Category Archives: Fr. Stephen Huffstetter

SCJs continue to serve victims of Ecuador’s earthquakes

Fr. Bruno and Fr. Jose Luis pack a truck of relief supplies.

Fr. Bruno and Fr. Jose Luis pack a truck of relief supplies.

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, general councilor, is visiting with SCJs in  Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, one of the areas hardest hit by the April 26 earthquake. He writes:

A one-hour plane trip from Quito landed us in Manta, the airport nearest Bahía de Caráquez. On April 26, an earthquake of 7.8 on the Richter scale heavily damaged the entire region. It is fortunate that the earthquake hit on a Saturday evening when many people were out and about town, and not home sleeping or at school or work. The airport’s control tower collapsed and a temporary mobile military tower is in its place. The waiting area was a series of four large tents. A camcorder on a tripod served as the security camera. Porters delivered our baggage by hand because the conveyor belts were not yet rebuilt.

Fr. Bruno Roque dos Santos, originally from Brazil, and Fr. Ramón Soriano Gil, one of the three re-founders of the Ecuador District, met us and drove us north along the coast, past palm and mangrove trees to the area where SCJ missionaries first landed in 1897. Because Ecuador was the first nation consecrated to the Sacred Heart, it had special significance for Fr. Dehon. The SCJs now serve three parishes with an additional nine chapels.

A tent shelter

A tent shelter

Fr. Bruno has three roles: parish pastor, superior of the religious community, and dean of the vicariate for the diocese. Normally he thrives on lots of activity, but the earthquake relief work has at times left him feeling drained. The Church has been a reliable institution in which relief groups can turn to in order to put food and relief supplies directly into the hands of those who need it most. Fr. Ramón is in his late 70s and after almost 20 years of walking barrios and visiting the sick, he is well known and loved throughout the town.

Sagrado Corazón (Leonidas Plaza) church parking lot was partially occupied by tent canopies. A dozen children were taking part in their Saturday catechism classes. The high school students are preparing for confirmation, and the younger students learned about the Trinity. Their normal classrooms are still under repair. Cracks in the church were visible, and it cannot be used for liturgies until structural damage is repaired and the roof replaced with lighter materials.

Mattresses and other relief supplies fill the church

Mattresses and other relief supplies fill the church

In the meantime, the church has become a staging area for relief supplies. Inside I found cement bags and diapers, coloring books and cooking oil, beds and mattresses, blankets and bottled water.

We drove through town exploring the earthquake damage. Some entire blocks have been leveled. The worst hit seem to be the wealthier high-rises near the ocean, which are uninhabitable, and the poorer cement and brick homes built high on the hills which buckled and collapsed entirely when the earthquake and aftershocks hit. Ironically, many of the poorer homes in the country made of wood and cane survived because they are not rigid, and swayed and bent rather than broke. Roads buckled, and a major task has been repaving long stretches of highway, and in some cases, rerouting the roads. Tents and tarps abound. Three months after the earthquake people still live in temporary basic structures. Many residents have moved to other parts of the country away from the destruction. The economy is struggling in Ecuador as a whole, and the destruction here has only compounded the problem. For workers whose average salary is about $325 per month, home insurance was never possible.

Children getting a meal at a soup kitchen

Children getting a meal at a soup kitchen

On a hill overlooking the city a large cross stands as a sign of faith and hope. The panoramic view was both beautiful and sad, because it gave a perspective of all the damage. In Bella Vista the chapel totally collapsed and has been demolished. There we visited a feeding program and saw many pre-school children eating lunch. The cooks also boxed up meals to be taken to the home bound elderly.

We passed a high school, totally unusable. An empty lot stood where another school has already been leveled. When school starts again in a few months, where will the students attend classes?

The plaza in front of Our Lady of Merced Church holds a tent city. We also passed rows of tents on the outskirts of town.

At San Jorge church, we saw how the bell tower pulled away from the main building. The office and meeting room building slants noticeably. Workers laid new floor tiles after leveling an eight-inch drop in the main floor. The disaster has caused lots of displacement for normal group meetings and parish programs.

Fr. Steve with SCJs

Fr. Steve with SCJs

The Priests of the Sacred Heart have tried to help with housing. At Albergue Sagrado Corazón, one such temporary housing site, metal structures about the size of a backyard tool shed serve as shelter. Blankets draped over the metal add warmth and protection from the wind. People cooked and socialized outside. An elderly woman had her bed brought outside the house so she could be part of the crowd until it was time to go in for the night. While life is hard, people are grateful for the help with meeting basic needs for the moment.

The town resounds with the sounds of both hammers and wrecking balls. We visited two housing construction sites. The SCJs have helped build 17 homes, which rise above cement pads on stilts, and are connected to water and sewer. They cost $3,000 each. At another site we watched workers cutting wire in preparation for prefabricated walls to be brought in. Those homes cost $8,000. In the aftermath of past earthquakes in Chile and Perú, builders have learned what can be quickly and inexpensively built that will work in the area.

At St. Rose of Lima Church in neighboring San Vicente, we were invited to join a prayer circle of high school volunteers preparing for a service project in a badly damaged part of the region. As we formed a circle, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, I heard many heart-felt petitions as they recalled the needs of their community.

Fr. Jonathan counts the weekend collection

Fr. Jonathan counts the weekend collection

Fr. Jónathan Martínez Gragera is from Spain and has served Bahía for the past six years. The earthquake followed the previous year’s drought, a double hardship for the people. The biggest pastoral challenge is to be a listening ear and support people who get discouraged and tempted to lose hope. After three months, so much yet remains to be done. As pastor, social worker, counselor and listening ear for so many traumatized people, it is a challenge.

I saw Fr. Jónathan counting the weekend collection. Amid a pile of coins, I saw two 5-dollar bills. The average salary here is about $75 per week, and the collection brought in $125. Ecuador uses US dollars as its currency. The Sacajawea dollars, which never caught on in the US, are commonly circulated here because of their durability.

Carlos Alonzo Vargas, from Venezuela, has ministered as a deacon for over a year. He began work in Ecuador in March, just one month before the earthquake changed everything. Beside parochial ministry, he finds great meaning reaching out to the nearby prison.

Tent city in a church plaza

Tent city in a church plaza

“Despite the disaster, life can and must go on”

I celebrated weekend Masses in San Jorge parish. The SCJs invited me to preside, while they preached. I did say a few words about how our prayers and thoughts have been with them since the earthquake. My hope and prayer is that times of trouble and disaster can also be times of charity and solidarity with one another. The liturgies had lively music and participation. One Mass include two baptisms. At the children’s liturgy, we encountered enthusiastic singing and hand clapping. Ecuadoran culture is very affectionate, with lots of hugs and greetings. Many people line up after Mass for an extra, individual blessing and a few words of encouragement from their pastors.

I observed catechism class La Virgen de Merced parish. The parish has an active Caritas group that reaches out to those in need with social projects, and they have been incredibly busy this year. Fr. Bruno honored the parish secretary for 21 years (and counting) of her service at Merced.

An ongoing project are the parish soup kitchens – “comedores.” In one near Sagrado Corazón women prepare daily meals for area children. While absolute hunger is not an issue in this agricultural region, good nutrition is, and they are able to provide nutritious meals to supplement what is lacking.

Students at Talitha Kum, a parish school for the disabled

Students at Talitha Kum, a parish school for the disabled

Talitha Kum, (from the biblical stand and walk) provides classes and care for children with physical or mental developmental disabilities. We talked to youth confined to wheelchairs, and others with Down’s Syndrome or Autism. The tiny metal sheds serving as classrooms didn’t seem like a lot, but the love and care inside was noticeable, and that makes all the difference.

José Luis Ángel, who teaches finance at ESIC in Madrid, was in town to meet with those who have received one-year, no interest, microcredit loans. While the 60 people who benefit from the program in Quito were mostly women running start-up cottage industries, here in Bahía the loans go to 90 farmers who need upfront money for basics like seed and fertilizer, or even to pay rent on land they can farm. The program hopes to help them establish credit with regular banks. “Orbayu” started with seed money from an insurance company and its employees who wanted to do something concrete in the area of Corporate Social Responsibility. The word “Orbayu” signifies a lasting, slow and steady drizzle which may not seem like much at first, but as time goes on, soaks the ground and produces much growth. A little money in the right place at the right time goes a long way. For more information on these microcredit initiatives, go to http://www.orbayu.org/

One night we enjoyed supper with the Visitation Sisters, who have moved into the SCJs’ Dormus Cordi house after their convent walls crumbled. Dormus Cordi normally serves as a center for youth ministry. I was disappointed that much of that ministry is on hold until the fall, and I hope to see and learn more about it on my next visit.

A home in the parish countryside

A home in the parish countryside where Fr. Steve helped to deliver supplies

Fr. Bruno loaded up a truck of supplies for the countryside (campo) communities. We traveled dirt and gravel roads, as rugged as any I knew from my rural South Dakota reservation days. We dropped off tables and tiny chairs to help a pre-school program. We delivered a bed and mattress to a 95-year-old elder in the community. His home was made of traditional wood, on stilts to keep cool air flowing underneath and to minimize the critters that can get in. Newspapers glued over the cracks kept the wind down. It was a simple home about 30 x 30 square feet divided into four rooms. They had no running water. The hospitality was great as we were greeted with a quarter of a watermelon apiece, warm hugs and a huge smile.

Baptism

Baptism

In Santa María the small chapel that serves the 50 families in the area was next to a one-room school house, in session. There were 19 children studying. One girl was late (chronically) because she has to walk six kilometers (a little under four miles) each way to school every day. Near the community of Pajonal we walked along the oceanfront, quite beautiful and undeveloped. People here worry about large conglomerates buying large tracts of land and privatizing the beaches.

Besides my meetings with individual SCJs, the community as a whole met to discuss the General Council’s six-year plan. They inquired about our SCJ confreres and projects throughout the world. Ready to contribute what they can to the Congregation as a whole, they asked what the General Superior hopes from them. Again, I heard their desire to promote the district to other SCJs who may be willing to join their ministry.

Click here to learn how you can contribute to relief efforts in Ecuador. Many people were so generous immediately after the disaster, but as you can see in Fr. Steve’s account, much still needs to be done. Thank you for continuing to keep the people of Ecuador in your prayers. 

Ecuador: Fr. Dehon’s first mission

Fr. Steve with Quito in the background. He describes the backdrop as "our parish." Santa María de la Argelia consists of nine chapels that serve over 50,000 people

Fr. Steve with Quito in the background. He describes the backdrop as “our parish.” Santa María de la Argelia consists of nine chapels that serve over 50,000 people

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, general councilor, writes from Ecuador where he has been visiting with our SCJ community there for the past week.

Fr. Dehon sent the congregation’s first missionaries to Ecuador in 1888. But due to several complex problems the mission did not succeed and the SCJs left the country in 1896.

One hundred years later the Spanish Province took up the mission anew. The district now consists of two communities in Quito and one on the coast at Bahía de Caráquez. District members come not only from Spain, but also from Venezuela, Brazil and now Ecuador itself.

Fr. Steve writes:

I arrived in Quito late at night for my first visit to Ecuador. Driving to the community house I could see lights up and down steep mountainous hills, but couldn’t get a true perspective on the landscape until the morning sun. Fr. José Luis Domínguez González, the district superior, and Deacon Carlos Alonzo Vargas led a walking tour of the neighborhood. With an altitude of between 9,000-10,000 feet above sea level, I appreciated the slow pace as I gasped for breath climbing the hills in the thin altitude.

Fr. José and Dn. Carlos

Fr. José and Dn. Carlos

José Luis joined the Ecuadorian mission in 2001, one week after his priestly ordination, and is finishing his first three-year term as district superior. He has been highly involved in Retrovaille, a program for marriages in conflict, and served as president of the Latin American chapter. Carlos is from Venezuela and has served the district in the Bahía de Caráquez region since March. I also met Fr. Edson Pacheco de Almeida, a Brazilian working in Bahía in pastoral vocational ministry, and Hernan Carrera Pruna, an SCJ candidate from Ecuador doing his philosophy studies.

Our district / formation house is in a neighborhood next to the Central University of Ecuador. A good number of students were in summer sessions as we walked through campus. Nearby are the Catholic Episcopal and Religious Conferences of Ecuador, as well as the Catholic University where SCJ candidates attend classes. In September, there will be one returning and six new candidates in formation.

Testing the local produce

Testing the local produce

Our first stop was a marketplace where I saw many fruits and vegetables new to me. Jose Luis helped me to learn the new vocabulary of what we saw, and then we snacked on luscious bananas and salted, roasted corn kernels. We saw a great variety of fish, popular in this coastal country.

Our parish in Quito, Santa María de la Argelia, is actually a series of nine chapels that serves a large area of the southern section of the capital. The area houses around 50,000 people. 90% of the country is nominally Catholic, and as is true in most parts of the world, the challenge is to serve the smaller percentage we see in church each week and reach out to those who are on the periphery. This area of Quito has grown as people from smaller countryside villages flock into the cities in search of work.

Fr. Artemio López Merino and Brother José María Urbina Rioja are two of the original missionaries who re-founded the congregation’s presence in 1997. Artemio gave me a book he wrote on the history of the mission. Fr. Benjamín Ramos Fraile, who spent many years in Bahía and was just named pastor in Quito a month ago, joins them. He is organizing a week-long summer church camp for youth aged 4–13 and is getting to know families along the way. Fr. Joaquín Izurzu Satrústegui is a member of the Spanish Province and is helping for a month while on a break from his school ministry.

Fr. Benjamin with parishioners

Fr. Benjamin with parishioners

The SCJs sponsor a parish program for the elderly in collaboration with the local government. The elders refer to themselves as “70 + a little.” Services include meals, physical therapy, nutrition counseling, regular medical check-ups, and a social worker available to help address family issues. Perhaps most importantly is the social dimension of time spent with others in fun activities. We celebrated Mass to help with the spiritual dimension of their life. Their spoken prayer intentions included so many heartfelt prayers for the needs of not only of their own families, but of the community around them. I was surprised at the strong bear hugs the little old ladies embraced me with after Mass.

Life in these barrios can be difficult, with family violence, many absent fathers, gang activity, drug dealing, and a shortage of good jobs. The parish secretary’s office installed metal grating after a couple of attempted robberies. Friday evenings the parish has an outreach to the homeless, as they go into the streets to meet people in need.

At Santa María de la Argelia

At Santa María de la Argelia

The chapels range from mid-sized churches to community meeting rooms. We visited three. Next to the San Francisco Javier chapel are 11 small houses, originally built to house domestic violence victims. Now the community uses them to host refugees, many from neighboring Columbia. The community of San Carlos is building a new chapel, a few bricks at a time, as they are able. One temptation is to seek outside money and finish more quickly. Though it will take longer for the parishioners to build it themselves, in the end it will have ownership and responsibility. At Argelia Alta, several women and children of the parish welcomed our tour.

While many parishes I am familiar with have individuals who are daily communicants, the weekday Mass traditions here are different. The evening parish Mass is attended by various parish groups. One night we celebrated with the family outreach committee. The second night was the charismatic prayer group. Each group is responsible for the liturgical ministry that day, like the music, readings and serving.

One night I sat in on a gathering of parishioners who have benefited from a Spain-based micro-credit program to help families start small businesses. Mr. José Luis Angel Vega met with groups of 6-10 people with team names like “Sacred Heart” “Santa María,” and “Life and Faith” They stood and introduced themselves and their business which included carpentry, a tire shop, restaurants, clothing stores, an internet café, and raising both pigs and puppies. They receive small loans of up to $1,000 and the group helps people work together to make sure that the business becomes stable and the loan fund is repaid so monies for other possibilities can be reinvested in the community. It is difficult for people who have ideas and hopes but no collateral or resources and this gives them a chance. These people are now providing needed and wanted services for their neighborhood, all within the parish.

Fr. Steve with some of the SCJs in Quito

Fr. Steve with some of the SCJs in Quito

I spent time talking to each individual in the district, and with the local communities as a whole. What they want the congregation to know is that they work hard both pastorally and to form a living situation good for religious life. They have formed an international community, and while they strive to develop local vocations among the Ecuadorian people, they also want to welcome those from other entities who have a good spirit of mission to join them.

I had a fun day exploring the touristic side of Quito. Ecuador is obviously located on the equator. Mitad del Mundo, (middle of the world), is a monument and village built on the site first calculated to be earth’s geographic center. We toured a village of reconstructed typical native houses in diverse regions such as the Amazon, the mountain highlands and coastal plains. Our guides were dressed in colorful local folk attire and brought the lives of the region’s first inhabitants to life.

Fr. José Luis and Fr. Steve at the equator

Fr. José Luis and Fr. Steve at the equator

At the GPS equatorial line we entered a museum which demonstrated the forces of gravity, and how just a few feet on either side of the equator water swirls down the drain in different directions, but straight down when in the geographic middle. I tried to balance an egg upright, but couldn’t master the intricacies. A tour group of US high school students was starting a tour in English, so I joined that group to learn about the flora and fauna and people of Ecuador. We also saw some actual shrunken heads. Some were taken to show power over the enemy, others to preserve the wisdom of a respected elder in the community. The practice is now banned, but in some remote regions it continues.

The mountainous volcanic land around Quito is quite striking. We stood above a huge volcanic crater, Pululahua, perhaps 25 miles in circumference. In the valley far below we could see green and fertile farms. We also hiked up El Pucará de Rumicucho, a hilly area used by the Inca and older tribal cultures for prayer and ceremony.

While I have tried many new fruits and foods, the national dish Cuy, (Guinea Pig) has been the most unique for me so far. Our group split a platter, and the meat was tasty, like moist and tender pork ribs.

Welcome to the USA!

Fr. Jesús, Fr. Luca, Fr. Steve and Aldo

Fr. Jesús, Fr. Luca, Fr. Steve and Aldo

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter recently hosted Fr. Luca Zottoli, general treasurer, along with his assistant, Aldo Ivaldi, and Fr. Jesús Valdezate (a member of the General Finance Commission), for a visit to the United States. Fr. Steve shares his journal from the visit:

Monday, June 20

Last night I felt privileged to welcome three members of our SCJ General Finance Commission to the States. They are here to learn about how the US Province approaches finance and investment, development and fundraising, and forming relationships with donors. Mr. Aldo Ivaldi has made the trip before, but for Fr. Luca, the general treasurer from Italy, and Fr. Jesús from Spain, this was their first time in the States. Their plane into Chicago was four hours late, and by the time we finally arrived in Hales Corners, the three travelers were very tired. We started early today meeting with two representatives from a company that specializes in direct mail in the US and many other countries.

In the afternoon we sat with the management of the Province Development office in Hales Corners. Fr. Dominic Peluse, Deacon David Nagel, Sid Liebenson, Pam Milczarski and Tim LaFavor spoke of their work and philosophy. Besides raising money to support the mission of the Congregation, the materials mailed also aim to promote spirituality and deepen people’s faith: prayer and mass cards, spiritual reading and inspirational artwork. Fr. Luca remarked that the afternoon gave him a better sense of the spirituality of the program.

Dn. David welcomes Fr. Luca

Dn. David welcomes Fr. Luca

After supper the visitors got a look at Lake Michigan. To European eyes it reminded them of the ocean, since the water stretches all the way to the horizon. And of course, no visit to Milwaukee would be complete without frozen custard, different from gelato, but just as tasty.

Tuesday, June 21

Today was a long travel day, a 500-mile drive to Sioux Falls, SD. This crew has proven fun to travel with, and the eight hours of drive time passed quickly. They tease and joke with each other like excited school kids on a field trip. They were amazed at all the open spaces, and we really haven’t gotten to the west yet. Their cameras clicked away as we crossed the Mighty Mississippi River at LaCrosse, WI, with tree-lined hills and bluffs sloping down to the waters. They told me they wanted to eat local foods and experience local color, so we ate lunch at a truck stop just off the interstate, which they called an experience of the “Real America” like they’d seen in the movies.

Fr. Jesús with Magdalena Artega, a member of the province development office staff who assisted with translation

Fr. Jesús with Magdalena Artega, a member of the province development office staff who assisted with translation

After we stopped for the night they were in the mood for “American beefsteak”. We headed to the small town of Tea, and the steakhouse that serves huge and tasty hunks of grass-fed South Dakota beef. They joked that “Everything is big in America”

A favorite spot of mine are the actual waterfalls that the city is named after. The night was mild and the sound of rushing water quite calming. We watched a flock of baby ducklings learning to swim against the current, and families out for an evening walk. After hours in the car, the movement and outdoor time was a fitting end to the day. One of the guys remarked that the terraced rocks of the falls seemed as perfect as if Disney had created it. But it was all Mother Nature’s work.

Wednesday, June 22

Our tour of the St. Joseph’s Indian School Donor Care Center absolutely amazed our guests. They could not believe the vast numbers of people the school can reach personally, and were impressed with the philosophy of relationship building with the donors. Kody Christianson, the center’s director, gave us a history of the center and an overview of how it is developing. Geri Beck, who leads planned giving and major gifts, spoke of how her staff hosts visitors and meets with individuals across the country. The staff makes many calls each day, the majority to say “thank you,” and speak with new donors to provide basic information about the school and programs. They also try to call donors to wish them a happy birthday, or follow up on prayer requests to see how folks are faring. While our visitors put on earphones and listened in on some of the conversations staff have with donors, I wandered around the office talking and reconnecting with our staff. We ate lunch with them. Besides the chance to update them on our work in Rome, I took the opportunity to thank the staff for their dedication and service to our donors.

Learning about St. Joe's fund raising program

Learning about St. Joe’s fund raising program

We left the big city behind, crossed the Missouri River, and headed to the prairie and reservations. Lower Brule was the first SCJ mission in the US and three SCJ priests live in the community there and serve the needs of six small parishes. Two of the priests are originally from our Indonesian Province, making it a truly international mission. They have been on the reservation long enough to build trust and establish good pastoral relationships. Driving around the area gave our visitors an initial experience of the difficulties and challenges people face on the reservation. I didn’t need to comment on the housing and infrastructure. I just drove around and let the guys take in the sights and form their own impressions. Afterwards one commented that he had seen more absolute poverty in other parts of the world, but the atmosphere was heavy with sadness and he could tell the mission was needed but difficult.

Wednesday evenings mean Mass at Fort Thompson, across the river on the Crow Creek Reservation. Several families are regulars, and afterwards, we had a chance to chat with tribal members over coffee and Kool-Aid.

Thursday, June 23

We spent the day in Chamberlain at St. Joseph’s Indian School. Jona Ohm, who handles many roles including public relations, led our tour of the development office. Clare Wilrodt, Religious Education Coordinator and Mission Animator, helped translate into Spanish for Fr. Jesús, and Emily Swanson followed us with a camera to capture the images. Our visitors saw mailings from start to finish – ideas and design, printing press, outgoing mail warehouse, and the staff that opens and answers the volume of letters that arrive every day. For me the great part was reconnecting with staff along the way.

Fr. Jesús with a St. Joe's staffer

Fr. Jesús with a St. Joe’s staffer

After the tour, we sat with Kory Christianson, director of Development, and Neoma Harris, who is in-charge of Marketing. Its impossible to understand the whole structure in one short visit, but our guys got a broad overview, and plenty of chances to ask questions and learn.

Summer also brings the Rising Eagle summer day camp. We visited the dining hall where a nutritious hot lunch is provided for the kids coming each day by school bus from the reservation. This week’s group was from Lower Brule. Even after three years away I recognized several students. St. Joe’s High School students were also working as camp counselors, giving back, and learning responsibility.

We joined the three Chamberlain SCJs for lunch. There is a bond across cultures and languages when we get together and share prayer and food. The ministry is a joint effort, and each member of the community has an important role to play.

St. Joseph’s has a Thrift Store off campus on the Main Street Business District. After seeing where the donations come in, the three visitors went on a shopping spree. They came away with some shirts and hats but more importantly, a broader sense of the mission. Sales support the school. Children have nice clothes to wear, and many loads of household goods and clothes for infants and elderly are taken where they are needed on the reservation.

We visited the Personal Care Representatives, who care for smaller groups of donors. Lilly will be a senior next year and she is helping in the office for the summer. She spoke about the exchange program with our sister school in Handrup, Germany, that she and three classmates participated in during the first part of June. Native Hope is a new project trying to tell positive stories about Native culture, and providing meeting space for people to come together in sharing and reconciliation.

We took a break at the museum to shop. It gave me the chance to say goodbye to Mary Jane Alexander, who is retiring after 45 years of working in the school and with our alumni. So many of the staff have been committed to the mission for many, many years.

Fr. Anthony Kluckman gave a tour of the school, which strives to give a high quality education in a way that also takes into account Lakota culture.

For supper we ate pizza with the high school boys, then visited the Speyer Home, where the younger summer break students are staying. That filled in the picture. The school is so much more than a school because it is also a home for much of the year, and houseparents who live with the children are the biggest single group of staff. The kids greeted the visitors at the door, shook hands in welcome, and introduced themselves. They were excited and proud about give a tour of the home.

Walking

Friday June 24

Friday was a day of pure tourism and fun. We started in the Badlands National Park, where the guys were fascinated by every twist and turn in the road. After driving over rolling grasslands for two hours, the peaks of the hills stand out like mountains on the moon.

When I stopped for gas, an adjacent prairie dog town captured their imagination. They got as close as the critters would let them to take pictures and watch their antics.

Temperatures were in the upper 90s, (or 40 if counting by their usual Centigrade degrees). Still we walked some of the paths and trails, with photos at every turn. At the visitor center we watched a good quality orientation video that gave a look at how the Badlands were formed and the types of wildlife you can discover there. The Badlands are also a treasure trove for fossils, and we saw researchers cleaning dirt and rock away from the latest batch of discoveries.

An event called the “Great Race” featured vintage cars driving across country, and the classic models passing by throughout the drive added another layer of interest.

Fr. Luca kept asking me if we were going to eat buffalo meat, and finally he got his chance at Wall Drug. Through advertising over the years, a small family pharmacy has evolved into a gigantic tourist stop, with about every kind of souvenir imaginable, and entertainment besides. And yes, there still is a real drug store, almost hidden by the roaring dinosaurs and rows of gift shops. When we pulled into the massive parking area, Aldo exclaimed, “Only in America!”

Mount Rushmore was a must, and I wondered what it would mean to visitors from a foreign land. They commented on how in the US we try to build a positive sense of nationalism, freedom and democracy, which they appreciated. I have seen the monument many times, but it is a treat to see it through the eyes of a first timer.

We ended the evening at the Fort Hayes Cowboy Chuckwagon show. Aldo was wearing a St. Joseph’s Indian School shirt that was a gift from the Donor Care Center. While we were looking at some of the old time activities like blacksmithing, a woman on a bus tour noticed the symbol and asked if he worked at the school. She had never been to St. Joseph’s, and only knew the school from many years of mail correspondence. The small world part was that she and her friend were from the Milwaukee area and have taken workshops at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology.

We dined on fine beef, beans and fixings cowboy style, slapped onto a tin plate. The evening ended with a wonderful live music show that featured such a variety from old time country to rock and roll.

Saturday, June 25

I dropped Luca, Aldo and Jesús at the Rapid City Airport for their return to Milwaukee, where they will meet with our investment and finance people. So much of my life was spent in South Dakota; it is a treat to share it with visitors and see it again fresh through their eyes and experiences.

 

Remembering those who came before us

Mausoleum flowers

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, SCJ, our general councilor in Rome, writes about a recent visit to the city’s main cemetery, Campo Verano. Approximately 20 SCJs are interred there, including two former general councilors. Fr. Steve writes:

Since my days of parish ministry in South Dakota I have developed great appreciation for visiting cemeteries. When our Vicar General, Carlos Enrique Caamano Martin, invited me to go along to Campo Verano, Rome’s main cemetery, I was delighted to accept, and wondered what I would find. When I asked at table if anyone famous was buried there, one of the Italians remarked that most of the famous people are buried in churches!

We traveled by the city’s light rail line, my first time aboard. The trip takes longer than the underground metro, but allows for a scenic tour of the city. We passed many diverse neighborhoods, monuments, museums and parks.

Our first stop was the Church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (outside the walls). The ancient church is much simpler than the gilded Baroque churches. There are of course beautiful pieces of art and mosaics. Here St. Lawrence was martyred by being roasted alive. A blood stained stone slab where his body was laid is preserved as a sign of his suffering and his faith. Near the altar was a picture depicting the grill he died upon. In addition to crucifixions, the authorities of the day were perversely cruel in their instruments of death.

Carlos E and mausoleum

Fr. Carlos Enrique in front of the SCJs’ mausoleum

Outside the church at the cemetery entrance were rows of flower stalls, where vendors offered visitors the opportunity to purchase a bouquet to honor their loved ones. Campo Verano is several miles across, a city in its own right. The size and scope of the artful statues, the chapels and mausoleums absolutely astounded me and exceeded every expectation. When I saw the monuments that were the size of small houses, the scripture passage that came to mind was of the man Jesus cured who was living among the tombs, because someone actually could in a place like this. Smaller spaces for graves ringed the outside wall, with ladders strategically placed so visitors could add flowers and decorations to the highest areas.

The first section we came upon had porticos and frescos as lovely as any I’ve seen. The cemetery goes back 200 years to the time of Napoleon. One large monument commemorated the Roman Jewish victims of the Nazi Deportation. While the cemetery does hold its share of people mentioned in history books, this is mainly about the everyday people of Rome, who built the city, made it work, lived and loved, dreamt and struggled and now lie in a state of eternal rest.

Carlos Enrique led the way to our mausoleum, which held a small altar in a glass enclosed room in front of a mosaic of the Good Shepherd. Two of our Superior Generals, Fr. Lellig and Fr. Govaart, are buried here, along with 17 others who have died at the Generalate.

We opened the glass doors in the front and climbed down a steep ladder, looking at the stone slabs marking the places of our beloved dead as we descended about 30 feet. While I was looking at the names and dates on the stones, Carlos Enrique snatched a broom from the corner and handed it to me. It then dawned on me that it was our responsibility to clean and tidy up, which I did with a joy and prayerful spirit. As St. Benedict was fond of saying, “Ora et Labora.”

When I was making my good-bye rounds in the US last July, I realized there would be some members of the province I might be seeing for the last time, and that has proved to be the case. One of the adjustments to life in Rome is missing the chance to be with community when we celebrate a funeral liturgy and celebrate and remember the life of those who have shared so much with us along the way. I pray for all who have gone before us and built the foundations for what we are now able to do.

Last stop: Chile

SCJs in Chile

SCJs in Chile

Fr. Stephan Huffstetter shares his final journal entry from his travels with Fr. Heiner Wilmer for the General Visitation. Fr. Steve’s last stop? Chile. He writes:

Since I was already in South America, I extended the trip by a week to spend time getting to know our confreres in Chile, one of the provinces that I will accompany as General Councilor . After five weeks traveling together, Fr. Heiner flew east to Africa, and I headed west. Normally I choose an aisle seat so I can stretch out and move around but since this was brand new territory for me, I booked a window seat and marveled looking out the window at the landscapes below. The flight first crossed vast Argentine farm and grasslands. The land abruptly rose as we approached the majestic rocky peaks of the Andes. Being summer, only the highest of summits remained snowcapped. Then we passed into the broad valley and sprawling Metropolis of Santiago, home to some seven million of Chile’s 17 million citizens.

While I was waiting to go through passport control, the flight left me dry and I approached one of the pop machines. The $ symbol Chileans use for their peso is the same that you see for US dollars. When I saw the posted price of $1,000, I felt sticker shock, and decided I really was not very thirsty! With the exchange rate, it would have actually cost me a more reasonable $1.46.

The SCJs in Chile number only 17, but make a good impact with their schools and parishes in the Santiago area. They also opened a new mission 10 hours to the south in the city of Valdivia, but I did not get to see that community on this visit. Dutch missionaries founded the province, and the elders in the community are from Holland and Luxembourg. Some came when they were newly ordained and have worked in Chile for over 50 years. During the Pinochet military coup during the 70s many were expelled from the country for a time because their work with the poor got them in trouble with the regime. The younger members are mostly Chileans, with international help from our provinces in Brazil and Poland.

My first full day included a trip to the Dehonian Retreat Center, which offers space and many programs for spiritual development. The Pastoral Leadership team from San Juan Evangelista School was gathered for orientation and planning for the new school year. My visit coincides with the end of summer vacation, and in another week, the students return to the classroom. I sat in on some of their sharing and strategic planning, joined them for mass and then enjoyed the cook out and social after their work was finished.

Chile 2The Cure de Ars is our parish in San Miguel, a commune located in an older, southern part of the city. Two priests serve 25,000 parishioners, though weekly attendance not nearly that high. They have a main church and four chapels spread throughout the neighborhood. I saw a large group of young families coming out of the church after the Saturday baptismal class. Fr. Herman took me for a drive and tour of the area. He explained how they focus on training adult catechists to facilitate small Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) in order to touch the lives of people where they live. Part of the parish is mid-level working class, and part is rather poor, with the attendant drug and social problems. One of the chapels had a kitchen attached where parishioners cook food to take to the streets for the homeless. Like many urban areas, change is coming rapidly as blocks of smaller homes are razed and 25 story high-rise apartments rapidly sprout up.

The other parish we serve is Nuestra Senora de Fatima, in San Bernardo. San Bernardo is 20 minutes south of Santiago. Thirty years ago when it became the see for a new diocese, it was a railroad town surrounded by lots of country. Today it has 300,000 people and continues to grow. The area houses and stores are multi-colored, with lots of street art or graffiti, depending on your point of view. I concelebrated Sunday mass with Fr. Johny, the provincial, whose altar servers were well-trained and attentive, and a group of guitar singers led lively music from the front pew. I dusted off my Spanish skills as I mingled with parishioners outside after the mass. With my work in administration, I often miss the small talk and interaction that goes along with being a parish priest.

A standard feature of most towns in a central city square – the Plaza de Arms – where historically the citizen militia could gather if the town was ever in danger of attack. Now the plazas provide a nice green space under ancient shady trees. The mild summer weather here has been great for enjoying a stroll, and for people watching, since the plazas are the center of so much social and commercial activity. This week most of the shoppers have back to school needs on their minds, and stores have tables set up outside selling notebooks and pens and every kind of school supply.

Dehonians sponsor two “Collegios” which serve students from Pre-K through the age of 18 when they are ready to begin university studies. Both Sagrado Corazon and San. Juan Evangelista have over 1000 students, and large sprawling campuses. When I visited, the teachers and staff were scurrying around campus getting everything ready for next week’s start to the school year.

Sagrado Corazon is in San Bernardo. The campus is spacious, spread over two city blocks, with many programs and facilities. We had mass with the faculty who are preparing for the first day of school next week. While part of the town is middle class, other poorer areas contain public housing projects. The school has been trying to find more scholarship monies for those in need. Many families sacrifice to provide their children with the kind of education that will lead them to professional careers, and the school strives to promote Christian values so graduates will be agents of positive change in society. Half a dozen SCJs form the local community. Two priests serve the pastoral needs in the school and help in parishes as needed. Two brothers work in the school administration and are passionate about instilling Dehonian values in the school. Two candidates from the local area study philosophy at the Catholic University and help part time in the school while being full time members of the local community.

San Juan Evangelista is located in the commune of Las Condes, a wealthier part of town. The staff were in the auditorium hearing the director, Brother Jorge, give the opening of the year updates and pep talk. When they broke into smaller working groups, I had a chance to tour the school. I worked in school administration for nine years, and one of my favorite activities is just to walk around campus, inquire how people are doing, and learn about what is going on. They have started intensive efforts to integrate English as a secondary language into the curriculum, which I learned about in English of course! With the rest of the departments I asked simple questions in Spanish and listened and learned about their approaches. The counselors spoke of the family and relational problems that affect all young people. Campus ministry has a strong presence and set out goals for spiritual development in the coming year. Those responsible of discipline also provide a much needed service in working with kids in trouble.

The community suggested that for me to understand Chile, I should do some touring. Since I thoroughly enjoy learning about history and culture, and had Brother Claudio and Herman, one of our candidates, willing to act as tour guides, I was happy to oblige. Sunday afternoon we drove an hour east to the town of Los Andes, home of Chile’s first saint. Theresa of Los Andes was a Carmelite sister who died at the young age of 20, yet modeled a life of prayer and union with God. A sanctuary draws many pilgrims, and I learned that 80,000 young people come for the annual fall youth festival. All the fresh flowers surrounding Theresa’s tomb, and all the people kneeling in prayer amazed me. The chapel was open for the sacrament of reconciliation, good any time of the year, but especially fitting during this season of Lent. After a good lunch with local foods, we drove further into town to the original convent, which is now a museum.

Before joining the SCJs as a candidate, Jorge studied tourism and hotel management. He was a superb guide to the central part of Santiago, and could tell me much about its history and highlights. The Santiago Cathedral has many prayerful spots and beautiful artwork, but what caught my eye was a marble pair of folded hands sculpted into the baptismal font. When you touched the hands the holy water flowed out. Like most national capitols, there are plenty of impressive government buildings. What stood out for me was a large complex that was once a military bunker has been transformed into a center for the arts, with a museum, theater and children’s workshop.

Chile 3A final excursion was to the port town of Valparaiso, on the Pacific Coast. Along the way we passed avocado and olive orchards, and miles of vineyards in wine country. We stopped in Casablanca to visit the Sanctuario Purisima Virgen de Lo Vasquez. Valparaiso is so alive with the bustling activity of shipping, naval, and cruise ships arriving into port. We took a hundred year old ancient wooden cable car/elevator up the steep slope leading down to the sea, and discovered an area of colorful arts and craft shops, and museums. The view from above was breath taking. I also enjoyed walking along the lovely white sandy beaches of neighboring Vina del Mar.

Since the purpose of this visit was not official business, but to get to know the province and congregation better, I was well satisfied. While the group may be small, they are filled with great hope, and I look forward to discovering ways I can support the good work they do.

 

Serving the poor of Argentina

ARG-URU 8

Fr. Leo ()provincial superior of Argentina) Fr. Steve and Fr. Heiner

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter shares his journal from Argentina, where he and Fr. Heiner Wilmer continue the general visitation:

The SCJ parish of Sagrado Corazon serves a large barrio in Buenos Aires. The church and rectory complex is big, with a school attached, and at one time served as a formation house for the province. The parish takes in a huge area of high-rise low-income housing. They reminded me of projects I saw in Chicago, where concentrating the poor in one area without many support services was a recipe for crime and failure. Because of past theft, and ongoing drug violence, the parish has to be barricaded with locks and iron bars across the gates. When you are committed to working with and among the poor, that can be a sad fact of life.

We traveled north to the Province of Chaco. The landscape of vast plains, grasslands, and groves of palm trees reminded me of a cross between Texas and South Dakota. We drove a narrow two-lane road which stretched for miles cross-country. The side roads were gravel or dirt and we passed few towns (or gas stations) in along the way. We definitely saw more cows than people, and the occasional Vaquero on horseback, tending to the herd.

Four SCJs minister at San Martin. The parish complex is large, with one of the buildings meant for retreats and province gatherings. Our first night a surprising 80 folks showed up for the weekday mass. A young woman just turned 15 and her family came to church for prayer and a blessing as she celebrated her Quincinera. Even on Sunday the main parish mass is at 8:00 pm, after the heat of the day. The priests travel to the outlying mission chapels up to 50 kilometers distance during the day. Fr. Heiner presided and preached on the weekend. After mass people lined up for his blessing as if the Pope had come to visit. Each country has its own way of greeting. In India people tended to bow with folded hands. In Argentina, everyone kisses you on both cheeks.

After mass, we were treated to supper in the parish hall, honoring a group of young adults who had just finished their summer bible program for the outlying communities. I was impressed with the strong involvement of youth in the life of the parish. They and other parish groups told of their work and life in the community. As a gift they presented us with Pope Francis’ favorite beverage, mate leaves, and a special cup from which to drink it.

We had the opportunity to visit families of SCJs, and thank them for nurturing their sons’ vocation. One priest and two seminarians come from the San Martin parish. Vocations are inspired first from the Lord, and secondly through parishioners who evangelize, catechize and nourish the faith through prayer and outreach.

We drove to the town of Formosa, and crossed the Paraguay River into the town of Alberdi. The SCJs have recently opened a new mission in this part of Paraguay. The river is about a half mile across, and boats constantly shuttle back and forth for work or shopping for bargains at the colorful marketplace at the landing in Alberdi. After we went through customs, we boarded a wooden boat that held about 50. I expected Humphrey Bogart to take the wheel of what reminded me of the African Queen of movie fame. The river was swollen with three months of heavy rains, including another soaking thunderstorm that knocked out the electricity the previous night. On the crossing we saw buildings close to the bank that were flooded, and sand bags keeping the waters at bay.

Two SCJ priests, Mario and Caesar, serve the parish in Alberdi. During the rainy season they are unable to reach some of the missions because the roads become impassible. Upon our arrival the group of 15 parishioners who are pastoral animators had a meal waiting for us. Besides sampling tasty local dishes we they shared their efforts at sharing the faith, and their appreciation of SCJ presence. I came away impressed by the lay leadership of these committed people. In his remarks, Fr. Heiner put in a pitch for vocations from the area. In order for new missions to sustain themselves, local vocations are crucial.

As we left San Martin and drove south, we came upon a very moving Memorial to the Martyrs of Margarita Belen. Twenty-two larger than life sized statues depicted people blindfolded and chained, meeting their death by gunfire. The memorial commemorated the 1976 massacre of supporters of the Montoneras, killed by military forces during the systemic violence of the dirty war in the years when so many people disappeared.

Frs. Juan and Marcelo serve Resistencia, the capital of the Chaco Province with a population of 400,000. The central part of the city is quite nice, with wide boulevards with trees and green space in the median. The part of town the Dehonians serve has primarily dirt roads, badly rutted from recent heavy rains. I often heard the clip clop of horse hooves as the charitos clomp through the streets, wagons still much in use to haul produce or garbage or whatever materials needed for work or home improvements.

Fr. Juan took us on a tour of the town. On the flood plane of the Rio Negro, it is illegal to build, but many poorer families have few other choices, and form a village of corrugated iron huts huddled together. The “parish” has 10 chapels and serves a flock of 50,000. Several of the chapels are close to the main parish, which others are on the expanding outskirts of the city. As the area grows, the bishop would built a new parish but has no priests to send, so the workload of our two dedicated men continues to expand. They place lots of effort on training catechists and lay leaders. The parish social outreach is done through Casa Betania, a drop in center for teens after school, where they can find help with their studies, a safe place for recreation, and a nutritious meal. The house also serves as a domestic violence shelter, and stocks clothing for families in need.

We also took a quick trip to Corrientes, an even larger town 15 miles away. Corrientes is older and with many colonial style buildings. The SCJs are exploring the possibility of a new mission in campus ministry somewhere in the region. We crossed the Rio Parana over a long bridge, perhaps a mile or more across, like the Mississippi River. We saw plenty of barges hauling grains and goods down river, and vacationers enjoying holidays on the wide beach.

In the southern hemisphere, summer vacation is winding up, and school is starting again. We attended the opening school mass for the “Semanario Inter Diocesano de la Incarnacion.”  Six of the area dioceses work together to educate some 70 seminarians. Our Fr. Juan teaches sacraments in the school, continuing the Dehonian emphasis on formation of the clergy. The mass was held outdoors, on the soccer (football) field. Nylon stringed classical guitars pounded out an uplifting beat and the harmonies of seminarians made a strong statement of faith. The bishop of Corrientes preached about a dynamic spiritual life, where we all must Eshucar (listen), Obedecer (obey), and Caminar (walk) on our journey toward God. The 12 new seminarians reminded me of another group of 12 apostles, who accepted their limitations and used their talents to spread the good news.

We had two notable evening meals. Fr. Leo, the Argentine provincial and our host, is from Resistencia. His family invited us to share a meal with them in the parish hall. Our second evening we were invited for mass and a cook out with the Companaia misionera, a group of lay Dehonians who have dedicated themselves to full time mission work around the world, and has a small but significant presence in Argentina. They had just finished their annual retreat. Some of the Lay Dehonians from the area also attended. I appreciate how people from all walks of life draw inspiration from Fr. Dehon.

Our last day in Buenos Aires was a day of integration and relaxation. For the first time on the trip we had a chance to play tourists and headed for the barrio La Boca, Colorful houses, once the homes of port workers, now house arts and craft galleries. Streets were lined with cafes where couples danced romantic Argentine Tangos to the delight of onlookers.

We passed through the Plaza de Mayo. Impressive government and cultural buildings and monuments surround the city’s main square. The Plaza also recalls a sad chapter in the country’s history when the mothers of those who “disappeared” at the hands of the military dictatorship came each week to pray, witness, and rally support for their cause.

We closed our last day with evening mass. The Gospel of the day was the story of Lazarus and Dives. Many poor people have crossed my path on this visit: the man washing car windows with a squeegee, the elderly woman with no teeth who begged while we ate ice cream, the teen girls seeking refuge at Casa Betania; and the tattooed man with knife scars across him arm. Our SCJs in Argentina and Uruguay are constantly put in contact with those at the margins. I have been inspired by their willingness to reach out in a spirit of misericordia while serving the needs of God’s people

 

From India to South America

Heiner and Steve in S America

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter and Fr. Heiner Wilmer continue their general visitations, moving from India to Argentina. Fr. Steve shares his recent journal entry:  

The trip from Chennai, India, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, took about 40 hours door to door. It included an eight-hour layover in London, two breakfasts on each leg, and seven movies. I slept a little, but was extremely glad for a long siesta when we arrived. I have never visited South America before and am very excited.

Fr. Leonardo, the Argentinian provincial, met us at the airport. On the way home to the community house he pulled up to a typical two-story neighborhood house and had us get out for a closer look. It was the house where Jorge Bergolio, now Pope Francis, grew up. Our SCJs in leadership had regular dealings with him when he was the head of the Jesuit college, and the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

One of my areas of responsibility is our Spanish-speaking South American provinces. My initial visit will help me begin to familiarize myself with the region, and meet our community members with whom I can collaborate on future projects. I studied Spanish when I worked in Texas almost 20 years ago, but did not use it much during my years in South Dakota and have forgotten more than I remember. After studying Italian these past months, I am never sure which language will come out when I try to communicate. I mix and match three languages in a way that makes no sense to anyone but me! I have a lot to learn.

We have traveled by many modes of transportation and the trip from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, Uruguay, was on a boat christened “Francisco”, in honor of our Pope. We parked our car in the belly of the ferry and enjoyed comfortable movie theater seats on board economy class. The large boat also featured a duty free shop where many travelers shopped. My suitcase is already full so I have not been adding souvenirs. The journey across the Rio de La Plata takes a full three hours, but cuts the driving time by more than half.

IMG_1194

We have only a half dozen SCJs in Uruguay, missionaries all originally from Italy. Some of our elders have spent up to half a century serving the church in South America. While few in number the Dehonians have made a significant impact. Besides the pastoral work, we have a history of publishing theological books, and Umbrales, is a respected national periodical.

The SCJs serve in the Gruta de Lourdes, a well-known national shrine in Montevideo. Many pilgrims visit each day, and a few joined us for the Mass which they noticed we were celebrating. On Lourdes’ feast day, with special prayers and devotions, up to 30,000 visitors make pilgrimage to the site. Racks of candles burn in the open air, symbols of people’s hopes and prayers. A well on the grounds provides water for devotional use. We were told how, besides leaving devotional candles, some people now bring clothing and food as an offering for the poor. La Gruta is at the edge of one of the poorer barrios of the city.

Our neighboring mission, Our Lady of Guadalupe, is in the midst of one of the toughest areas of the city, notorious for narco-trafficing. The barrio has many small cinder block houses. Three jails that no one else wants in their neighborhood are located within a few blocks of the church. In an effort to address the problems of the area, the city located a new police station and fire department nearby, and finally put in a nice playground. Security guards from one of the detention centers patrolled the area the morning we walked through.

We also have two schools that serve the educational needs of the barrio. The challenges of running schools in poor neighborhoods are many, as we try to give young people tools they will need in the future. Money is a constant worry because what the students are able to contribute to their education only meets a fraction of the real costs of running a school.

Young people constantly hang around Our Lady of Guadalupe church. Perhaps it is a safe haven in an otherwise tough neighborhood. But we also discovered that most bring the laptops that the government supplies to every student, and tap into the parish Wi-Fi to connect with friends and the wider world. While we made some small talk I wondered what kind of future awaits them. One teen mom nurtured her two-month old baby on the church steps. A heavily tattooed young man had a half dozen deep scars from knife slashes across his arms. I always hope and pray Dehonians can make a positive difference in peoples’ lives, especially for those what have the odds stacked against them.

IMG_1190

Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity have a presence in the neighborhood. The priests offered my services to say mass in English one morning. Thinking that I was the Superior General from Germany, mother superior afterwards complemented me for how well I speak English! We had a laugh, then shared tea and breakfast.

El Pinar is a half hour east of the Capital, close to the coast, and many people have nice summer/weekend homes where they spend their time away from the city. One doesn’t have to go far from the beach to find much poorer houses that are permanent homes for many. Close to the parish church pine trees fill the air with a fresh scent. The fine white sandy beach stretches for miles, and hosts swimmers, wind surfers and sun bathers. The sloping sand dunes reminded me of the Indiana shores of Lake Michigan, near where I grew up. When Fr. Heiner wrote our Administration’s programmatic letter he spoke of following in the footprints of Jesus. In the sand I could clearly see the footsteps of our Superior General as he led the wandering along the beach.

When we celebrated mass in El Pinar, the assembly was a nice mix of children and adults. Our two elder priests stationed there no longer drive, but with parishioners’ help are still able to care for the pastoral needs of the area. People appreciate the access to the sacraments and have active bible study and prayer groups. In the evening the seven families who work together to take care of the maintenance needs of the parish treated us to a cook out. The cooks stacked wood on top of an oil drum cut in half, and piled on mouth watering meats and sausages, carne asada style. Our table was a sheet of plywood set atop two sawhorses. Families added locally grown fruits and vegetables. Everything was bite size, passed around and shared communally. It was so tempting to take just one more bite, that I ate way more than usual.

IMG_1209Driving home along the coast we passed through the wealthier side of Montevideo. High rises line the shore, with a beautiful and well used park between the road and the water. It felt like Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. All societies have wealth gaps. It just seems more pronounced here. Our conversation wandered to the narcotics trade, recounting how many of the wealthy spend their money on recreational drugs for parties, and the poor neighborhoods pay a bigger price with violence and so many people in jail.

Over the course of four days we spent time listening to each confrere, learning of their history, how they are doing, and their suggestions for the future of the district. We have not been able to get vocations from the area, so after many years it is still dependent on missionaries from entities. We learned that Uruguay is one of the most highly secularized countries in Latin America, and many factors work against religion. Four of the men are in their late 70s, some with growing health issues, which necessitates both long and short term planning. But our visit gave me a great appreciation for the day to day work that goes on to touch the lives of people with God’s word of love.

One more from India

Huff in India with flowers

Due to a few internet glitches, we didn’t receive this final journal entry from Fr. Stephen Huffstetter’s visit to India until today. He is now in South America, continuing the general visitations with Fr. Heiner Wilmer.

As a football fan, I always look forward to Super Bowl Sunday. In India, the game actually started at 5 O’clock Monday morning. After mass and breakfast, I picked up the action in the 3rd Quarter. A short while later, the 20 aspirants filled the TV room as well. Their regular schedule includes a half hour of TV watching each morning to improve their English. They usually watch the news but were happy to let me stay with the game. None of them had the slightest idea about the action they were seeing on the screen. None knew where Denver was, though one student knew about Carolina because Deacon Roy’s sister lives there. During the time outs and commercials (which are long and frequent during the Super Bowl) I tried to explain the rules. I don’t think one quarter was enough to get a good grasp, but they liked the tackling and battles for control of the line. They stayed long enough to see a field goal, then went off to begin their other studies.

When we approached the study hall later, I was surprised at how quiet it was. When I stepped in I was even more surprised that no one was supervising or watching. On their own, each was dedicated to learning new words and vocabulary in order to advance in their studies.

Later they exhibited the same concentration in prayer. Before lunch they sat on the sidewalk in front of Mary’s Grotto and recited the rosary.

One aspect of their formation program which impressed me was the involvement of families. Some of the seminarians are beginning after completing 10th standard (grade) so may be as young as 16. Twice a year the families sit with the young men and their formation directors for feedback and evaluation. With this awareness of how their sons are doing, the families can be part of their discernment about a call to religious life. Those who choose not to continue in seminary are at least better educated, and closer to discovering the kind of vocation to which God is calling them.

I also appreciate the way the Indian district integrates India culture into the style of prayer and rhythm of life. We Dehonians value Sint Unum, that all might be one. Yet that begins with respect for the unique gifts of each culture we find ourselves living and working among.

Fr. Heiner and I met with Indian district council to listen to more of their opinions and feedback, then shared our observations about the needs and challenges we heard spoken during our meetings with the individuals in the district. A constant theme was the pride the members take in their growth and vocations. They have youth and energy. A huge challenge is the lack of experienced leadership, and the need for more mentoring and role modeling. It will take time and patience as they face those growing pains. We plan to write a letter to everyone in the district, with a focus on the key areas we repeatedly heard from the members – Administration, Formation, Economy and Mission.

Our trip back to Chennai was aboard a night train. Our compartment had two bunks on each side, with a cloth curtain to separate us from the hall. While not luxurious, the past days’ activities left me tired enough to sleep for about six hours on the trip.

Our last day in India included a little time for sight-seeing. St. Thomas Mount is the site of the apostle’s martyrdom, on a hill overlooking the whole city. In a unique cooperative arrangement three priests from the diocese and two from religious orders are available to serve the needs of the pilgrims who visit. In the church my imagination was captured by an image of Mary I had not seen before. Our Lady of Expectation depicts a very pregnant Blessed Mother, with a full and round belly just days before the labor of birth. I prayed for the expectant moms that I know, and all women ready to share the sacred gift of life.

Before traveling I wanted to get a haircut. My father was a part time barber, and I always feel so relaxed when I settle into a barber chair Fr. Balraj and Fr. Alex walked Fr. Heiner and me down the block to a shop with three chairs, run by a father and his 10 year old son. They explained how we wanted our hair cut, and the barber had us both sit down. The barber started to give Heiner a trim, and the 10 year old proceeded to cut my hair! I was relaxed with the shears, but admit being a little nervous when he took out the razor! My hairline, or lack of it, makes it easier to cut but I think the boy has a good career in the barber business if that’s the path he chooses to follow.

Continuing the journey in India

India 7

Fr. Heiner and Fr. Steve with SCJs in India

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, former US provincial superior and now general councilor, writes again about his experiences in India where he and Fr. Heiner Wilmer did their first visitation of the new general administration. He writes:

After several days of formation house visits, we experienced some of the SCJ parishes in India. In Kerala, we serve the areas of Koodal and Sooranad. Koodal has perhaps a hundred families, many lowly paid rubber plantation workers. Sooranad is building a new church for its 160 families, raising money locally and doing appeals in larger parishes within the diocese. Many people there work as day laborers, not knowing each day if they will be chosen for work or not.

The parish priests have seen growing attendance and participation by following the advice of Fr. Dehon – “Go to the people.” They visit homes and try to respond to the needs of the communities in many different ways. One of our SCJ brothers has trained in social work in order to help families through their struggles.

"Hearty welcome!"

“Hearty welcome!”

We spent nine hours on the road, where I got a feel for the population density in India. We drove through seemingly endless urban stretches,  with motorcycles and busses, bicycles and pedestrians weaving in and out of the highway, horns constantly honking. I gazed out the window, taking in the sights and sound and smells. It felt like being inside a movie, trying to grasp the plot and meaning of it all. What are the stories the voices of these people would tell?

Mumbai is a huge, sprawling, world class megalopolis of 25 million! Spectacular and artistic modern buildings rise in close proximity to vast tracks of sprawling slums. Construction is everywhere as the government tries to implement its long term strategic improvement plans.

We met with auxiliary Bishop Savio,  who welcomed us with tea and biscuits. As the Indian district grows, the SCJs are looking to expand into new areas and are in dialogue about what kinds of ministry which flow from our Charism of Love and Reparation would serve the needs of the diocese.

When traveling a a little sight-seeing is always good for the spirit. The hundred year old Gate of India was built to greet ships arriving in the harbor area. The last British troops symbolically departed from the same spot in 1948 after India achieved independence. Across the road was the magnificent hotel that was the tragic site of a terrorist attack just a few years ago.

The church rectory in Vasai only has one guest room, so Fr. Heiner and I experienced the hospitality of one of the parish families. I appreciate talking about culture, history, politics from local folks. We heard stories about family members pictured on the walls around us and got a sense of daily life for people in this part of the world.

Fr. Steve is welcomed by parishioners

Fr. Steve is welcomed by parishioners

Mass in Divine Mercy parish was in English, so Fr. Heiner presided and I was invited to preach. St. Paul’s exhortation about love being patient and kind fits in so well with both SCJ spirituality and our struggles to daily live a Christian life. Dancers led the entrance procession, and the youth choir sang out in lovely harmonies.

After mass 16 members that make up the parish council sat in a circle and after sharing a snack, began to tell us how they see the needs of the church in this area. Though a small parish, people are committed to building up the community with many groups and activities. Though the dreams of a new church seem far beyond their means, they are making small sacrifices and slowly building towards the day that can become a reality.

In the evening we took a drive to the substation, St. Anthony, a tiny worship space on the 2nd floor of a building that looked much like all the concrete homes on the block. We climbed a narrow concrete stairway to reach the upper room. While so different from the grandeur of historic Roman churches, I’ve been visiting, this more clearly called to mind the basics of our faith. This more surely resembled the upper room where Jesus ate with his disciples. On a hot day we were greeted with a glass of cool water, and I thought of the gospel and prayed God would bless them for the hospitality given in Jesus’ name.

An 11th standard (grade) student we met at church was one of the few who knew English, and acted as spokesperson for the community. She wanted us to honor her family with a visit to their home, so we followed. Surrounding the mission were poor and simple cinder block homes, with sewage trickling along a small channel in the concrete. Children’s laughter came from the makeshift cricket filed cleared amid piles of garbage.

We entered a home for the family of five. It was tiny, perhaps 12 by 30 feet. The home was decorated with brightly colored holy pictures on the walls. Half the space was living room, with the couch doubling as a bedroom. The other half was kitchen, where the mother also cooked food to sell in the neighborhood. A small loft was tucked near the peak of the sloping tin roof where the children slept. With so little space to start with, the family’s only transportation, a motorcycle was also inside for safe keeping.

On the way home we drove through a crowded brothel district, with women lined along brick alleyways, trying to attract enough customers to earn their daily bread. Apparently the government does license sex workers, yet life is still harsh and AIDS is a constant danger. A group of Religious Sisters has a center in the area to reach out to those caught in the web, and to care for younger girls and try to keep them from falling into such a life.

Frs. Steve and Heiner with gifts of traditional Indian garments

Frs. Steve and Heiner with gifts of traditional Indian garments

We flew to the state of Andra Pradesh, When we arrived in Eluru all the students were waiting at the gate, with an entourage of drums to lead us to the entrance of our Theology House. After working many years in South Dakota I recalled the importance of drums and also discovered a similar role in Indian culture here.

The statue of Jesus sits cross legged in guru position, and in chapel for prayer we take off our shoes as well. Here we have 26 theologians and 3 formators to work with them. After mass and supper the students put on a program with music, dance prayer and presentation. The students had a guitar and asked me to play a song. When I adapted the lyrics of “I’m Gonna Be Somebody” to tell of a longhaired Eluru boy, they let out whoop. Three of the community members shared a February 2 birthday, so they were feted as well. They have a tradition of feeding each other a piece of the birthday cake, much as you would see at a wedding in the States.

At 5:30 the next morning, bells rang to rouse everyone, and one of the priests set a bucket of hot water from the kitchen outside my door. I am spoiled with a hot shower to get me going in the morning, but here I am getting good at sponge baths. Another sign of difference was looking out my window and seeing a monkey scurry up the tree.

With only two days and more than 30 people to interview, we had a packed schedule. We could only give the students about 15 minutes each, but they came prepared and enthusiastically shared their hopes and honestly shared their difficulties. They are proud that the district is young and enthusiastic, yet often feel, as one student told us, “like a young bird that has not yet learned to spread its wings and fly.” I hope I can be supportive as they find their way.

Formation is a difficult ministry. You don’t get the same kind of affirmation as in a parish, so I am grateful for those who are dedicated to this needed service in our congregation. Students in formation go through a healthy independence and rebellion stage that is good but painful on both sides. Theologians wrestle with all kinds of questions about God, religious life, and how we are called to live. Our actions don’t live up to our ideals, and students challenge formators.

One student spoke of there can be two different ways to feel you have disappointed your elders, depending on your relationship with them. Some people you obey out of fear of punishment or consequences. With an inspiring leader you fear disappointing them because you want to make them proud. The latter is the kind of leadership all of us aspire to live.

Welcomed

Welcomed

We visited the parish of Vembadu and its three substations. We were greeted at the main parish by a trio of girls in traditional attire dancing a welcome and leading us into church. Colorful and bright decorations lit up the inside as we learned of the parish activities. Through pastoral visits and consistent attention the Catholic community is growing. We even have a couple of candidates from the village. I have been impressed by the parish work I see so far.

Afterwards we walked down a cow path, children holding our hands and guiding us in the darkness to help us avoid cow patties. At the edge of a rice paddy we dedicated a cornerstone. I even tried my hand at spreading mortar on the bricks will eventually become a safe and fitting for the women of the village to work and develop various cottage industries.

Our novitiate is the Sacred Heart Ashram in Nambur. The covered walkway connecting a circle of buildings reminds me of my novitiate in Victorville California. One significant difference is that here they raise much of their own food, including rabbits and pigs. We have 6 novices and 7 postulants preparing for their entrance into religious life.

In their skit they showed powerful, depicting a suicde the consequence of bullying and harassment

We hit the road again and undertook a long hot and dusty journey to us to the parish in Nolganda, But the time passed profitably, with Frs Anil and Baja Raju telling us about the land and culture and history along the way. Two of our priests are stationed at Our Lady of Fatima, They rent a 2 room flat from a Hindu family who is good to them, but doesn’t want Christian religious activity on the property, which limits the pastoral activity they could do from a traditional rectory. Plans are under way to eventually build a community house, and an orphanage to take care of needy children in the area.

The parish is quite simple, mostly made up of field workers and their families. In this part of the state of Andra Pradesh we passed many fields of chili, cotton and rice paddies, although with drought the rice harvest has been reduced from twice to once a year, putting already poor families at the edge. The government has tried to supply some work to supplement income, but the added pay is also very meager. Some of the workers live under canvas lean-tos.

The novitiate looks like it is out in the country, but the area is rapidly developing. India divided the Andra Pradesh state into two states, and the new capital is expanding. We were told that over the next few years something like 80,000 government jobs will be created. High rises are starting to replace two and three story cinder block homes.

A mile from the novitiate is a university with 7000 students, and modern classroom buildings. We saw some students playing Kabadi on sandy courts, a game like tag but with tackling and full contact that is a national favorite. Engineering and Computer are huge fields here.

At prayer

At prayer

With the help of US benefactors, the SCJs have built a vibrant, colorful parish. Our reception included acrobats and tight rope walkers, and a woman who could lift a five gallon metal bucket of water with her teeth. We had dancers, flower wreaths and even some fireworks, which drew the wrath of a neighbor worried that his thatch roof might catch on fire. Inside parishioners presented accounts of their activities, including active youth groups, neighborhood outreach and scholarships that allow girls who might otherwise be married very young to stay in school.

We encountered a new wrinkle to the welcoming ceremony when we arrived at the minor seminary in Gorantla. Besides the flower wreathes and sandalwood paste, they washed our feet in memory of what Jesus did. It was very fitting on a day where four priests and two deacons were ordained in an outdoor ceremony on the grounds.

First though we visited a two room schoolhouse for 60 neighborhood children that doubles as a chapel on Sunday. And we met with the bishop of Guntur, Gali Bali, who stayed with us in Rome not long ago. He greeted us as old friends.

The ordination was a joyful celebration, three hours long with song and dance, and a drum procession. Most of the mass, including the homily was in local language. Since I could not understand the words, I paid more attention to the ritual, which made it more reflective. I like that about our Catholic practice.

 

Former provincial superior on the road as general councilor

Violin welcome

Fr. Heiner and Fr. Steve are welcomed to India by the students at Dehon Jyothi

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, SCJ, begins his first full year as a member of the General Council with the first visitation of the new administration’s term. The former provincial superior of the US Province joins Fr. Heiner Wilmer, SCJ, general superior, on a visitation of the Indian District. This is Fr. Steve’s first visit to India. He shares the following:

Fr. Heiner last visited India 11 years ago, and many of the SCJs fondly remember the time he spent with them. This is my first visit. When we landed at the Chennai airport we were greeted by five very young Indian SCJs. I might have thought they were students, but I recognized them as members of the District Council and administration team. India is a young and growing district, and it is important to support people placed into key roles before they have had the seasoning that comes with years of experience.

Chennai experienced massive flooding a month ago, and on our way home we saw remnants of refuse washed into piles along the river channels and spilling over into neighborhoods. Some areas of poor homes on the most vulnerable lands washed away completely, with several hundred reported deaths. The SCJs had to leave their house for several days, then spent many hours cleaning and re-cleaning to make the building habitable again.

I was surprised to see how many cows roam the streets; you have to avoid them in traffic as well as pedestrians, auto-rickshaws and the constant flow of motorcycles. Many still had colorful painted horns from a recent Hindu festival.

When we traveled early in the morning I noticed a large number of people sleeping on the sidewalk, homeless and taking on the most difficult and lowest paying jobs in order to survive.

We spent our first full day with the District Council and listened in on their perspectives and ordinary business. They face dual challenges of financing their projects, and providing well-trained people who can help those projects flourish. Many of the parishes we serve are in poor mission areas. While we are proud that they are consistent with our SCJ mission focus, they are unable to be financially self-sufficient and require support from the district and grants from abroad. Thankfully, we have had generous help from other provinces (including the US Province) and from our benefactors. A goal of the council is to work toward greater financial stability within India, which will take some time.

Fr. Heiner encouraged the Indian District to find and articulate its own identity. As our presence develops, what will we as Dehonians in India be known for?

Mass

Fr. Heiner and Fr. Steve are welcomed to India by the students at Dehon Jyothi

On Sunday we concelebrated mass at Christ the King, a parish substation where SCJs often help. Mass was in the Tamil language, and even with a booklet, I couldn’t follow the alphabet containing more than twice the characters that I am used to. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the church, on the floor. Like everyone else, we left our shoes at the church entrance. Flowers and incense were present in abundance, and we had great participation from the assembly. A homily in this part of India is expected to last for at least a half an hour. At the end of mass people flocked forward to ask for a blessing, especially from we foreign visitors.

After two days of meetings we took a break and paid respects at the Basilica of St. Thomas, where the Apostle is buried. In prayer I asked the Lord to see me through my time of doubts, and lead me to a greater faith.

Next we walked to the beach and looked across the magnificent Bay of Bengal. First we came to the area where fishermen and their families live in very basic housing, often canvas stretched over a few wooden boards. As the boats returned, women sat by the road, cleaning and selling the day’s catch. We continued to the wide sandy expanse that we were told is the second largest beach in the world. Many families were out for picnics, playing Frisbee, buying treats and playing carnival type games. I found it odd that with thousands of people everyone wore street clothes. I did not see anyone swimming and only one child had on a bathing suit. Maybe because it’s “winter” and only 75 degrees!

General and Huff welcomed

Frs. Heiner and Steve

Each time we reach a new SCJ house we experience a traditional welcoming: greeted by song, garlands of flowers, and marked on the forehead with soil from the Indian subcontinent. Then we are handed a coconut to drink. Most of the time a hole is already punched in the top and a straw inserted, but I also learned how to open a young coconut by dashing it against a rock.

We have visited three of our formation houses so far. I have heard many stories over the years from members of the US Province who served here for a time in order to build up the district, and smiled when I saw the “Thomas Garvey Memorial Study Hall” in our philosophy house in Aluva. I am a product of SCJ minor seminaries, and started my affiliation with the community at the age of 14. Seeing men as young as 16 playing soccer and basketball, and beginning to discern if God is calling them to religious life and the priesthood brings back memories for me.

In each of the houses the students presented programs of song, dance, music and poetry. One of the students told a few jokes to warm up the crowd and another showed his juggling skills. The dances are energetic and entertaining, just like the ones from a Bollywood movie. Always there are words of thanks and gratitude. People say they are honored to have us here. It is an honor for us to be here among these thankful and grateful communities.

In Aluva for India Republic day, Fr. Heiner reflected how the search for truth was so important to Gandhi, and an essential part of the life of a student. After mass we had a flag raising ceremony. When the flag reached the top of the pole and unfurled, fragrant flower petals floated to the ground.

Fr. Heiner has held Q and A sessions with all of the students. They enthusiastically gathered around to ask questions like,” What would you have been if you hadn’t become a priest, what are your hopes for the Indian District, and why do we have to do 14 years of formation in order to become a Priest of the Sacred Heart?”

Fish prep

Fr. Heiner and Fr. Steve are welcomed to India by the students at Dehon Jyothi

Food is tasty and flavorful, though spicier than I am used to. The combination that works best for me is heavy on the rice and light on the curry. Fish is quite common, and being so close to the sea we have been served many shrimp, crab and fish dishes.

The land we have seen so far is green with vegetation. The philosophy house grows bananas, coconuts and tapioca, raises ducks for meat and cows for milk. Their fish pond also helps to feed the always hungry collegians.

A couple of mornings I was awakened at 5:00 by the blare of loudspeakers from a nearby Hindi temple. Christians are a small minority in the country, but have a strong faith and high rate of church participation.

The aspirant program is in Kumbalanghy in our first house, founded in in 1985. It contains a Portuguese chapel dating back to the 1500s and a good crowd of local people join the community for daily mass.

One of the main purposes of Fr. General’s visit is to meet with individual community members. We learn who they are, and ask how they see the district’s strengths and challenges. We specifically ask what their dreams are for spreading the charism of Fr. Dehon in this culture.