By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — “Miracle” might be one way to explain it. That’s the fall-back word when something wonderful happens that defies human explanation.
Irma wouldn’t argue. A month ago, she and her eight children were living in a shack, pieced together from scraps of tin, wood and whatever else they could find.
Four days before Christmas, she and her family moved into a new concrete block home in the village of Chlitiupan, El Salvador — hardly a mansion by U.S. standards, but three times larger than the shack.
And how? That story involves the priests of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, a Kansas City man who died four years ago, the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland, Ohio, who would not budge in their own service to the poor despite the murder of one of their own, and a team of students from the University of California-Los Angeles.
Perhaps the story begins in December 1980. Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel was one of four Catholic missionaries, along with Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark and laywoman Jean Donovan, who were kidnapped and executed by a unit of the El Salvador National Guard as they returned from the San Salvador airport.
Those murders once again shocked a world some eight months after a death squad murdered San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass.
The Ursuline sisters of Cleveland could have left that nation as it plunged into a decade of civil war. Instead, they decided that they could not leave the people.
Ursuline Sister Rose Elizabeth Terrell, Sister Rosita to the people she serves, is the living legacy and commitment of the Cleveland Ursulines to El Salvador.
For more than a decade, she has worked in and around the village of Chiltiupan, an area that is poor even by the standards of El Salvador, with an average annual family income of $600.
In Chiltiupan, Sister Rosita found Irma and her children, and the conditions in which they lived.
She contacted “Homes from the Heart.”
Bob Miller was a Kansas City insurance executive, and a member of St. Thomas More Parish.
In 1997, Miller was told that cancer would quickly take his life. Then he was told of his own “miracle.” His cancer had suddenly and unexpectedly gone into remission.
It was a new lease on life, and one that Miller wasn’t going to waste a second of. He told his sons, Sean and Matt, “I’m studying for my final exams, and insurance isn’t on it,” selling them the insurance business, The Miller Group, and devoting whatever time he had left to serving others.
One of the first ideas he had was a way to show priests and seminarians how much they were loved, and raise money for Conception Seminary College.
Thus was born the annual Priests and Seminarians Appreciation Day for priests and future priests on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas border.
He gathered an army of his fellow members of the Serra Club to sponsor a mid-September day of golf, poker and barbecue, first in his own back yard. He organized sponsorships, and even handed out gifts including new top-of-the-line suits from Peter’s Clothiers.
And he didn’t stop there.
In 2001, an earthquake measured at 7.7 magnitude struck El Salvador, devastating the people.
Miller established “Homes from the Heart” to replace lost homes with sturdy, concrete block houses.
And he didn’t stop there. In 2010, not long before the cancer that had been in remission would take Miller’s life, Haiti was struck by a horrific earthquake. “Homes for the Heart” quickly began work there. It has since expanded to Nicaragua and Guatemala, building homes for more than 400 families.
Meanwhile, Priests and Seminarians Appreciation Day kept growing. Last fall, nearly 500 people, including nearly 200 priests and seminarians, attended the catered Jack’s Stack barbecue dinner inside the huge hall at St. Michael’s Parish in Overland Park.
Last September, the priests decided to turn the tables on the Miller family.
Seminary classmates Father Thomas Tank worked the Kansas side, and Father Jerry Waris worked the Missouri side. Together, and with little prodding, they gathered some $3,500 in donations from priests for Homes from the Heart and presented it to Sean and Matt Miller.
The Miller sons knew what to do next.
Through the umbrella Fuller Center for Housing’s Global Builders program, a team of UCLA students eager to work in service to the poor discovered and contacted Homes from the Heart.
Giving up part of their Christmas break from Dec. 14-21, six UCLA students spent a week in the mountainous terrain surrounding Chiltiupan, lugging not only concrete blocks by hand, but wheelbarrows full of mortar, sand and gravel — nearly 10 tons of it — from the nearest road uphill to the site of Irma’s new home.
“In just a week,” Sean Miller wrote to the priests who made the miracle possible, “the site went from an empty piece of ground to a sturdy, concrete house with four walls already finished. In the weeks after, local labor was hired to complete the roof, floor and porch.”
One might think that the blessings were Irma’s, and hers alone. Sean Miller’s father taught him differently.
“We got to meet Irma’s wonderful children,” he wrote to the priests.
“Two in particular quickly befriended us, and we were taken by their vibrant, joyful personalities. Jesus and Roxana became our guides, introducing us to the people and wild landscape of the mountains,” he wrote.
“Through them, we were blessed to view their world through young, hopeful eyes, and even more blessed to be a part of giving them a safer, brighter future by building a home.”
Information for this story was provided by Sean Miller and by Meghan Sullivan, executive assistant for Homes from the Heart. More information about Homes from the Heart can be found online at homesfromtheheart.org.