Esperanza, a Salvadoran woman, shows Heather Dall the art of tortilla making. Dall and four other members of Good Shepherd Parish, Menomonee Falls, visited their sister parish in Ellacuria, El Salvador in mid October marking the 20th anniversary of the sister parish relationship. (Submitted photo courtesy Judy Koenings)

MENOMONEE FALLS — When the five delegates from Good Shepherd Parish in Menomonee Falls returned from an October visit to their sister parish in Ellacuria, El Salvador, they brought back impressions of faith, resilience, community and solidarity as lived out by the villagers there.

The delegates, Tom Dueppen, Sharon and Heather Dall, and Chuck and Judy Koenings, visited the parish to help them celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Salvadorans’ return to Ellacuria from the refugee camps in Honduras during the Civil War (1979-1992).

Good Shepherd Parish is also observing the 20th year of its sister parish relationship with Ellacuria, begun in response to the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Delegations visited almost yearly since then and several times Ellacuria villagers have visited Good Shepherd. Ellacuria was named after one of the Jesuit martyrs, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria.

Reflecting on the experience of his first visit, Chuck, a social worker, said he “is beginning to understand that solidarity with the people of Ellacuria means being present with them, with one God watching over all of us. The people of Ellacuria told us many times how much they appreciated that we stay in the community with them.”

Judy, his wife, on her third visit to Ellacuria, noted a growing sense of family with the people during each visit.

“When I left Ellacuria after this visit, I felt as if I were leaving my family. I wasn’t expecting that,” she said.

Judy was struck by the Ellacurians’ sense of community.

“They support one another. Their lives are very ‘we’ oriented, unlike the focus on the individual that we see in our country,” said Judy, a manager at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.

She noted that the village is governed by a Directiva, whose elected members serve its 147 families. Each member of the Directiva heads a commission dealing with aspects of community life, such as education, water supply, buildings, women and youth. Community input is given at monthly meetings.

With Chuck’s visit, all the members of the Koenings family have been to Ellacuria. Their children accompanied Judy on her previous trips: son Adam in 2003, and daughter Jenna in 2007.

Dueppen, a retired property manager in his fifth visit to Ellacuria,  was “overjoyed at the progress made in 20 years, but they are still struggling,” he said.

With funding help from Good Shepherd and other sources, there is a school going up to ninth grade, a new church, a youth center and a water system to bring water to the village from the mountains.

“They highly value education,” he said, “and most of the kids are able to attend high school in a neighboring village. Some families make great sacrifice to send their children to college in San Salvador. One family sold all their cows but one to finance tuition.”

Sharon Dall, a teacher, and her daughter, Heather, who is working on her master’s degree in social work, are interested in other cultures. It was their first visit to Ellacuria.

“I’ve wanted to be part of a delegation to Ellacuria for a long time,” said Sharon. “It was a life changing experience for me. I learned about the civil war in El Salvador and how it affected the people of Ellacuria. Many men in the village were killed or missing. In the village is a museum built around a house where a woman and several children were shot by the military.”

She was moved by white crosses marking the spot where they were killed.

“My first reaction was one of disgust at what had happened and then I realized I was in a hallowed place,” Sharon said.

The trip was also a “huge eye opener” for Heather, “not so much in the physical conditions other people live in, but in better identifying what’s important in life and experiencing first hand how resilient people can be.

“I’ve always believed in the phrase, ‘less is more,’” Heather said, “but until this trip I didn’t understand its full value. To see people living together in poverty, with such a history of trauma and still being able to maintain a strong sense of community, made me realize how much we as a society are missing.”

Besides visiting their sister parish as part of their six-day trip, the delegates met with community groups of other villages. They saw the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed in 1980, the garden where the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were martyred, the memorial to four U.S. church women murdered in 1980, and the Memorial Wall in San Salvador, with the names of 54,000 people who were killed or missing during the civil war.

Although five delegates traveled, all of Good Shepherd Parish was involved, collecting first aid and medical supplies which filled seven duffel bags and suitcases.

“The villagers were overwhelmed,” Tom said.

Parishioners also signed a banner of congratulations for Ellacuria’s anniversary. During their time in El Salvador, parishioners remembered the delegates with a booklet outlining their daily itinerary, as well as a prayer and quote from Archbishop Romero.