By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
They donated for years, sometimes decades, putting checks into envelopes that traveled thousands of miles to help sister parishes in Guatemala.
But they wanted more. They wanted connection.
So 29 men and women from the Belleville and Springfield dioceses visited Guatemala June 15-20, traveling to remote towns to experience their sister parishes firsthand. (Thirty-five Belleville diocesan parishes have a sister parish connection with a Guatemalan parish.)
Along the way, the visitors gained fresh perspective, indelible memories and a sense of family.
“Everywhere we went, people from that parish would be lining the roads with balloons, guitars, singing songs,” says Karen Waide, a parishioner from Immaculate Conception Church in Columbia. “They’d all greet us, and want to touch us. They’d want us to touch their babies. They wanted to be physically close to you.”
The seed for this trip was planted last summer at a conference held by Missions International, a Highland-based non-profit that helps parishes partner with other Catholic parishes around the world.
The focus of the conference was visiting sister parishes to build relationships. Waide attended with some fellow Immaculate Conception parishioners. She says her church has been supporting its sister parish, San Raymundo de Penafort in San Carlos Alzatate, for more than 25 years.
“Nobody in our parish had been there in at least a dozen years,” Waide says. “So we worked with Missions International to set something up.”
Eleven representatives from Immaculate Conception went on the trip, including Msgr. Carl Scherrer. The project grew to include six other parishes in the Diocese of Belleville. Participants generally paid their own expenses.
Cheryl Sommer was one of the two representatives from Missions International who accompanied the travelers. She is also the Catholic Relief Services coordinator for the Diocese of Belleville.
Father Mark Stec, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Olney, was making his second trip to Guatemala. He speaks Spanish, and even gave a homily in Spanish during his visit to San Jose Obrero in El Rancho.
When she heard about the trip, Samantha Maloy, a 20-year-old parishioner at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville, wanted to go, and asked her mother Maria to accompany her. They visited the cathedral of the Jalapa Diocese in Jalapa.
Maria Maloy says she was struck by how many languages they encountered. In addition to Spanish, there are 21 Mayan dialects spoken throughout the country, so even with Spanish-speaking translators, they sometimes struggled to communicate.
Deacon Jim Law made the trip on behalf of St. Augustine of Canterbury Church in Belleville. He traveled to Guatemala only a few weeks after his ordination, and has come to see it as a necessary continuation of his formation.
He says he tried to go visit San Francisco de Asis in northern Guatemala without “any baggage of any kind.”
He wasn’t talking about suitcases, but rather expectations. “I wanted to be able to experience what God wanted me to experience about it.”
In many cases, a sister parish in Guatemala is actually the main church for a network of even smaller churches in more remote areas. Priests must travel for hours to get to these satellite churches.
Deacon Law says some of the outlying chapels attached to San Francisco were simple cinderblock or wood structures. In some churches, the sanctuary light was a nightlight plugged in near the tabernacle.
But if the buildings were small and simple, the Masses were not. “The building would be packed, with men seated on one side, the women on the other,” Law says. “At one Mass, I counted 11 thuribles (censers for burning incense). Every thurible was smoking – at one point, I looked out and I couldn’t see anything but smoke. It was just beautiful.”
Everywhere they went, the southern Illinois visitors were reminded of the struggles that Guatemalans face simply to survive and raise their families.
Deacon Law notes that people in the country earn about $7 a day and may work 10-hour days, six days a week. He says many families can’t send their children to high school because they can’t afford the $10-per-month cost. And drug problems have worsened in recent years, the Maloys say.
As a result, people continue to attempt to flee to the United States. They make the effort even after learning about recent U.S. crackdowns on immigration, including family separations.
“A woman in San Jose Obrero told me she’d do anything to try to get to the border with her child,” Father Stec says. “If they were separated, so be it, as long as her child could survive.”
Sommer says that at one parish she visited, a priest told her parents felt an obligation to risk the perilous trip north.
“That was the word he chose: ‘obligation,’” Sommer says.
And a moment on a drive through the city of Jalapa made a deep impression on her and other visitors.
“We passed a funeral store,” Sommer says. “They had a wide variety of adult caskets – but also a wide variety of children’s caskets displayed. The fact is, children there die all the time of malnutrition. It helped to clarify to me why the priest talked about an ‘obligation’ (to emigrate). They’re trying to take care of their children.”
‘I’m the mission project’
All of the visitors got a chance to see how the sister parishes have been using the stream of donations coming from Illinois churches.
“They’re grateful, no doubt about it,” Father Stec says. “They also wanted us to understand that they’re using it to build up the community, that it’s being used responsibly.”
They plan to talk to their parishes about what they’ve seen and help strengthen support for their sister parishes. Immaculate Conception has already had an informational display about the visit, and the Maloys wrote a letter that was printed in the Belleville cathedral’s bulletin.
But they say they want to deepen personal relationships between the parishes as well. Waide’s group wants to bring the pastor of San Raymundo to Columbia to visit. Father Stec plans to have this year’s confirmation class at St. Joseph correspond with the confirmation class at San Jose Obrero.
And they continue to reflect on how the trip changed them. Sommer believes that trips like this one don’t just grow human relationships, but spiritual ones as well. Deacon Law echoed her sentiment.
“This trip is still molding me and forming me as a deacon,” Deacon Law says. “When we went, they told us, don’t go down there and tell them what they need to fix. While I was on this trip, I realized, I’m the mission project. I’m the one who’s going to get fixed, if you will.”
Parishes or individuals interested in working with Missions International to arrange a visit to a sister parish – or to set up a new sister parish partnership – can contact the organization via its website: misisterparish.org