Category Archives: Mission Blog

New Clothes and a New Year

I got a Christmas note from Connie Cheren thanking the Holy Sepulcher Mission Group for sending shoes and clothes to Kenya.

Connie Cheren abd child

Connie Cheren and child

“I wanted you to know all the clothes and shoes you sent went to the children of Nick and

Jiggers without shoes.

Jiggers without shoes.

Charles who live in the CT children’s home. I have learned in Kenya Christmas to a child is a new outfit and chapatis. We made the chapatis and you supplied the new outfits and shoes. It was like somehow you and your church members knew the size of all the children! I will send photos later. The little guys refused to remove the tags from the clothes! … Be blessed this Christmas as we celebrate His birth.”  The need is real and the child’s foot illustrates a common problem. I didn’t use the shots of naked and starving children. Use your imagination or web browser. I hope to meet Connie on my next trip to Nairobi but this post is a walk down memory lane.

Clothing the naked is something that we Diocese of Pittsburgh mission groupers understand. Connie’s note took me back to one of the early St. Richard trips to Guatemala. Jean Gabor had taken over leadership and Laura Weiland, a college student at the time, was there. The memory that I cherish was of the day when each girl at the orphanage got a new outfit. As usual we carried as many duffel bags of clothing as the airlines would permit.

Jean on Medical Mission

One fine afternoon Jean and Laura decided to hand out the new clothes. I sat with most of the group in the Franciscan Sister’s dining area at the orphanage. One little girl after another went into a back bedroom with Laura and came out dressed head to toe in clothes that we brought.

Laura in the Woods

No words were needed. Beaming   smiles showed us how the orphans regarded their good fortune. Laura was radiant. I was content to sip coffee and eat cookies. It was a good day at the mission.

Holy Sepulcher made possible this reprise in a Kenyan orphanage. I wish I had been there to sip coffee, eat cookies and watch. I wish you all had been there, and there that day in Patzún.

Kimberly at the Orphanage

Kimberly at the Orphanage

Christmas and even Epiphany have passed. Before you know it we will be into Lent in preparation for the central event of our lives. This will be a huge year for the Patzún missions. I am sure that Connie’s mission in Kenya, Partner’s for Care, will flourish.

Paz y Bien


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I hope God gives me the strength to see you again.

Madre Carmen Arreaga

Madre Carmen Arreaga

That first day as we arrived in Patzún on that first mission trip in 1994, turning the corner into the Hogar at La Clinca Corpus Cristi with the orphaned kids mobbing us I saw Madre Carmen standing at the convent grinning at us, like we were old friends she was expecting to see. It’s funny how things line up. That same year four Franciscan Sisters took responsibility for the 1,300 students of San Bernardino, a clinic and 23 orphans. They took it with a smile. The teachers walked to the school morning and afternoon, four miles each day. Madre, Superiora of the fledgling community, stayed with the orphans who were too young for school. There wasn’t a telephone. It took 90 days to send a letter and receive a response. Electricity was available no more than 6 hours a day. Water was scarce. Cooking was done over a wood fire. Windows were broken. Play areas were bogs. Dogs roamed freely. Every orphan came to the facility infested with worms and head lice. Although there was a nutrition program for children five times the number went hungry. Yet this little facility, created by the passion and prayers of Sara Merdes and sustained by the eternal optimism of Padre Justiniano,

Madre Carmen and Company

Madre Carmen and Company

was a vast improvement over the past. We went every year and every year Madre was there with the welcoming grin. Gardens were planted. Rooms were painted. Electricity was properly wired, Windows were repaired. Orphans were loved and we all prayed liturgy of the hours and attended Mass together. Madre quietly put her life on the line when we discovered a local administrator was skimming tens of thousands of dollars intended for poor children. “Don’t worry about me.” she said. “When I am gone someone will take my place.” A hundred priests were killed in the war, as were hundreds of Nuns. When Padre Justi died and the bank stole the entire endowment and the French tried to take the orphanage from the Franciscans and convert it into a baby factory for distant neopagans and Gladis was attacked and other Sisters spirits were broken it was Madre Carmen who stood in the breech. She made it work. She endured. We turned some corners together. We built a girl’s dorm so that teen aged girls would have a safe place to live. St. Richard Parish joined St. Anne of Waynesburg and the orphanage, the school and the clinic were all saved. When Father Oldenski came it was grand.

Phil Miller and Madre Carmen Arreaga

Phil Miller and Madre Carmen Arreaga

When the seminarians visited everyone was over the moon with joy but that was when we learned that Madre’s cancer was inoperable. The past years Madre Carmen has been happy to be able to help her new community in Palencia as her health has declined. Today she writes, “I hope God gives me the strength to see you again.” That makes two of us my sister, my role model, my friend. Then again, we’re Christians. We have all this and heaven too.

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So far, very good

Holy Sepulcher bathroom

Restroom That Holy Sepulcher Built

Water filters, roofs, a restroom with running water, soccer balls and a play area are some of the projects that Holy Sepulcher Parish has tackled and completed in its first two years supporting San Bernardino in Patzún Guatemala. The restroom at the left is one of the first with running water at San Bernardino. Money from Holy Sepulcher was added to other funds to complete the restroom project.  One nice surprise on the June

  Project    Outcome   Cost Each
   Water filters    50 in classrooms, 50 assigned to families    $35
   Half-scholarships    50 supplied to students    $50
  Clothing and school supplies   12 military duffel bugs   Donated by parishioners
  Physical plant improvements   1 Restroom and 1 playground   $800
  Roof repairs   15 replaced (20 to go)   $650
  New chapel items   2 pews   $100
  Soccer balls   20 balls various sizes   Donated by parishioners

2011 mission trip was the little play area seen at the right. A report in March or April let us know that a bit of our

Holy Sepulcher play area

Holy Sepulcher play area

money had gone to building a play area for students in the primary school but I couldn’t imagine where it might be. So it was comical the day that Hermana Angela and I headed out back of the primary school to look at a wall that collapsed in the heavy spring rain. Spotting a modern restroom and the really nice play area pictured, I asked who paid for the project. “You.” was the one word answer. Indeed, Holy Sepulcher it was you. The simple things pictured here seem like nothing but nothing is precisely what kids had to play with the first 50 years of San Bernardino.

In 2010 Holy Sepulcher noticed that the kids played soccer at every opportunity

America v. Guatemala

America v. Guatemala

but the only available balls were hard plastic. We collected two dozen good soccer balls, sizes appropriate for the littlest students up to full regulation used in this game between the mission group and students from San Bernardino.

Added to our roofsscholarships and  water filters and I’d say Holy Sepulcher is making a very nice accounting of itself.

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One of the first things that I learned about Americans on mission, especially the men, is that we have a deep seated desire to fix things.  We want to clean, paint rooms, repair broken windows, improve drainage, establish Internet access, drill wells, plumb, wire, level and widen. There is no denying the need in Patzún and there isn’t anything wrong with helping. My opinion, though, is that mission work that sees and addresses only material need is the “… seed

[that] fell on rocky ground, and when it grew, it withered for lack of moisture.” that Christ spoke of and is recorded in Luke 8:6. It grows fast, dries even faster and blows away in the slightest breeze.

Never-the-less these roofs at San Bernardino are in bad shape. The school was built in 1961 and from the look of things many of the roofs might be original equipment. Rainy season in Patzún is really rainy and every few years a hurricane parks itself just off the coast in the Caribbean or Pacific, drenching the entire isthmus that is Central America. In the last few years some interior classroom walls literally became waterfalls during hard rains.  Walls, not even the cinder block walls of San Bernardino, will stand up to the elements for long. If San Bernardino School was to continue, roof repair needed to be addressed. Being an American male I figured it should be part of our mission. As usual the parishioners of Holy Sepulcher accepted the challenge with splendid caritas.

Jessica Zigerelli, Caitlyn Gantzer and Adam Tucek plus the Brothers Waruszewski (Tom, Bob and Dan) –  young people on this year’s trip from Saint Vincent College, are pictured above doing  some of the work themselves. The new roofs are stunning. There are even a few classrooms covered with blue standing seam aluminum. Standing seam metal roofs being my personal favorite, this was a very nice surprise. The roofs are excellent and, as you can see, the ceilings are part of the to roughly $500 USD per classroom price.

Roofing is part of the Holy Sepulcher mission and when complete no student will suffer the indignity and discomfort of wading through puddles in the classrooms. San Bernardino is a wonderful school, the academic pinnacle of the Departmento of

San Bernardino's Priests Meet the Pittsburgh Ordination Class of 2010

Chimaltenango and font of priests.
It is only fitting that students and teachers have a roof between them and the elements.

Roofing is work, an important part of what we do. It is a fruit of who we are, adopted sons and daughters of Almighty God. Material progress throughout 2011 was significant. Roots on this mission trip were deep and well nourished. It was  faith-filled, fruitful and satisfying.

  classrooms    cost
   9   (completed)     $5,969
   cost for 1     $663.22
   24 remain   ~16,000

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New Priest

Fr. Roche 1st Mass. June 26, 2011

Fr. Roche 1st Mass. June 26, 2011

Vocations to the priesthood in the Diocese of Pittsburgh are on a modest upswing and with that trend so are the priests who know the Franciscan missions in Patzún. Fr. Mike was one of six Pittsburgh seminarians who made the trip to San Bernardino in May, 2007. I knew Fr. Mike aflame in is love for the Lord, eager to worship, praying with great piety and always prepared to cheerfully take on whatever work came our way.  Fr. Mike was the picture of humility and he was really, really funny. Eric Campbell, currently in seminary in Rome, was leading a group of us in song as I finished up cleaning paint brushes after a day at the missions. Kids from the school gathered round, listening with great attention. Eric was a gifted musician and made the rest of us sound good. In evening reflection Fr. Mike said this was the first time  in his life that anyone willfully came to hear him sing. Those of you with sharp eyes might recognize seminarian Fred Gruber is the group photo. He is in Rome and will himself be ordained a transitional Deacon October 6th, 2011. Fred’s sister-in-law sang Latin hymns from the choir loft at Fr.

Fr. Mike with 2007 Mission Group

Fr. Mike with 2007 Mission Group

Mike’s First Mass, a Mass that struck me for its piety and Fr. Kim Schreck’s powerful message on the miracle that precipitated the Feast of Corpus Christi. I found myself humbled in the presence of so many with their eyes fixed on Jesus, guided by the Church – their lives well lived.

Fr. Mike with Maria 2007

Fr. Mike with Maria 2007


At his ordination as a transitional Deacon, June 2010, I presented a print of this beautiful photo of Fr. Mike with an orphan girl at the Franciscan Hogar Para Niñas. Looking at it he noted, “Finally there is a picture of me that looks decent.” The picture of Fr. Michael Roche, a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek looks good, very good indeed.

Please join me in praying for the priests of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, for our seminarians and for an increase in vocations.

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One 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 Santiago Atitlán. The Jimánez Arreaga family comes from the far side of Lake Atitlán, from 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 came to Patzún after her, though I don’t know the dates.

The mother 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.

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

Fr. Fleckenstein, Fr. Gillespie and Fr. Noel

2010 Pittsburgh ordinations was right next to the Jimánez Arreaga family as I snapped their photo. These priests, Fr. Noel on the right, made the 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”. 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. 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. Others become lawless and violent.

Education gives people good choices. In the Patzún area 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 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 which at time was 8-10 million 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. It 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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