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Cleveland-area parishioners on mission trip build bridge of faith to Central America

(Editor’s note: Editor Dennis Sadowski and his family traveled with parishioners from St. Basil the Great Parish, Brecksville, on their most recent mission trip to San Francisco de la Paz, Honduras, January 20-30.)

IN HARMONY - Santos Baulio Sanchez leads the children of El Rodeo in song as they greeted mission team members leading a program on dental hygiene. (Dennis Sadowski)

IN HARMONY - Santos Baulio Sanchez leads the children of El Rodeo in song as they greeted mission team members leading a program on dental hygiene. (Dennis Sadowski)


More than 2,400 miles from home, Father Walter Jenne stood at the altar and looked out at the congregation at the start of Mass as he has for the 38 years of his priesthood. What he saw sent chills up his spine.

A traditional Honduran hymn praising the good works of God wafts over the standing-room-only congregation. Mothers and fathers and grandparents, children by their side, clap rhythmically to the music. An infant sleeps. Another cries. An elderly women clasps a rosary. Festive pink and blue decorations hang from the rafters amidst colorful banners welcoming visitors from the north. And balloons. Dozens of white and pastel blue balloons.

Here the 150 residents of El Jicarito and Guallavillas had come together to celebrate Eucharist in their own church. Here, Father Jenne thought, was community.

“I was so very pleased and uplifted just by that experience of being there,” Father Jenne said four days later, still in awe of the Mass of dedication for the church built 14 months earlier by members of St. Basil the Great Parish in Brecksville.

“(It was) not only seeing, but experiencing how much that building meant to them as a community,” he continued. “That building is nothing without the community. The community really needed a place to come together and be together. So the community needed the building, but the building needed the community in order to be community.

“They were all there. They were there for the dedication of their church.”

Bridging the economic gap

Father Jenne, St. Basil’s pastor since 1994, also reflected on the connection between the two faith communities — one affluent and one poor, but both one family.

“That bridge is also a bridge to the other church (in Brecksville). It’s a bridge that brings us together. One in the states, one in Honduras; that there’s some kind of bridge where something is definitely going back and forth. It’s not just one sided.”

To a person, villagers expressed gratitude for the church. They said their twin villages now have a community center, a place where they can come closer to God.

And they said they appreciate the connection with the wider church.

“It unifies the community,” Father Celio Mencias, their pastor, said through an interpreter. “It’s very important to the people,” said Father Mencias of San Francisco de la Paz parish, to which the tiny communities belong.

Since the church was completed in November 2006, Father Mencias makes the hour-long trek from San Francisco de la Paz over dusty unpaved and rutted roads—some little more than cow paths—to celebrate Mass every two weeks. Previously, villagers had to walk about five miles round trip to the small town of Guarizama just to the north for the bi-weekly Sunday liturgy.

The dedication Mass in El Jicarito on January 26 was the most recent in which parishioners from St. Basil have taken part. Overall, the parish has built seven churches as part of their ongoing mission work in the parish of San Francisco de la Paz.

The relationship between the two parishes has steadily evolved over the last nine years. It began as a response to a Mission Sunday appeal in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch devastated much of the country when then-pastor Father Byron Chevanes visited St. Basil the Great.

Father Jenne and parishioner Richard Pine, an emergency room doctor at Lutheran Medical Center in Cleveland, accepted Father Chevanes’ invitation and visited the parish in the department of Olancho, the poorest and most undeveloped area of Honduras. Seeing a need for basic health care, sanitation and potable water, they returned several times over the next two years.

By 2001, Father Jenne put out the call to parishioners to see who was interested in journeying to Central America. Thus far the parish has sponsored about two dozen mission trips involving an estimated 200 people to an area marked by subsistence farms and cattle ranches amidst rugged mountains and broad valleys.

The latest mission

The latest 11-day trip in January found parishioners building a church in the village of El Rincon, about six miles northeast of El Jicarito and eight miles west of the city of San Francisco de la Paz. The work is a collaborative effort between St. Basil parishioners, local residents and the local parish, Father Jenne explained.

Mission teams make the long trek from Cleveland three times a year. In recent years the effort has focused on building churches in outlying villages at the request of Father Mencias. A 10-member steering committee also establishes annual goals for other projects.

In previous visits, parishioners built three houses and about 150 latrines. Efforts also have included drilling wells—a labor intensive task which didn’t always prove to be highly successful because of a lack of good geologic records--and the installation of miniature water filtration systems in two villages.

Working on the ground with the parish is Hector Rosales, a community outreach worker hired by St. Basil to comb the poorest villages for pressing needs. When a team from Brecksville arrives, parishioners set out to accomplish as much as possible from Rosales’ to-do list.

Rosales.38, describes his job as “promoting the church.” He’s been at it for five years.

When the Ohioans are not in the country, Rosales organizes communities to work on projects themselves, such as building latrines or identifying health care needs. All of the costs are covered by the Brecksville parish.

Bishop Thomas A. Muldoon of the Diocese of Juticalpa, where San Francisco de la Paz is located, said the St. Basil mission has helped people in remote villages to better connect with the local church.

“Without a doubt it’s a tremendous service,” said Bishop Muldoon, a native of Boston. “It’s a great relationship. Of course, we’re very, very happy about the relationship.”

St. Basil will have one of its own on the ground starting in May. Parishioner Dan Prater will visit the area about six weeks before each scheduled mission trip to “be St. Basil’s eyes and ears.”

Recently retired from the Veterans Administration, Prater, 61, is studying Spanish in Copan, Honduras and will work closely with Rosales, Father Mencias and the Diocese of Juticalpa.

“For the first time in my life I’m making way for God, stepping out in faith,” he said.

Having returned from a mission trip with the parish in 2005, Prater has been looking for a way to serve the poor villagers of Olancho. “They seem so grateful of the things we take for granted,” he said. “I see myself on a journey and God is writing the itinerary.”

Building churches

When it comes to building a church, villagers lay the foundation and prepare the site prior to the arrival of the St. Basil team. On site, mission team members build the a concrete block shell over the course of seven to eight days. They are joined by master mason Jose Tomas Flores, whom the parish hires to direct the construction project.

Without the benefit of modern machinery, the team lays block course by course. Cement is mixed by hand: two 80-pound bags of mortar, 30 shovelfuls of sand (trucked to the site from a nearby stream bed by villagers) and water piped through a plastic hose from a local well.

Once the shell is completed, the parish hires a contractor to put on the roof and install flooring. Villagers do much of the remaining work, such as installing window grates and doors, covering the concrete block with stucco and painting the building.

Father Jenne said a typical church costs about $4,500 from start to finish with St. Basil covering all expenses.

In 2007, the parish received $44,600 in cash donations for the mission work. On top of that, countless donations of dental supplies, school supplies, books and clothing come in during the weeks before a team heads south.

A major source of funds is an annual Lenten almsgiving program where parishioners save coins in cups placed on their kitchen tables. That alone nets $12,000 to $18,000 every Lent, Father Jenne said.

A bulletin announcement about a newly established tuition sponsorship program in San Francisco de la Paz led parishioners to contribute $21,000 during the first two weeks of January for scholarships ($150 for elementary students, $250 for high school students), school uniforms, shoes and transportation.

The parish is planning a celebration for Father Jenne’s 65th birthday tomorrow evening. All financial gifts will benefit the Honduran mission program.

The parish is planning two more trips for this year—one in July and another in November. The first most likely will focus on medical needs. Late in the year, the tentative plan calls for building another village church.

“I just think that connection between a parish in the United States and somewhere in Honduras or anywhere in the world is a valuable connection,” Father Jenne said. “It takes us beyond our borders to see the needs of others.”

Where to donate

St. Basil the Great is planning its next mission trip for mid-July.

Donations of money, dental supplies, school supplies and books can be made to: Honduras Mission, St. Basil the Great Parish, 8700 Brecskville Rd., Brecksville, Ohio 44141-1999. For more information, call (440) 526-1686.

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Universe Bulletin (www.catholicuniversebulletin.org), official newspaper of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio.

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