By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY – Often when recalling an event, we realize it started a chain of events in our own lives. Several Kansas City area parishes have, for a number of years, shared a sister-parish relationship with parishes in El Salvador; for all of them, the precipitating factor was the country’s long civil war; the conflict between the government and the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), a coalition of five guerilla groups. The military targeted anyone suspected of supporting economic and social reform, often clergy, independent farmers and university officials. Among the victims were Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980), four US church women (1980), and six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter (1989).
Concern and sympathy for El Salvador’s poor spread across the U.S., and many groups began sending aid. Grassroots efforts to alleviate some of the effects of the war began to sprout. Locally, St. Peter’s parishioners sent Father Gerald Waris to El Salvador in the late 1980s to learn more about the people and their needs. When he returned, the parish connected with SHARE. In 1986 SHARE founded its Sister Parishes program as a way to promote solidarity between churches in the States and churches and communities in El Salvador. The first Sister Parish relationships were between churches in the U.S and the Urban San Salvador parishes of Maria Madre de los Pobres in La Chacra, San Francisco de Asis in Mejicanos and San Roque. As refugees began to repopulate rural communities in Northern El Salvador, parishes in the U.S. were sistered with them to accompany them in the repopulation and reconstruction.
Interest in the efforts in El Salvador quickly spread to other parishes in Kansas City. Visitation began a sister parish relationship in 1988. St. Elizabeth, Our Lady of the Presentation, St. Sabina and more recently, St. Patrick’s North, also began relationships with parishes in the Central American country. The parishes send delegations to their sister parishes on a regular basis, host visiting delegations from El Salvador, send supplies, funds, letters and love.
Parish El Salvador Ministry representatives gathered at Visitation Nov. 3 to share experiences and memories.
Peg Ekerdt, Pastoral Associate at Visitation, spoke of the 28-year relationship the parish has shared with Santa Maria Madre de los Pobres – St. Mary, Mother of the Poor.
“The war in El Salvador was, I believe, a precipitating factor in the beginning of our sister parish relationship,” she said. “I am always humbled by the generosity of our sister parish folks. They provide hospitality and a sense of welcome that transcends the boundaries of culture – and their joy in greeting us helps us know that they are grateful for the relationship we share. They teach me in countless ways what matters most in life – and their joy is something I yearn to imitate more faithfully.”
Santa Maria Madre de los Pobres Parish was founded in the war’s aftermath, she said. “They’ve never forgotten the price they paid in those years. I have always felt our visits to Madre were a kind of pilgrimage as our friends would take us to the sites of martyrdom -the places where Archbishop Oscar Romero, the churchwomen, the Jesuits were killed – to stand where martyrs gave their lives for the Gospel is an unbelievable experience. One that is transformative and never forgotten. Visiting is a blessing of faith.”
St. Peter’s Parish formed a sister relationship with San Francisco des Asis Parish in 1989, about a month before the assassinations of the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter. As a result, parishioner Nancy Caccamo said, “Our mission has always been one of mutual accompaniment in our faith and friendship.”
Nancy Caccamo and her husband Jim, have been part of St. Peter’s delegations to San Francisco des Asis for years, and love the people of that parish.
When Father Waris was reassigned to St. Patrick Parish north, St. Peter’s continued the sister relationship, regularly sending delegations, food, medical visits, funds and more. In 1999, Father Waris again traveled to El Salvador with the St. Peter’s delegation and a truckload of goods to aid victims of Hurricane Mitch.
Mitch, which struck Central America in October 1998, dropped immense amounts of precipitation through El Salvador, resulting in flash flooding and mudslides, destruction, loss of crops and livestock. Mitch caused 240 deaths and nearly $400 million (USD 1998) in damage.
“Over the years,” Caccamo continued, “we have seen many changes. There have been improvements but challenges continue for the people in their economic situation and with gang violence. We have established relationships of friendship and solidarity with the people of San Francisco de Asis. We have sent delegations every year and frequently hosted their delegations here to St. Peter’s Parish. Over the years we have grown closer and now feel we are family.”
She said St. Peter’s supports the youth of San Francisco des Asis in attending high school and college, and provides them opportunities for education.
“This not only provides education for the youth,” she said, “but strengthens their families and community. We are very proud of the courage the young people and their families demonstrate in overcoming the obstacles of poverty and violence in order to get an education.”
Father Waris said sister parish relationships really started when Pope John XXIII asked that each American parish “tithe a priest” to Central and Latin America. Many priests of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese have spent time in El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central and South American countries; several, including Fathers Michael Walker, Chuck Tobin and Michael Gillgannon, served in Bolivia for years. Others priests have participated in mission trips and as part of delegations to Central America and Mexico.
Father Jeff Stephan, pastor of St. Sabina Parish in Belton, said the parish began a partnership with the Center for Exchange and Solidarity, directed by an American, Leslie Schuld, in 2014 to sponsor scholarships for students in Cinquera, El Salvador. There are 17 students in Cinquera on scholarship and donations from St. Sabina cover the costs of 6 students to attend University. The program is need-based; scholarships are awarded to students of families living in poverty and/or where one or both parents fought in the civil war.
CIS provides comprehensive formation and expects from the youth a commitment to social and economic justice. As part of development and formation, monthly meetings and workshops on various topics are integrated into the program.
The community and its youth work together in the program. The youth incorporate themselves into the development of the community and country. The goal is to develop individuals who will contribute to the country’s development; not to educate someone who will one day emigrate.
Last year, St. Sabina’s sent a delegation to meet the scholarship students, partnering with Our Lady of the Presentation Parish which sponsors students in the San Rafael Cedros community.
The parish website says, “In 2006, 0ur Lady of the Presentation entered into a partnership of friendship and hope with the people of the community of San Rafael Cedros, El Salvador. Our El Salvador Committee works closely with CIS and its director, Leslie Schuld, to determine how our parish can assist the people of San Rafael Cedros.” Jo Engert, Director of Children’s Faith Formation, is a member of a committee of volunteers that works to foster this partnership as they coordinate donations for the scholarship and formation program for high school and university students. The cost of sending a student to high school for one year is $300, and they attend two – three years, depending on their goals. One year of university costs $1,050 and students attend four – six years.
The scholarship students often give back after they graduate by teaching other students.
After the earthquakes of 2001 in El Salvador, St. Patrick parish sent a delegation to support the rebuilding effort. Kathy Desaulniers recalled visiting the rural community of Estanzuelas, where the mayor told the delegation, “’Rice and beans will last a week. Education lasts a lifetime.’” That, he said, will advance the dreams of a better life for all the community.
Since then, St. Patrick’s, working with CIS, has seen the wisdom of the mayor’s comment by influencing change in the community through education. The parish website notes that “Over the last decade, we have helped over 400 students graduate from high school and 9 students graduate university–very few of which would have been able to without our support. The students have helped change the reality in their community by developing youth programs around important topics like social responsibility, protecting the environment, culture, social media, among others. Our graduates play important roles in the community from supporting their families to holding positions in city government, emergency preparedness, national news media, architecture and education.”
Kerm and Ellen Fendler of St. Elizabeth’s Parish were invited to join Father Waris on his annual trip to El Salvador in 2012. Kerm recalled feeling “so moved by the experience that when we returned we asked our pastor, Father Terry Bruce, to allow St. Elizabeth’s to twin with two rural Salvadoran communities, Romero Community and Palo Grande.”
The main reason for developing the relationship was to fund scholarships for the communities’ students to attend high school and college, which otherwise would be out of reach for many of them. The first year, 2013, St. Elizabeth’s funded five high school and three college scholarships. Today, the parish also funds scholarships for children in Romero Community to attend a Catholic grade school. In total 57 scholarships are currently being funded by the parish through a relationship with CIS.
That relationship has contributed to the expansion of St. Elizabeth’s El Salvador ministry, Kerm said, which now provides water filters to Salvadoran families, school supplies and computers, clothes, tools, lights and other items to help them better their lives, in addition to the scholarships.
The parish’s El Salvador ministry has also been part of the home-building projects in the Romero Community.
One of Kerm’s favorite memories of El Salvador is the blessing of the new homes and homeowners earlier this year. The delegation was visiting the Romero Community on a Sunday. Fathers Waris and Bruce had finished concelebrating Mass under two large tents near where 65 concrete block homes were under construction. Some were complete, others in various stages of construction, some still just marked plots of land. A community leader, Raul Acevedo, asked the priests to bless the homes. They “walked from house to house, carrying a large basin of holy water and leafy fronds, on a very hot, sunny day. The priests took turns blessing each home. The families who owned the homes stood in their doorways with broad smiles on their faces. Their sense of pride in their new homes was palpable and their expressions of gratitude were sincere.”
Kerm explained that the families had lived in shacks of rusty, corrugated tin and tree limbs, with dirt floors, no running water, and no electricity for more than 10 years. “But … they never lost hope. And now, with God’s help and the help of their brothers and sisters in Kansas City, their dreams were becoming a reality. It was a wonderful privilege … to witness the blessing of the homes. It is an experience we will never forget.”
When he said, “We are extremely committed to our El Salvador ministry and that commitment continues to grow” as other parishioners travel to El Salvador “to learn about the country and walk in solidarity with the people from our sister communities,” Kerm summed it up.
The parishes listed have sister parish relationships in El Salvador. Other parishes, including St. Thomas More and St. Francis Xavier-KC, have sister relationships with parishes in Guatemala and Belize. To learn more about the ministries in this story or in Guatemala and Belize contact the parishes.