Fairchild Air Force Base to Guatemala in 1997. FTF began sewing classes in the remote village of Tzamjuyub, where FTF had previously built a training center.

Four years later, in 2001, Tzamjuyub had a first communion celebration for 60 children. Their clothing had been sewn by workers in their new solar-powered center. The next year, after a plea for help (IR 2/28/02), Spokane parishioners donated enough funds to purchase 36 “treadle style” sewing machines. The foot-powered machines enabled the women to continue with self-supportive sewing in their outlying homes that lacked electricity.

A challenging cataract surgery project was organized in 2004. Using dozens of volunteers and over $100,000 in equipment, medical teams from Spokane restored sight to 27 native people. Carmelita Chavez, a 38-year-old mother of five had been almost totally blind with 4-plus cataracts in both eyes. She had never seen her 6-month-old daughter, Isabel, and could not even go to the river to wash clothes. After surgery, upon removing the bandages from her right eye, her vision was 20/20. As she saw her baby for the first time, even the medical team cried tears of joy.

A second cataract surgery trip was planned for 2005. However, just days before the scheduled departure, Hurricane Stan struck the Highlands, washing out roads. The project was completed the next year, in 2006.

More than 50 years of religious progress

In 2007, Gonzalo de Villa, S.J. took over as Bishop of Sololá-Chimaltenango, the region that included the Spokane Mission. (Recall that Bishop de Villa’s mother had been among those peasants killed when the Guatemalan military assaulted the Spanish embassy building in 1980 – a “defining event” in the Guatemalan Civil War.)

Bishop de Villa visited Spokane in 2009. The next year he spoke at a conference in New Ixtahuacán, which was attended by an estimated 15,000 youth. In 2013, he reported that 56 priests had been ordained in the major seminary in Sololá over the previous 6 years.

Parishes from Walla Walla, Pasco, and Spokane increased their mission support by sending pastoral, medical, educational and other supplies. In 2008, the opening of the Marian Center and beginning of construction of the Family-To-Family (FTF) bakery/training center helped revitalize Old Ixtahuacán from the 1998 disaster of Hurricane Mitch. Additional community encouragement came from seeing the first vehicles traverse Father Baronti’s “Road to the Coast.” The road had been under construction for 21 years.

A highlight of the decade was the 50th Anniversary tour of the mission in 2009. A group of 32 pilgrims from Spokane, including Bishop William Skylstad, received very warm and colorful welcomes at numerous churches, clinics, schools, and at the “Voice of Nahualá” radio station.

Mother Nature continues to rule

Another tropical storm (Agatha) brought widespread damage to the Spokane mission area in 2010. Roads and crops were destroyed, and homes and food supplies lost in mudslides. The Spokane Diocese and FTF joined to provide $42,000 in funds for food, housing, and medical help. On-site distribution of the aid was managed by Adela Tambriz of FTF, Father Baronti, and Sisters Immaculata Burke and Marie Tolle of the Sisters of Charity of New York. FTF later funded the upgrade of a municipal building in Ixtahuacán for use as a storm emergency center.

Mother Nature also continued with her earthquakes, which are commonplace in the Guatemala Highlands. A 7.4 magnitude quake in 2012 again brought relief donations ($10,700) from the Guatemala Commission. Another sad note was the passing of Sister Immaculata Burke in 2014, after 43 years of service. Hundreds of native people joined the procession from the church in Nahualá to her burial site.

Father David: extraordinary missioner on the mountain

Back in 1998, a Spokane newspaper featured an article titled “Serving God on a mountain in Guatemala.” It commemorated the 25th year of service of Father David Baronti with the opening line “He’s a Spokane priest with a congregation 3,000 miles away.”

The article described some of Father Baronti’s many projects, including the hosting of Mike Albert, who managed the Washington State Fish Hatchery on the Little Spokane River. Mike had traveled to Father David’s village of Ixtahuacán to help native Mayans learn skills useful in operating their nearby fish hatchery. “I really didn’t realize it was quite so remote,” Albert said, “and that he [Father David] was operating in such primitive conditions.”

Now, after nearly 20 more years of service, Father David continues to serve thousands of native people in remote, roadless villages. That requires a flexibility and creativity to adjust to the conditions of Mother Nature. It also calls for some extraordinary actions at times, as he said in a 2003 visit to Spokane, when he challenged parishioners to love “outside the box.”

Such was the case when Juan Colon, the husband of Irma, came to Father David in 2004, asking him to bring the last sacraments to his paralyzed wife. Father David insisted on taking her to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine. He contacted Spokane for $3,000 for the spinal surgery that “would not likely have been attempted in the U.S.” (IR 1/18/2007). Spokane responded with the funds and Irma had the operation in Guatemala. The next year (2005) Irma was blessed with her fourth child, due in part to care that was rendered by a “Padre de Spokane” acting “outside the box.”

(Dr. Jerry Monks is a member of the Guatemala Commission.)


Inland Register Index | Home


© The Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved

WEB CONTACT