By LINDA BEHRENS
“It was an honor to go on this mission trip to Guatemala,” was the sentiment echoed by four of the people who traveled to Guatemala and visited sister parishes earlier this year.
Missions International organized the recent trip. Of the 16 attendees, eight were from the Diocese of Belleville and eight from the Diocese of Springfield.
The mission trip was described as an immersion experience designed for relationship building, as opposed to completing service projects.
Many parishes have “sister parishes” in other countries. The Diocese of Belleville is a “sister diocese” with the Diocese of Jalapa in Guatemala. Connecting with a foreign parish or diocese happens in many ways, often providing much needed financial support.
The group left from Miami to Guatemala City and spent the first night at the Sisters of Incarnate Word retreat house. The next day, they divided into small groups and traveled to designated areas.
Besides the Diocese of Jalapa, members also visited the Diocese of Jutiapa and the Izabal vicariate.
Deacon Wayne Weiler from the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville, Fran Etter from St. Felicitas in Beaver Prairie, Vince Mitchell from St. Patrick in Enfield and Shelly Sands with Missions International spoke with The Messenger about this moving experience.
Deacon Wayne Weiler
“There is a great need for help in Guatemala,” Weiler says.
When the group spent the night at the Incarnate Word retreat house, they heard a presentation from a bishop about the martyrs of Guatemala, 10 catechists who were murdered for attempting to spread their faith during a tragic civil war.
“We really didn’t need an English translator because we could hear the passion in his voice and see the sincere pain he felt for these men,” Weiler says. “We started our journey hearing this story.”
Weiler says the mission trip was also a pilgrimage for him.
“I see it as a pilgrimage to a holy place,” he says. “It was a time for deep reflection, a time for prayer, a time for humility, for what we were experiencing and who we were meeting.”
Weiler’s group traveled three hours to the first parish they visited. He describes the church building in need of much repair.
But he was surprised to learn that repairs were also needed for the vehicles used by the priests.
“The priests travel to the people, up the mountains on roads we wouldn’t consider to be roads here,” Weiler says. “There is a dire need for transportation. It affects the priests’ ability to minister to their flock.”
He was impressed by the people he met. They were proud to show the visitors projects made possible from donations from sister parishes, such as a fishpond to raise tilapia and fields of green beans, both maintained for eating and selling.
Many had received new wood burning stoves with chimneys so they could safely cook indoors.
“I was struck by their humility and joy in the humble circumstances they find themselves in, something we would think of as desperate situations,” Weiler says.
“I was deeply moved and physically, emotionally and spiritually challenged during this trip,” Weiler adds. “I learned a great lesson from them – joy is possible.”
He also says you don’t have to know the language to see the love of the priests and the parishioners.
“It goes both ways,” he says. “It’s a great relationship that is in good hands.”
Weiler gave the children he met rosaries crafted by the Cathedral of St. Peter rosary guild, and Spanish prayer books to the adults and children.
“From the simple mountainside church to the city cathedral, the light of the Eucharist shines bright in the hearts of the Guatemalan people,” Weiler notes.
“We went on this trip to build relationships,” Etter says, “and we did.”
Etter and her daughter, Carly, 21, attend St. Felicitas in Beaver Prairie but traveled to Guatemala representing the St. Rose community in St. Rose.
“The people we visited appreciate our financial assistance,” she says, “but it meant so much to them that we visited their country. It made them feel they were important enough that we took the time to visit them.”
One evening, the four people in her group were sitting in a plaza when hundreds of people showed up.
“They brought marimbas and piñatas and had a huge party for us. They made us dance,” Etter says. “They wanted us to experience their culture and to show off their church. It meant a lot.”
Carly, who is a senior at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, is working toward a pre-veterinary major and an art education minor. For her art education program, she is required to work with children in the community. Her professor agreed that she could do a project with the children in Guatemala.
She decided to create a living mural at the church to share her culture in Illinois with their culture. She brought artifacts from St. Rose with her to add to the mural.
“Carly didn’t speak Spanish and they didn’t know English, but they really didn’t need a translator. They spoke with their hearts,” Fran Etter says. “They were learning from each other even with their limited language ability.”
Both mother and daughter are still in contact with people they met on the trip. They hope to return in two years.
“I’ve always wanted to do a trip like this. I felt like God was calling me to go,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell lives in McLeansboro and attends St. Patrick in Enfield, but he went on the trip on behalf of St. John the Baptist in Piopolis, which has a sister parish in Guatemala, Nuestra Senora de la Piedad, Our Lady of Mercy.
The churches there are located in villages but aldea are neighborhood chapels located outside the villages. The priests visit the aldea at least once a month. Mitchell explains these buildings are in various stages of development.
He describes one aldea that had concrete block walls, a gravel floor, one pew, one light bulb and a roof but no windows.
“It affected me emotionally,” Mitchell shares.
While attending Mass at this aldea, Mitchell was asked by the priest to help with Eucharist. He is an extraordinary minister of communion at his home parish.
“He motioned to me to take the ciborium and distribute hosts,” Mitchell explains. “It didn’t know how to say ‘Body of Christ’ in Spanish so I said it in English.”
The next day, at Mass at another aldea, Mitchell was prepared to assist and knew how to say “Body of Christ” in Spanish – “Cuerpo de Cristo.”
“It was a real honor to be asked to do this,” he says, “and the entire trip was an opportunity of a lifetime. You never know when God will open a door.”
“With sister parishes, we learn to be present with someone else, to truly feel a bond, to be part of this amazing universal church,” says Shelly Sands, president of Missions International.
Missions International is a nonprofit originally founded by Sands’ parents, Len and Alice Daiber, in the late 1980s when they established sister parishes in Haiti. They also worked in collaboration with Father Vince Haselhorst, who set up sister parishes with the Diocese of Jalapa, Guatemala. During this time, Father Haselhorst helped initiate 30 sister parish relationships, most of which continue to this day.
She explains that these visits to sister parishes are about relationship building and immersion in another culture.
“They have as much to share with us as we do with them,” Sands says. “They want to show us their gratitude, their joys and their struggles. They want us to walk with them and be present with one another.”
Sands is available to talk with parishes about the Sister Parish Program. For more information, visit misisterparish.org.