Debbie Augustinak of Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, before the beatification altar. (Submitted photo)

Randy Augustinak

The latest issue of The Superior Catholic Herald landed in our rural Land O’ Lakes mailbox one mid-summer afternoon, just like it had every two weeks for years. We always enjoy reading the latest news from a Catholic perspective, as well as doing the crossword puzzles together.

A brief article regarding an upcoming beatification Mass caught my eye. It described a Christian Brother who was born and raised in the same central Wisconsin area that my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins are from, just northeast of Stevens Point. His name is Br. James Miller, and he grew up on a farm in the little town of Ellis, just outside of Polonia.

“That’s fascinating,” I thought. “I know that area well.”

The article referred to an upcoming pilgrimage to Huehuetenango, Guatemala, where his beatification Mass would take place Dec. 7. The trip would be headed up by Fr. Tom Lindner from St. Anne Parish in Wausau, where, coincidently, we had just attended a funeral Mass for my Uncle Ben. My curiosity now piqued, I went online and began to learn more about who Br. Miller was.

He had attended Pacelli High School in Stevens Point, where he began to discern a calling to religious life, after hearing a presentation by a visiting Christian Brother. At age 15, he would leave the farm to begin life as a juniorate at a college preparatory school in Glencoe, Missouri, and would eventually attend St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where he would earn his bachelor’s degree, as well as his master’s in Spanish.

He would go on to serve the poor of Nicaragua and Guatemala, where he would be murdered on Feb. 13, 1982, while repairing a wall outside a school building. I put down the newspaper and said to my wife Debbie, “Honey, look at this. We might be getting a saint from Portage County!” The stage was slowly being set for our trip of a lifetime.

The fact that we were even considering this trip was quite out of character for a couple of homebodies living in far northern Wisconsin. After praying about it, but still apprehensive, we decided to embark on this new adventure. Fr. Tom addressed our logistical concerns, and soon we were studying “Spanish for Dummies” in preparation for our excursion. We found a Catholic TV station that broadcasts the rosary in Spanish every day at 8 a.m., and watching it soon became part of our daily routine. After a month or two, we could cryptically recite the Hail Mary (Dios te Salve Maria…), and then the Glory Be, and eventually the Our Father, although we never really mastered the entire Apostles Creed. Oh well, we were trying.

The morning of the beatification, we departed our lakeside hotel in Panajachel, Guatemala at 4:30 a.m. It was to be a four-and-a-half-hour journey to Heuheutenango. Our early departure meant that our bus would be slowly navigating the steep and winding mountain roads in the dark, circumventing huge volcanoes, some dormant, some active. The stars and moon shone brightly, and the lights of the small, remote mountain villages twinkled peacefully at the bottom of the steep canyons.

Although many of the village homes were nothing more than basic cinder block structures, their occupants often erected small Christmas light displays which so fittingly reflected the upcoming Christmas season. I quietly recited the rosary in Spanish, praying for our continued safe passage.

Soon the morning sunshine found its way around the towering mountain peaks, and we approached the Heuheutenango athletic field, the site of the beatification Mass. The excitement was palpable, and throngs of people surrounded our bus as we disembarked. We were treated like dignitaries and ushered to our seats near the altar. Fr. Tom and Fr. John Schultz, a hospital chaplain from Eau Claire, hurriedly donned their albs and brightly colored stoles, and headed off to join the many cardinals, bishops, priests and brothers who had gathered from around the world for this special event. They were there to honor the farm boy from Wisconsin who had given his life in service to the poor.
Now that Bl. Br. James has been beatified, let us all pray for his intercession. Should a confirmed miracle eventually be attributed to his intercession, it would clear the way for his canonization as a saint. We are so blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to the beautiful country that so embraced this holy man from Wisconsin.

As we prepared to depart, we watched in awe as hundreds stood in line to pray near a relic of Blessed James adjacent to the altar. Just then Fr. Tom approached to share a comment that appeared on his Facebook page. It read, “I am so glad that you could be there, where the veil between heaven and earth is thin”.

Bl. Br. James Miller, pray for us. Beato Hermano Santiago Miller, ruega por nosostros.

From the personal writings of Bl. Br. James Miller, written shortly before his death:

“I am personally weary of violence, but I continue to feel a strong commitment to the suffering poor of Central America.

“I have been a Christian Brother for nearly 20 years now, and my commitment to my vocation grows steadily stronger in the context of my work in Central America.

“I pray to God for the grace and strength to serve Him faithfully by my presence among the poor and oppressed of Guatemala. I place my life in His Providence; I place my trust in Him.”