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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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First Holy Sepulcher Alfombra

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Most people in the Diocese of Pittsburgh know of the Eucharistic Procession on the feast of Corpus Christi primarily because parishioners at Holy Martyrs have been building their carpets of sawdust for the past 50 years or so. Others learned of the tradition while on mission in Patzún, Guatemala. There the Spanish word, alfombra, is used to name a carpet that leads from the church for two or three kilometers through town.

The Guatemala Mission Group decided to build a short alfombra as part of tis booth for the Holy Sepulcher Bazaar, August 7, 2011. Rachel McGrath, a young and extraordinarily gifted artist from the parish, was recruited to create original artwork that was used for the alfombra. Our alfombra is built Patzún style with layers of color laid down using masks of cardboard to make intricate images. The sawdust, left overs from Holy Martyrs this year, was generously given to the parish.

The story of the first Corpus Christi processions,excerpted from  Fr. Tommy Lane’s “Homily for the the Solemnity of Corpus Christi – the Body and Blood of Jesus” appears below.

    In the year 1263 a priest from Prague was on route to Rome making a pilgrimage asking God for help to strengthen his faith since he was having doubts about his vocation. Along the way he stopped in Bolsena 70 miles north of Rome. While celebrating Mass there, as he raised the host during the consecration, the bread turned into flesh and began to bleed. The drops of blood fell onto the small white cloth on the altar, called the corporal. The following year, 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus, today’s feast, Corpus Christi. The Pope asked St Thomas Aquinas, living at that time, to write hymns for the feast and he wrote two, better known to the older members of our congregation, the Tantum Ergo and O Salutaris. That blood-stained corporal may still be seen in the Basilica of Orvieto north of Rome, and I had the privilege of seeing it during the time I lived in Italy.

The full homily is available:

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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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Back from our Trip – Upcoming Events

The week of June 17-24, 2010 was the first trip by Holy Sepulcher Church to visit San Bernardino School in Patzun, Guatemala.  It was an awesome trip for the 5 of us.  Two seasoned travelers had been to Patzun many times over the years and were our Spanish-speakers and interpreters…Thanks so much Phil and Bob!  Our experience was much more than we expected in just 1 week.  We visited with the children of the school, attended many Masses at the church in Patzun, delivered clothing donations to outlying villages hit hard by flooding from the recent tropical storm, saw true poverty first-hand, met with a school family to acquire handwoven items for our fair trade market, visited the town market and “supermarket” (not like here!), took delivery of 50 large water filters for the school and prepared them for use, attended 2 special fiestas of the school – Father’s Day and Teacher’s Day, and enjoyed delicious meals with the Franciscan Sisters who are such great leaders of the school.   The friendliness of the people in Patzun is amazing!   

We all came back touched by what we saw and even more sure that everything we are doing to support the school is greatly needed and is truly appreciated.  Their needs are so basic compared to the luxuries we enjoy in our daily lives so it is not difficult to extend our generous hand to them in hopes that getting a good education, having access to clean water and adequate food, and giving them the tools to make a decent wage will allow them to escape poverty!

We came home with over 800 pictures of Patzun…so we are working on putting them together with a brief narrative so we can share them with all of you.  Look for the pictures to arrive on this website by the end of July.  We are preparing presentations for our Mission Group Meeting, the Rotary and for a weekend of Masses at Holy Sepulcher.

You can continue your support of Patzun with our upcoming Hoagie Sale.   Paid orders are due July 25th with pickup the following weekend, July 31/Aug 1.  You can order hoagies for $6 – Italian, Turkey, Pizza Hoagies.  Apple Dumplings are $4 each. 

Beyond that, our Fair Trade Market will be November 13th so mark your calendar.  Along with our supplier from last year, we will have woven items, baskets and other items made in Guatemala that we brought back with us.  Extra special will be the items being specially woven for us by a family with children that attend San Bernardino School.  We are trying to find unique ways to help many people in Patzun – so if we buy items from artisans of San Bernardino School and sell them at our Fair Trade Market with the proceeds going to San Bernardino School, we have helped both the family and the’s a WIN/WIN situation.

I hope that as you read this message, your heart is being tugged.  That’s your sign to somehow become involved in the support of Patzun.  There are small and large ways that many people can help.  Consider attending our meeting on July 25th at 7pm in the Church Conference Room to check us out…no commitment necessary…just an open mind and heart. 

And always….keep the families of Patzun and San Bernardino School in particular in your prayers!

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