Catholic Herald Staff
In mid-November, two nuns went on a “reverse mission” to St. Patrick Parish, Hudson.
Sr. Joannes Klas and Sr. Elena Felipe de Jose, both School Sisters of St. Francis, live and work at San Jose el Tesoro, St. Patrick’s sister parish in Yalpemech, Guatemala.
They were in Wisconsin for a weeklong break.
“It’s my vacation time … I come home once a year to visit my family,” explained Sr. Jo, a Fredonia native who has been a missionary in Guatemala’s mountainous northeastern region for more than two decades.
Since professing vows in the 1950s, Sr. Jo has taught children in Wisconsin; helped striking miners in Appalachia; advocated for black Southern workers; defied death squads in Honduras; and led the effort to turn El Tesoro, a refugee camp, into a village.
In 1997, she won a United Nations award for her work with Central American refugees. She spent the $100,000 prize money building a church and parish center.
A native of Guatemala, Sr. Elena is also an educator and leader in the community of 2,000 to 3,000 people. About half of the residents are Catholic; two-thirds speak Spanish, and the other third speak a native, Mayan-based dialect.
St. Patrick and San Jose forged their bond in 1998. Educational, medical and spiritual support are three pillars of their mission; the fourth is relationships, which are strengthened with each passing year.
“St. Pat’s helped us with legalizing the land down there,” said Sr. Elena, as translated by Sr. Jo. “Christ said have compassion. That’s what they have done for us.”
“People here – they may be a little wealthy,” she continued, “but they are so willing to share.”
St. Patrick sends about $14,000 annually to the Guatemalan village. Raised in special monthly collections, the money funds salaries and infrastructure needs, which include electricity, roads, water, medical supplies and housing.
In return, St. Patrick’s parishioners receive the gifts of the spirit – prayers, goodwill and a taste of a simple, faith-filled lifestyle.
“A lot of people go with the intention of helping them,” said Claire Zajac, a member of St. Patrick’s and business instructor at UW-River Falls.
Zajac has traveled twice to Guatemala. She describes American culture as “more is better, faster, stuff.”
“In Guatemala, they appreciate simple, basic things,” she said. “People are happy. People are faith-filled.”
Living in their remote mountain village, the people of Yalpemech do not have access to clean water or regular medical care. Eyeglasses are donated by parishioners and spread out on a table for villagers to try on. Women spend the day hauling water and preparing food.
Educational sponsorship, English-speaking visitors and medical care and supplies are some of the village’s greatest needs, according to Sr. Jo.
For $25 per month, families can sponsor students to attend three years of accounting school. Education allows them to earn good-paying jobs and help with village finances. English-speaking visitors are important because students need a good grasp of the language to get a job.
Medical supplies, especially vitamins, are a perennial need. St. Patrick sends a registered nurse or doctor along on each mission trip to see patients. Corn, the one crop in San Jose, is ground to make tortillas for every meal; due to the purely corn-based diet, many of the villagers suffer malnutrition.
“When people come down with these health skills, that helps a lot,” added Sr. Jo.
They can’t afford to feed children meals at the daycare center, but part of the Hudson donations ensure each child will receive a high-protein drink and daily vitamin, Sr. Jo said.
Since 1991, the government has been working on a three-year project to bring clean water to the village. The first year’s worth is done, but the health department has yet to visit and declare the water drinkable. The villagers collect as much rainwater as possible, but Sr. Jo said they use creek water for most of their cleaning and bathing.
St. Patrick School eighth-grader Isaac Young has been to Yalpemech five times. He was 8 years old when he first traveled there with his father, Dr. Greg Young. He views father/son bonding time as a perk of missionary work.
“I like the happiness,” he said. “Being there, having the sisters happy, never down.”
Coming from a privileged background, Young wants to understand the lifestyle.
“When I’m going there, I’m trying to feel what it’s like to be there. I can kind of share the feelings that they have. I think the hardest thing is being out there,” he added. “You don’t feel fully protected – it’s kind of out of your comfort zone.”
“Isaac, he comes down to share the simpleness of our life and bring that message back here,” Sr. Elena said.
For the sisters, bringing the message back to Hudson themselves was a sort of “reverse mission.” They visited the sick with Fr. John Gerritts, pastor of St. Patrick, met students at the school and shared their stories with parishioners. They cherish the long-distance relationship.
“We give thanks to God for this place,” said Sr. Elena. “The people of St. Pat’s are very generous.”