In the early hours of a July morning this year, five people gathered at Sacred Heart Church, Chestertown, Md., to begin a trip to San Marcos, our sister diocese in Guatemala. The trip was led by Mary Jo Frohlich, accompanied by her husband, Bart, Allison Provanche, Janyce Taylor and me, Ed Gordon. Our delegation was going to visit some locations where parishes and schools from Wilmington had committed to helping the people of San Marcos, Guatemala.
The Diocese of San Marcos is situated by the Mexican border. It is a rural, mountainous area where corn, coffee plants, rubber trees and palm trees (for palm oil) cling to steep mountainsides. Many of the people are indigenous, descendants of the Maya. They eke out a living. They are poor and the country is poor.
In 2005, I was a member of one of our first delegations to San Marcos. Bob Krebs, now diocesan director of communications, along with other members of the delegation were tasked with visiting villages where we intended to place systems bringing potable water to the people. We had just begun our relationship with the diocese and the needs seemed overwhelming. Catholic Relief Services facilitated the early delegations. Since then, our diocesan committee has overseen the visits back and forth between the two dioceses.
Much has changed and much has remained the same. The people are still poor, the government corrupt and unable and/or unwilling to help its people. The economy sputters along. Many have made the trek north. Yet, wherever we visited there were many signs of the generosity of the people of the parishes and schools in Delaware and on the Eastern Shore. It was making a difference in the lives of the people.
Our first visit was with Padre Silverio. Tacana is a large town. The rectory next to the church had been destroyed in an earthquake and they were still clearing the rubble. Things go slowly in Guatemala. He was living in a temporary rectory outside of the town. Many of the communities are inaccessible except by roads paved with river rock. We left our van and switched over to four-wheel drive trucks. It was a difficult and slow drive to a one-year memorial service for one of the parishioners. Several parishes including St. Margaret of Scotland have provided trucks for the priests to be able to visit their people. It is a big ask, but parishes have stepped forward.
The second day we met with Sister Jane, an 87-year-old doctor and Maryknoll sister in Santa Caterina. Together with Sr. Mary Lou, also a doctor, they run a health clinic and a network of health care providers who have been trained by them to provide basic medical care in distant villages. For many years St. Ann’s, Bethany Beach has been supporting the clinic. Sister introduced us to two innovations which are making a difference in people’s lives. Small household water filters are bringing potable water to many more families. New stoves, vented to the outside and using much less wood, allow people to cook without smoke in their faces. Since many women work with babies on their back it has also reduced respiratory ailments among small children.
On Sunday we went to El Quetzal for liturgy. The community has a new church replacing the one destroyed in an earthquake. Funds from St. Margaret of Scotland helped rebuild the church. The community asked if we could help build a priest’s quarters on the second floor of the attached building. Right now, the parish priest lives in a room off the sacristy.
Our next stop was El Tumador, where we met Father Rigoberto “Rigo” Matias. He took us to San Luis School. It is a temporary one-room structure with a dirt floor and bamboo walls for grades one to six. Next to it is a field, purchased by SS. Peter and Paul, Easton, and recently cleared by the local people. A three-room school will be built on it, thanks to the generosity of the people from the Easton area. On our way back, Father Rigo showed us a chapel that a community had built. It has a dirt floor and no windows. With funds from a collection at St. Ann, Bethany Beach, we will be able to provide for its completion. We finished the day with a joyous liturgy at the newly dedicated church at Marylandia. St. Ann parish had provided funds for the community to rebuild after another earthquake. We also visited a school where a new playground has been built with help from the fifth grade class at St. Ann’s, Wilmington.
It isn’t just all about bricks and mortar. At Nueva Buena Vista, a coffee plantation, we met two young women who had completed high school thanks to scholarships provided by members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish. They were very proud of their achievements and very thankful for the help from Wilmington. We were also introduced to two sixth grade girls who were seeking scholarship assistance to attend the next level of education. A mother and grandmother spoke to their need for transportation and tuition assistance. Hopefully we can find donors.
Other individual parishes and schools are supporting efforts in our sister diocese. We didn’t have time to visit more sites. At several sites we received reports on the projects, accounting for every penny that had been spent. Contributions go a long way. The situation in San Marcos may seem hopeless. Through your efforts hope arrives in the generosity of our schools and parishes.
Ed Gordon is retired director of the Office for Religious Education and secretary of Catholic education in the Diocese of Wilmington.