Franciscan Missions of Patzún Guatemala

WallFinished-HogarIn the beginning

June 3, 1994 was the first time that I walked through these gates and into the missions.  It was the first year for las Hermanas Franciscanas de la Concepción Inmaculada as well.  The Guatemalan civil war was in its 35th of 37 years. The population of the country was less than 10 million.  La Clinica Corpus Christi, orphanage and nutrition programs had been established by Sara Merdes some years earlier. Sara worked closely with Padre Justiniano who, as a Franciscan Missionary priest had been the Catholic Church in these parts since the 1950s. By 1960 Padre Justiniano called for a mission school because the Cachequel (indeginous people of the Patzún region – one of the separate linguistic groups that collectively make up the Guatemalan Mayan peoples) did not attend government institutions.   The population of Guatemala was just over 4 million and per capita GDP was $250. The Cachequel were very poor by Guatemalan standards so they had  even less; much less.  Well-intentioned, young army officers  (yes, army officers) modeled an insurrection on Castro’s Cuban

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revolution of 1959.  At war’s end, 16 April 1996, 150,000 Guatemalans had died and another 50,000 disappeared, ground out of existence between two armies.  An equivalent number in the US would be  5 or 6 million dead Americans.

Sisters of Notre Dame from  Minnesota answered Padre Justi’s call.  They came to Patzún in 1960 and operated the school, San Bernardino, for years.  They were long gone by my arrival in ’94.  Responsibility now belonged to the four indigenous Franciscanas led by Madre Carmen who was also operating the orphanage and La Clinica Corpus Christi.

Electricity in June of 1994 was available only a few hours each day.  Clean water, pumped from a shallow well and collected in rain barrels, was hand carried.  The orphanage was in bad repair.  Windows were broken, walls needed paint, stray animals had their run of the place, streets carried raw sewage and were a resting place for drunken men and dead dogs. Everything was pitch dark after sundown.  We triaged and began putting the children’s food preparation facilities and sleeping quarters into better shape.  I led my first mission group the next year.  The orphanage, known locally as El Centro for its nutritional programs – El Centro Nutricional, was our base of operations.  St. Ann, Waynesburg, – my parish – was the poorest parish in poorest county of Pennsylvania but we made a difference. Our cash contributions to the missions were no more than $2,000 each of those first few years.

Year by year support at At. Ann grew.  Working alongside us in Patzún was a French family who lived in Guatemala as representatives of Friends of the Children of the World. Electricity stabilized, becoming available 24-7.  One year when we arrived the Franciscans had a phone.  So the next year I showed up with a new IBM Thinkpad.  I spent the entire visit teaching two of the the Franciscans how to connect to the Internet and use email.  It was tough but by the end of the week we had cut round trip communication from the 90 days that it took to send a letter and get a reply to, well – the speed of light.  Our group grew. The Franciscan community grew.  We began contributing to the care of San Bernardino, including painting the cavernous auditorium.  Enrollments at San Bernardino held steady at 1,300.  There were now 45 – 55 kids at the orphanage.

James and Ilsida

James Miller-Marquez with  sponsored child, Ilsy Lopez

Those were heady days.  We were making a positive impact.  My Spanish was becoming useful and, best of all, my son started making the trip with me when he turned 12.

Challenges, darkness and doubt

Many from the parish sponsored children through the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA – now named Unbound). In an early  year I heard allegations that CFCA funds in Patzún were being skimmed.  I investigated, as best I could, and got confirmation from Madre Carmen that they suspected the same.  I asked her permission to pursue the matter.  I was about to blow the whistle on the monthly theft of thousands of dollars. People were being killed for much less.  I contacted CFCA and was routed immediately to Bob Hentzen, CFCA founder and head. Bob investigated and had me come to the offices in San Lucas Tolimán.  He was perfect. The rumors were correct.  Accounting procedures were fixed and implemented world wide.  Bob offered to give back every penny sent in by our people.  No one asked for money back.  My wife and I started supporting a second child.

Then Padre Justiniano died. It wasn’t a surprise because he suffered from cancer the last few years, yet the impact couldn’t have been greater.  Padre Justi was the heart and soul of the Patzún missions, guiding and supporting the Franciscans, as he raised funds and ministered sacraments and otherwise tended the folk that was Patzún and its 22 aldeas (outlying villages).  Padre had a nest egg of $200,000 for the school squirreled away in a financial institution some miles away from Patzún.  It was commonly believed that it was not safe to keep large funds in the town where you live and work.  In his last days Padre signed a document that gave control of the account to Madre Carmen.  When she traveled to the institution to check up on the money she discovered  that the account had been emptied and the administrator accused her of trying to embezzle the funds.

The Franciscans who were grieving the loss of a man whom they consider to be a saint had no money to pay the lay people who were teaching at San Bernardino.  At that point the original community of four Franciscans had split into the group of 6 or 8 at the orphanage and a similar group at San Bernardino. The head of the community at San Bernardino was not able to cope with the stress of so many students, so many teachers and so little money. GroupShotAtNunsCasaThe Provincial named the youngest member of the community, Hermana Balvina Medrano, as the new Superiora.  Sor Balvy, as she is called, is a woman of enormous capability and today, still a very young woman, heads the entire congregation of more than 1,000 women who staff missions on 4 continents.

This story is about the Patzún missions and I can tell you things went from bad to worse. The school, the life line to the Cachequel youth, was in jeopardy.  This was the moment when the French leaders of Friends of the Children of the World offered to take control of the orphanage, insisted on the elimination of religious references and proposed to recast the orphanage as a baby supermarket where French people could collect a Guatemalan child or two.  The penalty for non-compliance was that they would pull their funding of $2,000 per month.

I rolled into Patzún that summer with mission group in tow, knowing only that Padre Justi was dead.  It took only a moment to realize that things had changed forever.  Madre Carmen begin filling me in on what had happened.  The St. Ann group plus my family could guarantee Madre Carmen only 50% of what the French had provided.  Nevertheless Madre Carmen flatly refused the French and so began a few, very difficult years. My life with the missions had three foci: 1) provide enough funding to feed and house the orphans, 2) find separate funding so that we could build a dorm so girls older than 14 would have a safe place to stay (yeah, there is a really sad story that I prefer to not share) and 3) search for additional groups in Pittsburgh that might shoulder some of the burden.  I was doing nothing for San Bernardino.

Much needed support

In 2001 St. Richard Parish, led by its Pastor, Fr. Ken Oldenski, made its first mission trip with me as new parishioner and guide. Fr. Ken saved the missions.


Jean Gabor – St. Richard

The people on the trip loved the mission and took ownership.  St. Richard quickly became an anchor, supporting the orphans, and has been back every year since  on medical missions and and ordinary work details.  By this time Waynesburg University found its own charism in working with the orphans and Hermana Reyna who succeeded Madre Carmen as Superiora. With St. Richard, St Ann and Waynesburg University  in support of the Hogar (Oh Gar, it means home, as in home for children) I turned my attention to finding support for San Bernardino.


It is much harder to find support for a school than for an orphanage.  I tried and failed to start thriving mission groups at several places.  My son, no more than 16 himself, invited an even younger Dan Waruszewski to go on mission with us.


2006 Seminarian Trip

In just a few years I found myself working with Dan, his brother Bob, his brother Thomas and seminarians from Pittsburgh’s St. Paul Seminary. The men, back row, are Fr. Noel, Dan (to be ordained deacon in June 2016 and scheduled to be a priest next year) , Fr. Gillespie and Fr. Fleckenstein (seated).  Fr. Roche (center below)

Allison travels w friends

Fr. Roche, Fr. Gillespie, Meghan Goyal and four of the first Oakland Catholic girls



came the next year, and is shown leading the first Oakland Catholic trip with Spanish teacher Meghan Goyal and supported by Fr. Gillespie (here sporting a beard). Holy Sepulcher Parish also formed an enduring group which along with Oakland Catholic is finally putting San Bernardino on solid footing.

The real mission

I started with the notion that I would fix broken things, not realizing that I was one of them. It happens to a lot of us missionary types.  Hearts of stone change into hearts of flesh. “Make real friends of the poor” is something that I say a lot. Five year old orphan girls have grown up with me. I celebrate their graduations, marriages, careers and children.  The Oakland Catholic girls have been a special pleasure for me. What I like most is seeing them engage the Holy Spirit.  It happens in the missions.  They connect, making real friends of the poor. Holiness becomes a habit. It surprises them. I am at peace

… but, have we talked about the Kibera slums in Nairobi yet?



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