by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register
(From the April 19, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
A group of 32 visitors, mostly from the Spokane Diocese, took part in a 50th anniversary pilgrimage to Guatemala in November 2009, warmly welcomed by huge crowds at four villages. Leading this procession were Bishop Gonzalo de Villa SJ of Sololá; Father David Baronti, a Spokane Diocese priest who serves in Guatemala; and Bishop William Skylstad, then bishop of Spokane. Bishop de Villa visited Spokane in February 2009; Bishop Skylstad made several visits to the Guatemala mission during his tenure as Bishop of Spokane. After returning to Eastern Washington after the 2009 trip, Bishop Skylstad said that “Our relationship with the Diocese of Sololá has truly been a profound blessing and a humbling experience … we who have so much and they so little, yet they are so grateful.” He went on to say that the people of the Diocese of Sololá “have given us even more by sharing the presence of Jesus with us.” (IR file photo by Deacon Eric Meisfjord)
What do prayers, rabbits, tractors, and table runners have in common? No, the link is not prayers before eating a rabbit that was hit by a tractor and rushed it to a camp table for cooking. But these things, along with a large number of other people, events, and things have a strong international connection. They have all played a bonding role in a more than 50-year covenant relationship between two very distant sites, Spokane and Guatemala.
Bishops Bernard Topel of Spokane and Angelico Melotto of Sololá, Guatemala, set the stage when they signed a Sister Diocese Program covenant in 1960. Since then, the people, prayers, and activity interchange that have taken place between the two sites has been unimaginable.
The Spokane-Guatemala connection began as a simple response to Pope Pius XII’s request for more equitable sharing between First- and Third-World countries. Spokane accepted the challenge faithfully, supplying Religious and lay personnel time, a good deal of talent, and program funds. The Sololá Diocese gave Spokane not only a unique opportunity for direct help to the poor, but also a heartfelt appreciation, prayers, and an ongoing interaction with native people beyond all expectation.
A recounting of the events, and personnel, that have fashioned the Spokane-Sololá relationship over the years would take many pages. It would begin with the names of eight priests from Spokane, including Father David Baronti, who is the current Spokane Diocese priest serving as a missionary in Guatemala. They have all dedicated their time and talent to evangelizing and serving the Mayan Indians of the Highlands. Don Wessels, of Spokane’s KHQ Radio, produced a slide presentation documenting the “Padres of Spokane” in 1961.
Added to the priests would be several Sisters, including Franciscan Sister Maureen Cosgrove of St. Charles Parish, who spent eight years in Guatemala, and Sister Janet Druffel, a School Sister of Notre Dame from Colton, Wash. Sister Janet assumed responsibility for operation of the mission radio station in 1965, was awarded the papal medal in 1991, and continues her service even today.
Five couples from Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Spokane, initiated active parish involvement in 1965 when they formed their Sister Parish Committee, which remains active today. That same year, Marge and Mike Brewer, of St. Patrick Parish, Spokane, spent three weeks teaching native Guatemalans about finances and credit unions. Two years later, Gus Kelly, a local Presbyterian, reported on the significant economic impact of diocesan support for natives in Guatemala.
Bishop Melotto of Sololá brought Guatemalan thanks, and medals, to Spokane in 1969. The next 10 years witnessed extensive progress in the pastoral, medical, and agricultural areas. By the early 1980s, several churches, schools, and clinics were actively serving the native people. The people, in turn, always prayed for God’s blessings on their benefactors.
Guatemala’s civil war violence restricted Catholic activities in the mission area in the 1980s; some catechists and Religious were sought out and killed. Among them was a priest missionary from Oklahoma, Father Stan Rother, whose cause for sainthood was initiated in 2007. Nevertheless, the contacts between Guatemala and Spokane intensified. Jim and Sherl Lewis of St. Ann Parish, Spokane, along with Donna Kendal and Maureen O’Keefe, pushed ahead with Healing the Children activities that brought difficult medical cases from Guatemala to Spokane for surgery. Also in Spokane, St. Thomas More Parish’s Family-To-Family (FTF) program of economic support took shape as a result of one of those exchanges. St. Patrick Parish, Pasco, helped with water supply and clinic projects during the 1980s, and the trout farm project was begun. Today, Deacon Gary Franz and his family exemplify Pasco’s deep involvement in a wide range of activities in Novillro, Nahualá, and Ixtahuacán.
Numerous exchanges occurred over the next 20 years. Deacon Chuck Fosmire, Bill Barber, and 20 others drove a bus and ambulance from Spokane, through Mexico, to Guatemala over 12 days in 1990. David Dodroe and Ed McCarren of Spokane moved a truck and rock crusher to Guatemala in 1991. Dave stayed on to build roads, chapels, a school, a training center and bakery, and even a hydroelectric plant.
Jerry and Rita Reisenauer, of Uniontown, donated a grain silo in 1996. That same year, the Spokane Diocese joined with Catholic Relief Services in arranging to ship $30,000 in corn relief to Guatemala. The following year, Mike Doohan, of K&L Manufacturing, donated 18 large industrial sewing machines for weaving projects. The silo and the sewing machines were packaged by volunteers and flown to Guatemala by the U.S. Air Force.
Daryl Romeyn of KXLY Television, traveled to the Highlands to film the fish hatchery project in 1998. The film featured Mike Albert, of the Little Spokane Fish Hatchery. Mary Ann Sinclair, and her daughter Rebecca, of St. Patrick Parish, Spokane, managed to board a plane with 60-some rabbits for an FTF project that same year. There was a slight problem with customs, but over 60 rabbits got to new homes.
In May 2001, Dr. Jose Miguel, the physician in charge of mission clinics, waved to runners from the steps of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes as the Bloomsday crowd went by. He was visiting Spokane to report on medical projects and outline health goals. Dr. Greg Jones, of Spokane, returned the visit a few years later, taking medical supplies. FTF subsequently arranged for medical teams from Spokane to do cataract surgeries for natives in the Highlands on two separate occasions.
With the coming of the 50th year of covenant, the connections between Spokane and Guatemala intensified even more. A group of 32 pilgrims, including Bishop William Skylstad, joined in extensive and colorful celebrations in four villages in 2009.
The next visitors from Guatemala will be program managers Natalia de Leon and Adela Tambriz. They will be at Our Lady of Fatima Parish, on the corner of 33rd and Perry in Spokane, for visits after Masses on April 21 and 22. They will also be discussing mission programs at a potluck at the St. Thomas More Parish Activity Center beginning at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 19. Guests are welcome. Please RSVP to (509) 924-1346 or (509) 466-3995 to attend.