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Partnership of dioceses enriches lives and faith

By Sue Orlowski SP

 Support from Catholics in Eastern Washington helps finance ministry, health care and education in the Guatemala Highlands.

A simple request of a dying Pope and a listening ear of a bishop started a relationship between the Catholic Diocese of Spokane and the Diocese of Solola in western Guatemala.

Donna Connell

Donna Connell meets with Guatemalan woman.  Photo courtesy of Donna Connell

After 55 years, the mission is still going strong, and the number of parishes involved and their giving has increased, said Donna Connell, who has been chair of the Spokane Diocesan Commission on Guatemala since 2008.

She sees her role as helping educate the next generation to follow the Catholic social teaching “on the preferential option for the poor,” especially in the Solola Diocese.

“Although poor, the Guatemalan people have much to teach the people of the United States because they have a deep faith, know how to celebrate and show great hospitality despite their economic plight,” she said.

Donna said that the people were poor because the country was in a civil war from 1960 to 1996. About 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. Eighty-three percent were indigenous Mayan and the United Nations considered this genocide.

“Social justice is the core for what we do as a commission,” she said. “I have been given much so I need to give much to help others.”

Because she has been “gifted by the people of Guatemala,” she now shares those gifts with the people of Spokane.

In 1958, Bishop Bernard Topel visited the dying Pope Pius XII who told him to “remember Latin America.”  Later that same year, Pope John XXIII said, “It is my desire that every First World Diocese will form a bond of prayer and help with a Third World Diocese.”

Bishop Topel took those words to heart and in 1959 sent two priests for work in the Guatemalan Mission with the “second Guatemala” made up of 60 percent Quiche Indians who were illiterate, impoverished people.

The Catholic Diocese of Spokane assumed responsibility for the parishes of Nahuala, Santa Lucia, Santa Maria, Santa Clara and Ixtahuacan in the Province of Solola, where the people lived and worked in the mountains.

“There the people lived in huts with dirt floors, 50 percent of the children died by the age of five, and the average life span was 30 years of age,” Donna said.

The Guatemalan programs the diocese sponsors have been “designed to enhance the religious, healthcare, economic, social and educational status of those who are in the most need, spreading the Gospel to its fullest extent while addressing the whole person, body and soul,” she said.

Since sending the first priest to Guatemala in 1959 until today, the Diocese of Spokane has helped the people work their way out of poverty, gain employment and “dig out” from natural disasters and civil war.

With the assistance of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the Daughters of Mary Health of the Sick, the relationship expanded to include starting a radio station, a primary school, and a high school seminary and a post high school seminary.

In addition, the diocese helped form a farm cooperative, open a fisheries project, develop projects to help women in poverty, build a spirituality center and open a bakery-training center.  Other projects include organizing a catechist program and youth program, expanding midwifery services, and beginning the Family-to-Family Program, a scholarship fund, medical clinics and health programs.

Throughout the Diocese of Spokane, many churches are involved with programs in Guatemala by helping sponsor an individual program, sending money for the general fund, making visits to the country or praying for the success of programs and those who minister there.

In 1985, the diocese, through Clara and Jerry Monks of St. Thomas More Parish and Sr. Barbara Ford of the Sisters of Charity of New York, began the Adopt-A-Family Program, now called Family-to-Family Program. 

Every three years, the diocese sponsors 130 families in Solola to help the poorest families learn skills to become self-sufficient.  Family members take classes to learn a skill, such as weaving, sewing, embroidery, bee keeping or coffee growing, so they will have a way to support themselves and their families.  Each family has help to build a new cement house after they complete the program.

Donna, who is from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Spokane Valley, became involved with her church’s Guatemalan Committee before going on the diocesan commission.

Raised Catholic in Colfax, Donna said her interests in teaching, cooking, baking and sewing led her to earn a degree in home economics at Washington State University.

At St. Mary’s, she was involved with the youth group and led youth retreats for her parish and the Diocesan Retreat Team.  She was president of the St. Mary’s School Parent’s Club, and has worked as the school development director and librarian for seven years.

Later she earned a library endorsement at Eastern Washington University and a master’s in education in creative arts from Leslie College in New York. She worked 21 years as an elementary school teacher and librarian in the public schools.

In addition to their five children, she and her husband Ron cared for two foster children, including one from South Korea.

“The Scriptural call to welcome the stranger among us—including immigrants seeking work, homes, education and a decent life for their children—has been the foundation for my work with the homeless, the poor and youth,” said Donna, who is also involved with St. Mary’s hosting homeless families in the church through Family Promise.

When the Diocesan Program in Guatemala asked the church to become involved with its four medical clinics 14 years ago, Donna was in a small group at St. Mary’s that responded.

Parishioners sent funds each month to support clinics and a native doctor, Jose Miguel Vasquez, who became the first native medical doctor for the clinics in 1985. In 2000, he was appointed health director for the Diocese of Solola.

Recently his son, Robinsson, who is in medical school in Guatemala, spent a month observing cardiologists at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.

Before Donna became chair of the Spokane Diocesan Commission on Guatemala, she and her husband visited the Solola Diocese, saw the work first hand and fell in love with the people.

At first, she didn’t feel she had the speaking skills needed, but she said that she felt like the Prophet Jeremiah and trusted that God would give her the words.

She gave presentations as a teacher and librarian, and gained organizing skills from work with St. Mary’s School and Church, and Family Promise.

Her first visit to Guatemala and five other visits have not only strengthened her desire to help the people, but also gave her the words for presentations to parishes and groups in the diocese on the Guatemala Mission. 

The result has been an increase in the number of parishes in the Spokane Diocese involved in the mission and in contributing to programs in Guatemala.

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Copyright © March 2015 - The Fig Tree