Half a world away: St. Patrick extends care to Guatemalan parish
A short drive away from St. Patrick's sister parish in northern Guatemala, in a traditional home in a small village lives a family that has been thrown into an international spotlight.
On a Sunday afternoon in March a group, including St. Patrick's Father John Gerritts, made the drive from the already rural parish community to the even more remote village where the family lives.
The group was there to offer their condolences to the family.
In December, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died after collapsing while in custody of U.S. Border Patrol, the Washington Post reported. Maquin crossed the border with her father, and they were both apprehended.
An autopsy by the El Paso County Medical Examiner's Office released in March showed she died from streptococcal sepsis, a bacterial infection.
Her death has continued to make headlines in the debate over immigration, but for Father John Gerritts the visit to her family was not political.
"I just wanted to reach out to a family that had experienced the death of a child," Gerritts said.
Helping families that are grieving is a large part of his ministry, Gerritts said.
"There's probably no greater grief than people experiencing the death of a child," he said.
Watching the news reports on her death back in December, Gerritts said the images looked familiar.
Maquin's features and the look of the homes of the village she came from were similar to ones Gerritts knew from the church's sister parish in the San Jose el Tesoro community in Yalpemech, Guatemala.
He learned from Sister Joannes Klas, who first initiated the relationship with that community, that Maquin's family was about 20 minutes from the parish.
Klas works on the U.S.-Mexican border. She met with Maquin's father in detention, and wanted to meet with the rest of her family.
So she and Gerritts made the trip with a few others, and were welcomed into the family's home. Even in the face of grief, and a public loss, Gerritts said the family was still warm and welcoming.
The group brought gifts for them all - supplies for Maquin's mother and coloring books for the three other children.
A shy woman, Maquin's mother spoke little Spanish. They spoke mostly with Maquin's grandfather, her father's father.
The group learned the couple's goal was to buy a few acres of land in Guatemala to live on and farm. The father planned to come to the U.S. in order to earn enough money to do that.
During the visit, they were able to pray with the family, Gerritts said.
The most humbling moment came at the end as the group started to leave. The family presented their visitors with an unexpected gift of potatoes and coconuts.
"Our intention was to bring them some comfort and just assurance that they're not forgotten and our prayers were with them, and here they had some gifts that they shared with us," Gerritts said.
20 years of sisterhood
This visit was part of a two-week long trip to St. Patrick's sister parish in San Jose in rural Guatemala.
The relationship first began 20 years ago when a St. Francis sister visiting St. Patrick Church told members about Klas, said Church Trustee Claire Zajac. Klas, a Wisconsin farm girl, worked at a refugee camp in Honduras during the Guatemalan Civil War in the 80s. When refugees returned to Guatemala, she went with them to the village that is now St. Patrick's sister parish.
Since Klas helped establish the connection, members of St. Patrick's church have made yearly visits to the village fundraising for supplies and other village needs.
The connection is an equal relationship from which both parishes benefit, Gerritts said.
This was the first year that two separate groups went on back-to-back trips.
Gerritts said the set-up helped them know what sort of supplies might be needed and accomplish more.
Medical care was one of the main focuses of the trip.
Dr. Greg Goblirsch of River Falls made the trip, and along with two local nurses, saw 180 patients at the village's clinic.
He also worked to train local midwives, who did not have formal training, in infant resuscitation.
St. Patrick members brought suitcases full of medication, thousands of dollars worth from Mickelson's Drug, to restock the clinic's pharmacy. The remote location has unreliable postal service, meaning any supplies the church group brings comes with them on their flights. The team also made home visits almost every afternoon to those who could not make it into the clinic. Gerritts said the home visits were an opportunity to focus on spiritual healing as well, bridging what happens in the clinic with what happens in the church.
The medical attention focuses on treating people with respect, and instilling a sense that the world does care for them.
"The world does care about you and acknowledge that you do exist and we're glad," Gerritts said.
The team also focused on a variety of project work for the village.
Larry Mitchell's father was an electrician for 50 years, and he brought all he learned from him on the trip.
They installed new lighting in the community center, the clinic and the daycare center, and also installed fans in the church and the library.
"It's a good feeling to help them do things that they don't have the ability to do and again to just improve their quality of life," Mitchell said.
St. Patrick's congregation has also provided 30 scholarships for students to continue their education beyond sixth grade. Each scholarship is sponsored by a member of the congregation. Gerritts said the church typically has more people wanting to sponsor than students.
This trip was the first year the group was able to meet with scholarship recipients and their parents.
With the help of social media and messaging services, this trip saw a greater investment from the general congregation. The team posted messages throughout the trip providing updates.