One Family

The Jimánez Arreaga family

This is a nice looking Guatemalan family, posing at the main door to San Bernardino, the school in Patzún that is supported, in part by Holy Sepulcher Parish. Some of you will recognize the name, Ana Cecilia Jimánez Arreaga or just Ceci. She is the one in pink. It seems like I have known Ceci forever. In fact it has been 11 years. The others in the photo are her mother and her three siblings.

All four children attend San Bernardino, made possible through the extraordinary efforts of some particularly good friends. Ceci’s situation is not the norm. The family is not from Patzún but from an aldea of Panibaj, an aldea (outlying village) of Patzún. It sits below Patzún yet high above Lake Atitlán. It is the heart of  coffee country. The father, whom I have not met, works in the coffee fields and earns $2 to $2.50 per day. (See Education, education, education). It is a good family and they are together whenever it is possible.

Ceci, the oldest, left the aldea, family and friends 11 years ago because education in her aldea stopped at 3rd or 4th grade. In the aldea she was likely to be locked into the

physically demanding and extremely poor life of those around her. There was room for her at the orphanage, Hogar Para Niñas, also operated by Franciscan Sisters in Patzún. She lived at the Hogar for 4 years and then was allowed to live at San Bernardino with the Franciscan Sisters. Things were not easy. One year she couldn’t attend classes because of lack of funds. She lost much of her vision which has been restored over a period of years. Her siblings, Christian, Ericka Maritza, and Reyna de los Angeles came to Patzún after her, though I don’t know the dates.

The mother, Marleny, came too. She works as a cook for the Sisters at San Bernardino. Her income is tiny, though a lot for the Sisters. Mom is only 40 years old and looks good in the photo. Often she looks much older and very tired. She has suffered serious health problems the last five years and physicians tell her that she has one or more lesions on her brain. She is palsied, more fitting someone twice her age. I told the mother that her health is beyond my ability to restore. Desperate to have her children educated, she hugged me and thanked me warmly for what you people have already done. I now understand that Ceci needed special help to attend San Bernardino because without assistance the entire family would have been forced back to their aldea.

Fr. Fleckenstein, Fr. Gillespie and Fr. Noel

Chief among those who helped this family is Fr. Brian Noel of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Others include Roger Dannenberg, Rita Shoemaker and Barry Dwolatzky all people I came to know at Carnegie Mellon, Roger for more than 30 years. This photo of the 2010 Pittsburgh ordinations was right next to the Jimánez Arreaga family as I snapped their photo. These priests, Fr. Noel on the far right, made the Patzún trip as seminarians. San Bernardino remembers its friends.

Why this family? There must be dozens of stories like it, stories of more extreme need. I am sure there are but Sister Angela, Superiora at San Bernardino, made a special request. You must understand this is the Jimánez Arreaga family. Arreaga is the name of the mother’s father’s family. This young, dying mother was adopted by the parents of two Franciscan Sisters, Carmen and Gloria Arreaga García. These are the nieces and nephew of Madre Carmen longtime Superiora in Patzún who, outside my family, is my best friend in the whole world. We will learn more about her another time.

The story of the Jimánez Arreaga family appears with their permission

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Education, education, education

Bill Clinton tells the story that in his first run for the White House he prominently displayed a sign that read, “It’s the economy, stupid”. What he meant was that he needed to focus on the obvious. My personal mantra is “It’s the education, stupid”. The Holy Sepulcher Mission is, fundamentally about educating those, who without outside help, would be locked into a life of poverty due – lacking the options made available by education. We are animated to action by our love for and obedience to Jesus Christ. We hear his voice. He is speaking directly to us, not metaphorically, not to somebody else, when he teaches us how to live.

” … I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a                        stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared                        for me, in prison and you visited me.” John 25:35-36

Three of these children are in school because of the $50 scholarship provided by Holy Sepulcher Parish. Two live in villages, remote from Patzún, riding public transportation at the cost of 8 Quetzals, nearly a half day’s wages. The mother of another of these is dying. The father lives in a far village, works every day but earns only 15 to 20 Quetzals ($2 – $2.50) each day for his efforts. Two plan to become physicians. One walks 3 kilometers to and from home and although the family of 8 lives in a single room with no running water, they are a bit too wealthy for a scholarship. All live in in-tact families and hope for a better future.

Why is education so important? Why doesn’t the father who works in the coffee fields simply get a better job? The answers are connected. In Guatemala you work where you can find work. Family members get first preference and then come neighbors. If the father left his home for another village, where pay is better, he would be unemployed. He would be an unwelcome stranger and a threat. If he went to a town like Patzún or a city like the capital he would find little or no work. Many who travel this road become victims of violence and alcohol, some themselves becoming lawless and violent.

Education gives people good choices. In the Patzún the uneducated male will work in the broccoli or bean fields. A few hundred meters lower on the mountain coffee dominates. Below that it is cotton and finally, at sea level, are sugar cane and bananas. Women sew and weave, selling what they make in the local markets. Wages are not always as low as $2 per day. In  a more prosperous village $4 per day is common. I have heard about people making as much as $8 though I don’t know any. A graduate of San Bernardino’s highest level, a college prep or trade school known as diversificado, will earn $2,500 per year as a teacher or even more in an office job in Guatemala City. The two young women that my wife and I sponsored over the years have lived this story. Both cases were a bit more dramatic in that both were at the orphanage when we met them, truly rags to relative riches. One now spends part of each year and a portion of her income on mission to the poor in Guatemala. It is humbling.

Without education people are tied to their economic roots or face enormous risk and uncertainty. With education they can become self sufficient and reasonably aspire to higher education and a host of opportunities.

Why doesn’t the government help? It does and it doesn’t, much like our government. Why not a revolution? Why don’t the poor demand their rights? A group of well-meaning first worlders tried that beginning in 1961 and what ensued was 36 years of the bloodiest civil war our hemisphere has known. The Manchester Guardian reports that 200,000 people in this country of 8-10 million (at that time) were killed or disappeared in that war. These numbers are 1 to 2 orders of magnitude greater than the troubles of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras combined. The civil war gouged into the lives of my closest friends who will, in important  ways, never fully recover. I will devote other essays to this topic but please believe me, Guatemala needs no more war.

Guatemala can use your help. There are real children with real needs, needs that can be addressed by very small, well targeted gifts. San Bernardino stands as a beacon of hope and opportunity wrapped in hard work and the love of Christ.

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The mission trip that almost wasn’t.

Brenda Hartzel presents money raised by Holy Sepulcher School and CCD students. Hermana Angela and the mission group are seated in the new chapel.

The 2011 Holy Sepulcher  Guatemala Mission trip was scheduled May 26 through June 2. To make things interesting, and to save about $400 per airfare, Brenda Hartzel and I decided to drive from Pittsburgh to Washington DC and fly from there. A business trip to Oklahoma City needed to be scheduled  on the 24th and 25th so even if things went well I was going to be tired. Things did not go well.

My flight to Oklahoma went through Dallas, Texas and May 24th was the day that tornados hit both Oklahoma City and Dallas. My  flight left Dallas shortly before the bad weather hit there and somehow we flew on the back side of the tornado. Out the left window I saw clear skies and out the right I saw nothing but severe thunderstorms.

Although there was loss of life and great damage my meetings

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were held and the next day, the 25th I was in the airport headed for home back through Dallas to Pittsburgh so that Brenda and I could drive to DC to meet up with Bob Waruszewski’s  crew from St. Vincent College  and then fly back through Dallas to Guatemala City.

What could possibly go wrong? …  What went wrong was that much of the American Airline fleet was on the ground in Dallas when the storms stuck. Baseball sized hail knocked many planes out of service and the 2011 Holy Sepulcher Mission Trip into jeopardy of being cancelled. I spent literally hours on the phone the afternoon of the 25th, re-booking flights then re re-booking flights as the extent of the damage to the airplanes became clear. Bob Waruszewski, in Pittsburgh, was on the phone for hours too, doing the same. Through it all the reservations staff at American Airlines performed splendidly. One staffer, Dede Bowmar, is worthy of special praise. Reservation specialists were all dealing with thousands of stranded and distressed travelers and yet Dede chose to stay late by more than an hour just to make sure that our mission group would be able to travel together with minimum itinerary disruption. She got approvals, routed and re-routed flights, arranged refunds where appropriate and so forth. As things turned out she was one of many heroes and heroines who saw to it that we made the trip.

We ended up traveling through Miami instead of Dallas and arriving Saturday rather than Thursday. Friday night was spent in Miami. John Mark Kahldahl and his parents, residents of Miami, picked everybody up at the Miami airport and drove us to the MorningStar Renewal Center of the Archdiocese of Miami. The Kahldahl’s went to  dinner with us Friday night and drove us back to the airport in the morning. John Mark served in Net Ministries with Dan Waruszewski, traveling the USA working to ignite the faith of Catholic youth. Most of us took advantage of perpetual adoration, offered at the parish adjacent to MorningStar. The kindness and generosity that we experienced in Miami were breathtaking.

We lost time money and sleep. Others lost their lives. By Saturday morning we were finally on our way to Guatemala, once again, blessed by the grace of God.

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Clean Water

Michelle Lesniak demos the fist Holy Sepulcher supplied water filter Patzún.

Early in my mission days I learned that whenever a child came into the orphanage, Hogar Para Niñas, there were worms to eliminate; always. From Ascariasis and Cholera down through Typhoid contaminated water, the norm for Patzún, brings problems. Until I met the good people of Holy Sepulcher Parish I was focused on supplying water, not on ensuring that it was safe.

From the beginning.  At the very first Holy Sepulcher Mission Group meeting, September 9th, 2009, the parish was determined to provide clean water. Mark and Marj Vincent had been working in Honduras on a clean water project. They articulated the problem and offered the solution.  Holy Sepulcher would purchase low cost, simple colloidal silver-enhanced ceramic water purifiers and distribute them at, and through, the school, San Bernardino. Research shows these filters to be breath-takingly effective. Our source for filters is Ecofiltro in nearby Antigua. The Vincents were allowed to tell about clean water in Honduras, including the heart rending story of a little girl held by Marj who minutes later expelled a big worm, an Ascaris, from her nose! Holy Sepulcher responded with donations that enabled those of us who went

Water filters for San Bernardino.

Water filters for San Bernardino

on mission in the summer of 2010 to outfit every single classroom with an extra large filter. The idea was to introduce clean water at the school and, as people became comfortable with the idea of using filtered water, we would begin to place filters in people’s homes. The school children of San Bernardino took to drinking clean water right away and in early 2011 the Franciscan Sisters who operate San Bernardino began placing filters with families. We will be checking up on the success of this project on the 2011 Mission Trip.

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Padre Justiniano and Sara Merdes

Photo from late 1980s or early 1990s.

There are many people who have made it possible for people of the Diocese of  Pittsburgh to support the orphanage, hospital and school in Patzún, Guatemala. These two, Padre Justi and Sara Merdes, are foundations on which all the rest is built.

Padre Justiniano Babuin, Franciscan Missionary Priest, came as Pastor to Patzún and its 22 aldeas (outlying villages) in 1954. Until his death in the late 1990s Padre Justi was the Catholic Church to the Cachequel and ladinos who live there.  Sara Merdes, a Pittsburgh native, visited Padre Justi  around 1990 at the invitation of a priest in Corpus Christi, Texas where she lives. Sara could not help but notice the many children who came to the church for food and who appeared to have no home or family. Padre the lone priest for some 50,000 people, did the best he could to clothe and feed the little ones but Sara knew that was not enough. Sara found some open land not more than half a mile from the church. Sara, a woman of modest means, got onto her knees and prayed to God that He

would build an orphanage and a clinic on  this ground. The reflection in the plaque thanking Padre Justi for a lifetime of service shows the orphanage and grounds of La Clinica Corpus Christi, fruits of Sara’s labor, dedicated to her deceased daughter, Janet.

Sara was in Patzún with a Houston surgical team during my first visit, June of 1994. I spent hours listening to Sara’s stories, stories of faith and perseverance.  It was the only time I met this remarkable woman. I got to know Padre Justi those last few years of his life. He gave strength and courage to the Franciscan Sisters who operate the missions. Buried in the local church, Padre Justi remains the most highly respected person of Patzún. When the Franciscans want people to respect me they make a point of saying, “He knew Padre Justi.” Indeed I knew this servant of Jesus Christ. Peace be with him.

The dates and facts are my recollections. More information on Sara Merdes and Clinica Corpus Christi are presently available at these web sites: and
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 This Señora lives 100 meters or so from San Bernardino. The simple loom is how she feeds her family. There are two sparsely furnished rooms for sleeping with a separate, unvented kitchen. Water is drawn from the well and there are no special facilities for bathing and no toilet or outhouse. The husband, paralyzed for 10 years, previously supported the family with his work in the surrounding broccoli fields. Her children attend San Bernardino. The kids at school look so much like people right here at Holy Sepulcher that the contrast is a shock.

It is even a bigger shock to learn that the Señora and her family are doing relatively well. A poor family in Patzún would have one room with a dirt

floor that everyone shares for sleeping. Cooking is done outside; no kitchen. The poor walk to the Nici-Nics, public water supplies that are known to be contaminated with parasites and other nasty stuff. The gaps between rich and poor are huge. Life can be very tough.

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Lenten mission project 2011

Holy Sepulcher CCD students focus Lenten giving on the San Bernardino mission school in Patzún, Guatemala. For the first time the 1,100 students of San Bernardino have a proper chapel for Mass and other services. It lacks

Chapel at San Bernardino

the basics, like pews, windows and a ceiling. So Holy Sepulcher is helping out. Beth and David La Duca, volunteer teachers at San Bernardino for three years, found the

Inside the San Bernardino chapel.

Inside the San Bernardino chapel.

money to build the chapel. Holy Sepulcher is doing its part to outfit the chapel. David and family are in Oregon where David teaches at Now Instructor at Chemeketa Community College.

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