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Randy's Ramblings: St. Patrick Church is making a difference in a Guatemalan community

In the Christian circles I frequent, the phrase “Jesus in the flesh” is used to describe someone who exemplifies how Christ would act if he was still here in body.

I met such a person when Sister Joannes Klas came to Hudson a couple of weeks ago to spend time with parishioners of St. Patrick Catholic Church and the students and teachers at the parish school.

She was here to report on happenings in the Yalpemech area of Guatemala, where she has lived among the people since 1991. Sister Jo, as she is known, first joined the community in 1982 (31 years ago) when it was in a refugee camp in neighboring Honduras.

Her village of San Jose el Tesoro has no running water -- not even a well. Villagers carry their water for drinking and daily needs from a nearby stream.

The small, concrete-block, metal-roof homes of the village were without electricity, too, until Sister Jo persuaded the local power company to extend a main line to the village. St. Patrick parishioners paid to have the houses wired for two bulbs and two outlets. They still lack refrigerators.

St. Patrick Church’s relationship with the Yalpemech parish (which I believe is named Mother of Perpetual Help, but in Spanish) goes back to the mid-1990s, after Sister Bernadette Kalscheur came to serve in Hudson.

Sister Bernadette, who passed away last August at the age of 92, and Sister Jo were longtime friends. Sister Jo believes they met in 1954. She was a beginning teacher with the School Sisters of St. Francis, based in Milwaukee, and Sister Bernadette was her supervising teacher.

“She was a very good educator. A teacher by profession,” Sister Jo said of her late colleague.

I thought of Sister Bernadette as a friendly, kindly, older nun with an ecumenical bent when I was introduced to her in the late 1990s. I didn’t realize that she had her Ph.D., had taught in New York City and marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights for African Americans.

Sister Jo shared similar passions. She was in Mississippi working among African Americans on labor and social justice issues when the School Sisters of St. Francis called to ask if she was willing to go to Mexico to study Spanish, in preparation for work among refugee groups in Central America.

Civil wars were being waged in Guatemala and El Salvador, with the United States government backing right-wing military dictatorships against what it considered leftist rebels.

The Catholic Church was working with the poor people of the countries. The dictators thought it was conspiring with the rebels and murdered a number of priests, nuns and catechists (native Christian teachers).

The group Sister Jo went to live with in a refugee camp in Honduras had fled Guatemala after the priest from their area, an Italian Franciscan, and several catechists were murdered. The people had been workers on a banana plantation owned by a major U.S. corporation and the priest was teaching them to read and write.

Sister Jo lived with the group in exile for nine years, and then in 1991 returned to Guatemala with them. They couldn’t return to the area they came from, but were allowed to settle on a large estate that had belonged to one of the army generals.

Yalpemech is the name of the large land-tract. It was a big farm that now has about 18 communities on it, Sister Jo explained.

With the community preparing to return to Guatemala, Sister Jo planned to return to the United States to “freshen up a bit.” But the people said she couldn’t leave. She was a part of them.

“So I’m still there,” she said.

The return to Guatemala was fraught with danger, Mary Pat Finnegan of St. Patrick School, told me. The civil war didn’t end until 1996, and Sister Jo and her community lived under threat from both the army and the rebels.

In 1997, the United Nations presented Sister Jo with the Nansen Humanitarian Award, named after Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer and statesman remembered for his work on behalf of World War I refugees.

The Nansen Award is presented to one individual or organization a year in recognition of outstanding service to displaced or stateless people. The award came with a $100,000 monetary prize, which Sister Jo used to build a school and infrastructure in the village of San Jose el Tesoro.

The short, round nun with a big smile and hearty laugh lives with three Guatemalan sisters in a house with no running water or air conditioning -- doing the Lord’s work.

The School Sisters of St. Francis do what you’d expect them to do. They run a primary school and a job-training program for older, advanced students. With the help of St. Croix County Judge Howard Cameron and his wife, Teresa, they’ve established a library with computers in the village.

Scores of St. Pat’s parishioners have traveled to San Jose el Tesoro over the years to participate in medical and construction missions. St. Patrick Church supports its sister parish financially on an ongoing basis.

During the recent community Thanksgiving service at Faith Community Church, Pastor Aaron Steffen of the new Hill City Church challenged the Hudson churches represented to make a difference in the community. Would the community notice if they ceased to exist, he asked.

San Jose el Tesoro in Yalpemech, Guatemala, would certainly notice the absence of St. Patrick Catholic Church of Hudson.

“What do you think of our new pope?” Sister Jo asked me at the end of our visit at St. Patrick School a couple of weeks ago.

I like the pope, I told her after admitting to being a Baptist. And that was before Pope Francis issued the recent 84-page “evangelii gaudium” that, among other things, called on politicians to address the growing economic inequality in their countries and the world.

Pope Francis attacked the “idolatry of money” and called on governments to guarantee “dignified work, education and health care” for all citizens.

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems,” Pope Francis wrote.

In the words of my religious upbringing, that’s good preaching.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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