Wauwatosa and Belize are thousands of miles and total worlds apart. One is flat and cold, windy and snowy, with First World luxuries and amenities. The other is mountainous and tropical; beset withhurricanes; Third World poor, devoid of educational opportunities, basic buildings and infrastructure. They have one thing in common, though: a relationship, built by Wauwatosa’s St. Joseph Parish and Punta Gorda’s St. Peter Claver Parish.
Responding to a 2003 open-letter call for global partnership from Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, St. Joseph reached out to St. Peter Claver, culminating in new relationships and a series of community structures – including seven churches.
“I looked all over the world,” said parishioner Phil Hesselbein. “I emailed all over. I knew we needed something English speaking, affordable and accessible, and also safe. Right then, Belize had a hurricane. They lost 9,000 homes, loads of schools and churches. It was pretty clear: ‘Well – they need our help now.’ Soon thereafter, we went down for our first trip.”
The nice thing about the effort, according to Fr. James Kimla, pastor of St. Joseph, was that parishioners did all the research, organizing and legwork.
“Someone in the parish heard about Peter Claver,” he said. “They discovered needs, and gradually got more people in the parish excited. They’ve handled it ever since.”
Once the relationship was established, “we got a better understanding of the people, and (realized) they needed much help in remote Mayan villages,” said parishioner James Schwai.
There are about 30 villages in the district of Toledo, 200 miles south of Belize City located in the Caribbean. He estimated it is about the size of Milwaukee County with about 4,000 to 5,000 people.
Parishioners typically go for the last two weeks in January, said Schwai, owner of Metropolitan Business Brokers.
Build with Mayans, not for them
The crown jewels of the relationship are seven churches built throughout the region. The idea for the construction projects, sponsored by the Jesuits’ Missouri Province, was developed in part by Jesuit Fr. Dick Perl.
“The thought was to build with the Mayans, not for them,” Schwai said, emphasizing “with.” “We built our first one in 2005. It takes about a year. Cement work takes longest. The last church took 18 months – since it was bigger – and was dedicated June of this year. It’s in Dolores village. There’s about 300 people there, and a high percentage are Catholic – probably 80-90 percent.”
Schwai explained that in addition to St. Joseph, several other groups, including those from Marquette University and St. Louis, also serve as missionaries.
Hesselbein, a retiree and former president of Valley Bank, has been on four trips.
“The churches are concrete block; about 25’x40’; wood trusses with zinc roofs,” he said. “The materials are all purchased locally. The concrete is delivered to the site and we mix it on the floor. We make mortar, lay block, and build up. They’re designed to take a category five hurricane. Besides being churches, they’re the shelters for the region.”
Work is not easy
It’s not easy work, and parishioners noted getting there is difficult, too.
“During the trips some of us will say decades of the rosary,” Joan Schwai, James’ wife, said. “All that bouncing is difficult. It’s hard on your back, especially as we’ve gotten older.”
“The hardest part is getting there on a daily basis,” her husband agreed. “In Dolores, it took literally two hours to get there. It was bumpy to the point of 2-foot ruts full of water and mud. Because of heavy rainstorms you literally slide down these hills. A bus in front of us slid into a creek. Pushing a bus out of a creek is not easy without tools. But we had manpower.”
Recently, St. Joseph parishioners have been staying with local Pallottine Sisters.
“They have a retreat house; 20 rooms, outside Punta Gorda on 95 acres on land,” Hesselbein said. “Full of fruit trees; like a paradise. I wake up to the sisters singing. They have a Holy Hour before Mass, which is at 6 a.m. We go to Mass, have some breakfast, get in the van and drive.
According to Joan Schwai, the group is typically at the site by 10 a.m. and will work until noon. She said the men move blocks, while women clean, sweep, cut rebar and sift sand.
“There’s no cement mixer, so we have to do it on the floor and use a shovel to get the right consistency,” she explained.
Hesselbein described how, during a recent trip, about eight missionaries, including some from St. Therese Parish, Eagle, worked alongside 20 villagers.
“Whenever we go in, the people are just very helpful. All the men come,” Hesselbein said.
The churches serve many purposes. In addition to hurricane protection, Hesselbein said they help build community.
“The churches have made a significant difference,” agreed James Schwai. “They bring the people together. There’s a focal point. They have a place to gather as a spiritual and physical community.”
Life in Belize
Hesselbein described the people of Belize as generous.
“They’re amazing. Very generous people. They don’t have much, but they always invite you in and share their bread and soup. They’re incredibly generous. And they’re very happy,” he said.
“They live in wooden huts with thatch roofs; wooden walls and dirt floors,” he said, describing how they cook on open fires in homes which have almost no furniture.
The average family makes $250 a year, said James Schwai. “They’re mostly subsistence farmers, growing corn and beans and some vegetables. Maybe chicken and pigs. One fellow got a horse for $25 – which is a lot of money. Families average between five and eight children. Each one has an obligation to stay in school until the age of 14. A lot of parents request they quit, so they can work on the family plantation, which is normally three to five acres of land.”
The faithful only see a priest every four to five weeks, he noted. “There’s at least 20 parishes (around Punta Gorda), but only two priests. They say Mass Saturday night in Punta Gorda, and again Sunday morning then each goes out to three villages. We typically build the churches on the one road through the village so the priest can get in and out easily.”
In the three to four weeks in between, he said, catechists conduct Sunday services with singing, a homily, music and incense.
Joan Schwai remembered attending a baptism. “The entire village came out for this new little Catholic. There was food and drink and celebration. It was wonderful.”
Mission work offers new outlook on life
For Hesselbein, the mission work has given him a new outlook on God’s role in his life.
“It’s changed my life and how I live. It’s made me aware of my responsibility to use the gifts God has given to help others. It’s made me very aware of just how God has blessed me, and it’s shown me one way I can share those blessing with others,” he said.
On the whole, the mission work has “made St. Joe’s parishioners much more aware of need for prayers and financial support and education,” Joan Schwai said. “It’s brought us together with a common interest. It provides an opportunity to serve, which is what Jesus calls us to – to be him to other people.”
The parish has collected clothes, school materials and medicines as well, Hesselbein noted.
“Over the years, 20-25 people have gone down there. Also there’s a lot who donate money for different projects. It’s built the parish spirit,” he said.
“It’s certainly brought more global awareness of what it means to be the church; the responsibilities we have to one another,” James Schwai said. “It’s a hands-on experience, not just sending a check once a year. I feel like when you’re building chapels, you’re also building the church.”
According to Fr. Kimla, “it just falls in line with what we do here. We have other outreach as well. We’re responsible for an evening at St. Ben’s. We’re involved with the Wauwatosa food pantry and Repairers of the Breach. We have an adult learning center. We collect winter coats. It’s really all about awareness and personal responsibility. In the case of Belize, I believe the sense of connection to worldwide church is the principal purpose.”
Looking forward to going again
St. Joseph parishioners look forward to moving the relationship further.
“We have built all the churches necessary,” James Schwai said. “But the Pallottine sisters asked if we’d help build a senior center. It would be right in Punta Gorda, for 150 (currently homebound) seniors living in wood shacks.”
They are not planning a trip next year, however.
“The economy has gone sour there, just like here. We felt guilty for spending money to work for free – when they could be hiring workers. We figured, why not just donate the $1,500 we’d each spend on the flight to the construction project? When it’s complete, they’ll need roofs, interior work, painting, cleanup and such. We’ll go back.”
Traveling to Belize “is getting a little harder, as I’m getting a little older,” Hesselbein said. “But I enjoy it. And there’s plenty to do. We’ve been involved with a health clinic before. We’ve stocked a library in a remote village. There’s little running water or electricity. We put in one solar system that can power two laptop computers and a printer. I’d like to install some machinery to purify water.”
The trips take stamina and finances, admitted Joan Schwai.
“But the faith of the people keeps me coming back. People, universally, want a better life for themselves and their children. In Belize, they see us as a resource for making that happen. And our benefits, in return, are many: we meet and make friends and experience culture. Building those friendships, and sharing that faith is priceless,” she said.