Franciscan Missions of Patzún Guatemala

This gallery contains 14 photos.

In the beginning June 3, 1994 was the first time that I walked through these gates and into the missions.  It was the first year for las Hermanas Franciscanas de la Concepción Inmaculada as well.  The Guatemalan civil war was … Continue reading

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Bob Hentzen

Bob Hentzen, founder of the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, died Oct. 8, 2103 at 77.   In 1981 Bob, along with family and friends, created the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging.   Bob loved the poor with relentless affection (props to Rich Mullins).


Bob Hentzen, 2007 – CFCA Founder and President with Diocese of Pittsburgh Seminarians, Franciscan Sisters and James Miller-Marquez.

Bob had served in Guatemala during his years as a Christian Brother. In 1991 he walked the 4,000 miles from CFCA headquarters in Kansas City to San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala where he established CFCA Latin American headquarters and his home. Currently 300,000 people in 21 countries are helped by CFCA. The cumulative numbers over the years are, of course, much higher.


Bob 2103, celebrating with children in Patzún huipils.

My testimony begins in 1994, my first year in the Franciscan Missions in Patzún. Among the things that I saw was a well-respected CFCA program that helped 500 or more in the municipio of Patzún. At the time $20 a month provided a child with food and money to attend school. In Patzún CFCA was housed in a little building on the San Bernardino campus, not 100 paces from Padre Justi’s modest home.

The next year I was told that the CFCA program in Patzún was corrupt. The unwelcome news came from a Peace Corps volunteer and was corroborated by another long time, trusted NGO volunteer who lived in Patzún. I sat down for a very serious discussion with Madre Carmen who was Superiora of what was at the time a single Franciscan community that served Clinica Corpus Cristi (now a hospital), the Hogar (orphanage), the nutrition programs and San Bernardino. Madre Carmen agreed that the local CFCA program was corrupt, believing that only about $8 a month was spent on each CFCA sponsored child. I asked Madre Carmen’s permission to share this with CFCA. Remember that the 36-year war was still ongoing and people were being killed for a lot less than identifying the embezzlement of thousands of dollars each month. When I expressed my concern for her personal safety Madre Carmen smiled that beautiful smile that God gave to her and said, “Don’t worry about me. When I am gone someone will take my place.”

When I returned to America I phoned CFCA Headquarters, indicating that I had reason to believe that the program in Patzún was corrupt. The person who spoke with me told me that the charges were serious and should be brought to the attention of the founder, Bob Hentzen. She gave his email address to me. Bob quickly replied to a message from me, promising to investigate. The investigation was completed ahead of my next visit to Guatemala and he invited me, and my whole group, to be his guests in San Lucas Tolimán.

James and Ilsida

Ilsida Lopez and James Miller-Marquez, both at age 12.

When my group and I arrived in San Lucas I was ushered into a meeting with the local head of CFCA, the Latin American head of CFCA, the database director (Paul Pearce), and with Bob. The meeting was short. “Phil, you were right. The program in Patzún was corrupt. We realized that our accounting procedures made it possible in Patzún and left us vulnerable globally. The administrator of the program was fired and our procedures have been changed. We are prepared to refund all the money contributed by people in your group.”

Paul Pearce and Fr. Michael Roche (while seminarian in 2007).

Paul Pearce and Fr. Michael Roche (as seminarian 2007).

I was completely satisfied. My wife and I began our long running sponsorship of one of the orphans and CFCA zoomed to my A list of philanthropic organizations. Bob, and the database director, Paul Pearce who turned out to be Bob’s nephew, hosted me and my groups more than once over the years.

Bob3 -streets-lined

The faithful and grateful decorate and line the streets of San Lucas Tolimán at the death of Bob Hentzen.

Bob Hentzen, a role model, shined God’s light into difficult places in the world. He was always there for me. He showed my mission groups it is possible to help the poor change the material circumstances of their lives while experiencing the joy of living out God’s will.

I miss Bob a lot, realizing that in my mission work I have been leaning on his strength, vision and accomplishment for nearly two full decades. He most certainly earned the blessing of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception – Paz y Bien.


Bob Hentzen on his way home.

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Oakland Catholic girls raise nearly $4,000 at Cathedral Masses on the first Sunday of Advent

Oakland Catholic girls raise nearly $4,000 at Cathedral Masses on the first Sunday of Advent. Those are facts but not the story. We see Grace McHale grinning at a plastic bag,

Money in the Bag

Money in the Bag

the contents of which are cash wrapped in paper towels. Fr. Michael Roche is smiling on the scene as are Emma Anselmo and Julia Forester. This is a fitting photo, 60% of the senior leadership of the OC Guatemala Mission group, 100% of the senior leadership at the Cathedral Masses and 3/5 of the Fab Five, girls who will spend one month this summer as San Bernardino teachers. As I recall contributions totaled a bit more than $3,920.

$3,920 is important. Media beccas (half scholarships) at San Bernardino are $50 each so this could be just what it takes to give a year of top quality education to 78 children who might otherwise spend the year working the broccoli fields or making and selling tortillas tres tiempos por día. $3,920 could be the tipping point to help Danielson with his hearing or help Alex gain use of his arms or finally put Kevin into a motorized wheelchair. That $3,920 would go a long way toward building one of the new, second story classrooms at San Bernardino or it could feed the Franciscan’s 250 elderly poor for months.

Cathedral collections are important because something good animated a group of girls to joyfully, and I emphasize joyfully, put aside thoughts of self and throw themselves into raising money to help people who really do need help. In the way that people can do these things, our girls are making the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, feeding the hungry and giving hope to those who might easily live in dark hopelessness. As luck would have it we see this in today’s Gospel reading, Mt. 15: 29-37, where Jesus does these exact same things the way that only the one true God of all things visible and invisible can do it. Please understand that the OC girls are doing what Jesus would do. Please understand that what animates to joyful selflessness is the Holy Spirit bursting forth from them into the world. Grab onto it. If you do it doesn’t last just a lifetime. It is eternal.

Grace, Julia, Emma, Kayla, Caroline, Abbie, Laurel, Maddie, Melissa, Riley and Summer were all present and all helped. Here is what happened.

Fr. Michael had arranged with Cathedral Rector, Fr. Stubna, for the girls to collect at the 5 Sunday Masses plus Vigil Mass the night before. I rolled into the Cathedral about 5:40 Saturday evening and took my place in a pew close to the sanctuary. Julia had written the remarks that all would deliver and Emma was the first speaker. Emma was surprised when I said, “Get rid of half the words.” Fr. Michael had let me know that the Rector’s only expressed concern was that remarks be kept short. Fr. Michael presided at Vigil Mass and made it easy for us. He called Emma to the ambo just prior to dismissal. Emma was, as I take it Emma usually is, wonderful. She was self assured, sincere, infectious with enthusiasm and she did mange to get rid of half the words. Fr. Michael added his own testimony at the conclusion of Emma’s speech. There were enough girls that every exit was staffed by a smiling, uniform clad OC girl with poster board of Guatemala pictures and collection basket in hand. We counted money at Fr. Michael’s office. Giving seemed heavy for the modest turn out. An usher called Cheech, who was particularly helpful, bantered with Emma about being Italian. I bantered with Laurel about Guatemala City which was the city of her birth. So passed the first Mass.

Fr. Steven Palsa presided at 6:30 AM Sunday Mass. I introduced myself and told him that Caroline would surely arrive soon. Fr. Steven was the first to bring the speaker up to the sanctuary, lowering the probability of the priest forgetting to announce us. Caroline did arrive before Mass but only just. She began editing Julia’s essay as Mass started. She confessed to me that public speaking makes her nervous and, as a matter of fact, she was tense in the extreme. I tried to be calm and reassuring. I was calm. Maybe I was reassuring. Caroline headed to her seat in the sanctuary from the end of the communion line as I made my way to the narthex for a collection basket. Caroline and I were alone at the front of the church and I was thinking about covering 5 doors with two people one of whom was up front and about to speak. OC reinforcements were waiting in the side chapel off the narthex and I was relieved. Caroline, despite her internal turmoil, spoke well. Her words were clear, her pace was excellent and her deletions from the original text were well chosen. Each door was equipped with a ferociously cute OC girl. We counted money at Fr. Michaels’s rectory office again. Caroline mentioned that my use of Spanish in Mass responses threw her off. Sorry but I made a commitment to Patzún two decades ago and this is part of how I remember, honor and reflect.

Speakers at the Masses, starting with Vigil Mass were Emma, Caroline, Kayla, Grace, Grace and Emma, unless I am wrong which is possible. I joked that Emma only performs at night, leaving an unspoken wisecrack about vampires. Speakers were all good to great. Some even earned a full Don Felipe hug, complete with kiss on cheek – usually reserved for veterans of mission trips with me. The biggest problem with the presentations seemed to be my edits which, though improving the text, were tough to read. Fr. Stubna, the Rector and formerly head of Catholic education for the Diocese, was especially kind in his remarks both privately to me, and publically at Mass.

Some things really stood out. One was Maddie next to me at Mass. It was clear that this was not her first rodeo, as she belted out the new Missal versions of the responses. Every homily noted the Advent preparation for both baby Jesus and God’s yet to be realized second entry into history. Caroline, taken with lighting the Advent candle, parted from the group planning to introduce that tradition into her home. Julia came to early Mass with her hair down. I’d never seen it that way. It, and she, were both beautiful. Julia also pointed out the commitment that the younger members of the Mission Group are showing, not even stopping to think that her passion is surely one of the reasons. Fr. Josh of the Oratory at 6 PM Sunday Mass asked me about the mission and opined that it might be a good one for him and University of Pittsburgh students. He knows Dorrie. I recall Melissa telling us about growing up in Indonesia, being reserved and radiant – putting me in mind of the Blessed Mother, really. Summer and I chatted about selling Guatemalan crafts in the businesses that her parents have around town. That will be a blessing. Riley’s name made me recall that I lived on Riley Ave. when I was a very little boy. I recall that Abbie is Abbie and not Abigail. Judy Regengeil popped in at a couple Masses and seemed satisfied that I was doing no permanent harm to the OC girls. Grace stood out and is clearly shouldering the burden of leadership. Somebody got into Grace’s face and told her to tell Dr. Marsteller that the girls need longer skirts. I was really glad that person wasn’t in the narthex when one of our girls decided it was time to take off her skirt altogether. (I don’t recall who that might have been so don’t ask.) There was sadness too. Danielle, Olivia and Kelly are gone from the group and it is likely that I will not see them again. I missed the smiling face and tender heart of Maria. I was really sorry that Lelah didn’t come. Meghan Goyal, your Miss Friday, is sequestered in DC. Allison, Alora and Mo are all in college. It isn’t the same. It never is.

Once the money was counted and the girls left Fr. Michael and I chatted that Sunday night. He wondered how it all started, clearly pleased that it had. Megan Goyal, Spanish teacher at Oakland Catholic was looking for a Spanish-speaking mission. She told Fr. Michael and he said, “I have somebody that you need to meet.” He was speaking of Don Felipe. That Sunday night, after 6 weekend Masses I told him how it started. I had prayed and reflected and prayed for years that I would be able to introduce young women to the missions, to the orphans and to the Franciscans. Every Oakland Catholic mission girl is an answer to my prayer. So are Meghan and Dorrie. Then I talked about what God may have in store for me now that I have retired from Carnegie Mellon, 65 years old and still wondering what I will do with my life. It was a time to share confidences, enjoy the warmth of hope, and make ready for the coming of our Lord and Savior.

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Who are these guys?

Four Priests

Four Priests

Who are these four priests celebrating Mass together? The third from the left is Padre Justi, missionary Franciscan priest from Italy, assigned to San Bernardino Parish in Patzún.  We know that the photo is older than 1998, the year of Padre Justi’s death because that was the year that this plaque was mounted at the Hogar just outside the Franciscan’s kitchen. 1998 was the fifth year of my visits to the Patzún Missions and I am an eye witness. As I recall Padre Justi arrived in the middle 1950s, maybe 6 or 8 years after his ordination. Because of persecution of the Catholic that lasted over a century there was need for outsiders to pastor.

Padre's Plaque

Padre’s Plaque

The 36 year civil war had not begun. Patzún was largely without electricity and there was neither municipal water distribution nor sewage system. For more than 40 years he was the Catholic Church to 50,000 who lived the municipio and aldeas that are Patzún.

At the left of the photo up top is Father Stanley Rother. Fr. Stan, considered too slow of mind to become  a priest,

Padre Aplas with parishioners.

Padre Aplas with parishioners.

was dismissed from his first seminary. Stanley Rother, nothing if not steadfast, was admitted to Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.

Volunteering to answer a call for missionary priests from Pope John 23, Fr. Stan, was assigned to the Tzutuhil town of Santiago Atitlan in 1963. The Tzutuhil, with no English, some Spanish and an inability to say “Stan” renamed the man Padre Francisco and Padre Aplas, using Spanish and Tzutuhil. Padre Aplas found no written Tzutuhil language so he and his parishioners created one. Into it Padre Aplas translated the four Gospels. He came to Guatemala with three other American priests and three nuns. Within 18 months all but Padre Aplas abandoned Guatemala.

Oakland Catholic girls at Santiago Atitlan Church.

Oakland Catholic girls at Santiago Atitlan Church.

Although the civil war was underway Padre Aplas was able to be an ordinary missionary parish priest. He administered the sacraments, organized the parish to form his flock into good Catholics through proper catechesis and addressed the many physical needs of the Tzutuhil as best he could. He was, as many ordinary parish priests are, loved by his flock. David Stoll’s Between Two Armies[1] indicates that 1978 – 1982 witnessed a deadly spike of death and destruction at the hands of the Guatemalan military. What had been aldeas of the Tzutuhil, the Quiche, the Cachequel, the Ixil and other indigenous groups ceased to exist and tens of thousands of their men and boys were murdered.

[1] Stoll, David, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, 1993 Columbia University Press, New York, NY, USA. Stoll’s book is excellent scholarship so, unlike a preponderance of the crud that exists on the subject, is both factual and insightful.

The government, especially wary of community organization not controlled by them, targeted both catechists and the priests who trained them. In this case “targeted” often manifest itself as taking, torturing and murdering.  So it was with the catechists of Santiago Atitlan.
Padre Aplas took to having the most likely targets spend the night at the parish church, a colonial era giant built in 1547.

Padre Aplas was just one of many Catholic priests, even more catechists and nuns, and roughly 200,000 Guatemalan men, women and children who lost their lives in the 37 year conflict[1]. We single out Padre Aplas in this blog, in part because he was an American priest, the only American priest to die in the conflict.  He knew that his name was on a government death list and with the same steely resolve that Jesus Christ displayed when in the midst of His earthly ministry turned from his evangelization in Galilee, letting the apostles know it was time to keep an appointment with his sacrificial destiny – Father Stanley Rother left the safety of Oklahoma and returned to the people entrusted to his pastoral care. He explained it to his sister in one of the last letters of his life , “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger”.

I came 13 years later so I wasn’t there on July 28, 1981 but my friend was. My friend saw the people who took him – big, white and speaking English. My friend was the very person who found the tortured body of Padre Aplas. My friend worked with Padre day in and day out those the last years, months and days. We see each other only occasionally yet when we do our eyes  meet and hold onto each other, and the world melts away. 32 years have passed and it is as if Padre Aplas was here, alive just yesterday[2]. The US ambassador wrote that the entire plaza in front of the Santiago Atitlan church was filled with Tzutuhil, simply sitting in the sun, mourning the martyred Padre Aplas, waiting on July 29, when he arrived. So photo at the beginning of this blog was before 28 July 1981.

The war hit Patzún too, not like Santiago Atitlan but way too hard. I believe that the people who go on mission with me only know of it from my comments if they know of it at all, but it happened. The old who live in Patzún, only the old with whom years have brought trust, do I speak about the war. It was fought on their streets, in their yards and especially in the aldeas. Everyone has a story. Everyone lost someone. Like the genocide in Rwanda it just isn’t discussed. Padre Justi and I never discussed the war. We really didn’t say much to one another.

[1] Crowd sourcing put the number at 150,000 dead and 50,000 “disappeared. These include,

[2] Things being what they are in Guatemala with the guilty still unpunished and victims being further silenced and victimized “my friend” will be all that I offer;

Padre Justi dealt with the war as best he could. He dealt with the need for the  sacraments, catechesis, infrastructure, health care and education for the Cachequel as best he could. He addressed alcoholism, illegitimacy and abandonment of family as best he could. He dealt with things head on; in his homilies and in his actions. He was present to all but especially present to the poorest, the widow, the orphan the Patzunero bent double carrying firewood or water. Every day of his life he dealt with crushing poverty as best he could.

Padre Justi, in doing his best, was very, very good. When he came the Cachequel did not attend schools at all so he founded San Bernardino. By the time I came to town there were 1,300 students, crop lands rented out that paid salaries and an endowment of $200,000. He had the humility, grace and capacity to effectively work with Sara Merdes  to establish the Hogar and what is now Hospital Corpus Cristi. He was responsible for the Nik-Nik water system that runs through the town. Annual vacation for Padre Justi was fund raising back home in Italy. He set up the nutrition center that to this day feeds the neediest of the young and poorest of the aged. He welcomed Fr. Al McGinnis and the first St. Ann (Waynesburg) missionaries, and later he graciously accommodate a 45 year old Philip Miller who was on his fist visit.

Father Justi asked me to move a mountain … well really a hillside. The land that is now rooms for volunteer doctors and mission people needed to be excavated and there I stood. My faith was so strong and my obedience so well formed that I laughed and walked away. Minutes later, seeing a 76 year old Padre Justi with shovel in hand, I took his place and discovered that Padre Justi, like Almighty God Himself, was not asking more than I could do. Note to missionary, volcanic soil is 100 times easier to dig than the clay of western Pennsylvania. I moved the hillside in a single afternoon!

As the story goes Padre Justi, knowing that cancer would soon take his life, asked God for someone to take his place and I was sent. That isn’t quite true. It was Danny Scott. In the last weeks of his life Padre Justi slept in a little bedroom just off the Franciscan’s dining room. It was there that he physically waited for Danny and, seeing him one last time, died peacefully within a few days. I have remained constant, returning year after year and sharing the gift of the missions with any new people who will have it. Never-the-less Danny accepted the burden from, and was reassurance to, Padre. It was neither Danny Scott (the original Don Daniel) nor Phil Miller (the one and only Don Felipe) but both of them along with a host of mission minded people from St. Ann, St. Richard, Waynesburg University, Aquinas Academy, St. Paul Seminary, Holy Sepulcher, Oakland Catholic, La Roche College, St. Bernard and others who joyfully accept the burden and who are moving mountains to this very day.

Who are these guys? One wears the martyr’s crown. The other gave everything to Jesus and Mary by giving everything to the poor. They came separately to Guatemala. They lived, worked, worshiped, loved, were loved and died there. They celebrated Mass together at least once. There are two other priests in the photo but I don’t know them.

Fr. Stan and Padre Justi share a bit more. Both are having their causes for sainthood advanced. When we visit the missions in Patzún and when we cross Lake Atitlan to pay our respects we walk on hallowed ground. These guys are “Dos Santos”, two saints. I eagerly anticipate seeing them both as together we worship The Way, The Truth and the Life in eternity.

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Danielle & Denilson

Danielle & Denilson

I’m going out on a limb here but I do claim that, in striking respects, heaven is a lot like my evening of April 24th, 2013. That is one day before my sister’s birthday, just two before my son’s and, though I love them dearly, they did not precipitate my reflection.

I do take the Bible as the authoritative source on such matters so I picked up my New American Bible, Revised Edition 2011 and checked out the references to heaven, just to make sure that I was not in apostasy. To be precise I read exactly 835 references to heaven and heavens which included references and footnotes as well as use in the text. I found Biblical meaning of the word drifting from synonymous with sky through “place from which an angry God wreaks vengeance on a feckless humanity” to the parables of Jesus where heaven is likened to a treasure buried in a field, a pearl of great price and a net that collects fish of every kind. Great truth is to be found here, no doubt and surely brought into focus through the Baltimore Catechism. However my reflection came about differently.

My calendar shows a busy April 24th in a busy April in a busy 2012 and 2013.  I spent time with my sponsors, the Kenya ICT Board that day with more, plenty more to come in the balance of the week. Meghan Goyal, AKA Miss Friday famous for leading the Oakland Catholic girls on their first mission, had invited me to a dinner, a fund raiser. Lured by promises of teen age girls who missed me and a sense of obligation I hobbled to my pickup truck and began a passionless drive from Carnegie Mellon to the South Hills hall, site of the fund raiser.

Fr. Michael, Meghan, Dinelson and a smidgeon of Grce

Fr. Michael, Meghan, Dinelson and a smidgeon of Grce

Still operating in full curmudgeon mode I lumbered out of the pickup and past an older couple, perhaps even older than I. Entering the hall I quickly found an open seat, between Lelah’s father and Danielle’s mother, familiar faces even if they didn’t know me. The evening was magic.

This was one of several birthday dinners for Denilson. He was there because Jean Gabor, refusing to accept that this poor boy from the Hogar was destined to lose both eyesight and eyes, raised funds, overcame legal hurdles, engaged UPMC Children’s Hospital – all those things that brings the heroic out of your every day garden variety Guatemala missionary.  The video that ran on TV news that night can still be seen.

I began to notice who was at the dinner; old friends, people from the mission more than a decade back, parents and siblings of the Oakland Catholic girls.  Jean’s husband and son were there. I recognized them. I finally met Grace McHale’s mother and got to speak with her father. I gabbed with Lelah’s father and both of Danielle’s parents. The evening was warm acceptance. All belonged. Things were as they should be. The older couple turned out to be Fr. Michael’s parents. I took the opportunity to thank them for the gift of their son and quietly thanked God that I hadn’t plowed them over in the parking lot. The girls did miss me, Grace McHale flashing a deck of playing cards until we played our obligatory Euchre – Grace and me against Lelah and Julia Foerster. Meghan’s parents were there but we did not meet. I chatted with the staff at the hall. When Dorrie Donahue’s rounds brought Denilson to our table no introduction was needed. The little guy knew that Don Felipe was there.

1304 OC Girls and Denilson

Jean, Dorrie, Fr. Michael, Meghan, Denilson and the Oakland Catholic Girls

The OC Girls raised $8,000 for medical expenses plus another $4,000 for San Bernardino. Jean must have raised $30,000 – $40,000.

Not ready for the dinner, like the man too busy for his own death, I never-the-less found myself there. I was fulfilled in the conversations and fervent in our prayer. Proud of the girls, proud of Fr. Michael, proud of the parents, proud of Jean I was, surprised by joy and more than anything else, at peace.

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Old Friends


Roger Dannenberg

There is a perfectly good explanation as to why a few weeks ago Roger and I sat in my office fighting back tears. We met in 1979, the first year for both of us at Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Department. It was a department back then. He was a first year Ph.D. student and I was special faculty, brought in to teach freshman how to program. Roger, introducing himself as a musician who also was a computer scientist, impressed me like no other.

Anna Cecilia Arreaga

Anna Cecilia Arreaga

In the 34 years that followed Roger held true to who he is. It turns out that he was amazing. I loved the Carnegie Mellon Department of Computer Science. People invented things, like parallel computing and artificial intelligence and machine learning and robotics. It spun my head around. Grad students were held in high esteem. The system of education encouraged, nurtured and demanded. In a day when grad students often required 4 or 5 years to pass all Ph.D qualifying exams Roger polished them off in one. In the fall of 1980 Roger demonstrated


RBD with one of the synthesizers he has known and loved


Software Developer Certification, Nairobi, Kenya 2012

a system that he built.  It listened as he played his trumpet and accompanied him. He speeded up. It speeded up. He slowed down. It slowed down. He skipped ahead a few measures. It skipped ahead a few measures. And, oh by the way, he implemented this on a tiny, first generation home computer. That little trick vaulted him to the top of the computer music field. We worked on things together over the years and have enjoyed each other’s company but nothing stands out so much as when I became involved with the missions and needed help. There have been a few times when things were bad and Roger always  helped with cash and a kind word.

Roger is working with me on a project to certify entry level software developers. As we discussed his participation in my new company,  he noted he would only be able to contribute about a day each week. I told him that I would always be interrupted by the missions and that it is fulfilling to help the poor leave poverty behind. I thought how just two years before Anna Cecilia needed help to stay in school. When I could not; Roger wrote a check that covered Anny’s tuition.  I told him the impact of Anny’s diploma was transformational; that her family had been desperate – mother and

Great Uncle Pedro

Great Uncle Pedro

father so ill that work was not possible; that her great uncle, shown here shortly before his death, had walked the 12 kilometers from his village, Panibaj, in search of a little help. Now Anny had a job with the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging and everything was different. A modest

job earning no more than two or three thousand dollars a year allowed an entire extended family to go from begging me for help to simply being my friends. I was overcome with emotion, thinking of need that is so great; of how just a little of the right help can change things; of how much I fail to do and how wonderful it is be a friend of Anny and her mother and to have known her great uncle. Roger was right there with me. Soon enough there  would be time for computer science and exams that serve deserving but marginalized young people. This was a time to remember lives we had touched, a time to be thankful and a time for tears.

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Of course they’re nice. They’re from La Roche.

the group

La Roche College Visits the Franciscan Missions in Patzún, Guatemala – 2013

Photographs by Eric Miller

  • “… after 2 days in Guatemala being aware that I was not going to be having that tourist experience I no longer cared about LRX, or credits, or school, or even home at all. I wanted to help the people I was in the graces of, and that is all that mattered. Fixing that roof for the casa on the school grounds was more rewarding than passing any class…” 
  • I think the trip was truly life-changing.  The students are still talking about it and wishing they could adopt the orphans that they fell in love with.  They are even sharing it with their teachers who are passing along glowing comments to me about the changed students.”
  • ” I was wondering if you could give me some additional information on the orphanage we visited, SAN FRANCISCO DE ASÍS. I really enjoyed my time there and would like to keep contact … my stories and pictures with my family they were asking questions that I was unsure of and am curious myself. The orphanage, is it an orphanage just for kids to stay or are there actual adoptions?  … I would also love to be involved in another trip like this sometime in the future…”
  • “Yesterday and today have been real hard …it is as if we have a void in our hearts. … the experience we shared with you and those in Guatemala was with no doubt a life-changing one and we hope that it won’t be the last.”
  • “I took many photographs documenting my trip and I hope that even a shred of that joy can be transferred to the audience viewing my photos. And from that joy hopefully more study abroad trips can become more like mission trips and less sight seeing.”
fresh cement

Fresh Cement

This was the year that Hermana Angela finally said yes to rehabilitating the casita and La Roche College was just the group for the job. It must have seemed to the 12 students, their own nun – Sister Elena – and Prof. Jane Arnold as if nothing would ever be organized and nothing would ever be accomplished. They were wrong because of Angela’s yes and because of the money that La Roche infused into San Bernardino and mostly because of the greatness that is God. The casita, once home to Padre Justi, pending sainthood you know, had been falling apart for years. Now it was occupied by 5 out of town Guatemala girls earning their schooling at Collegio plus one Waynesburg University volunteer, LeAnn,

New Roof Nailed Down

New Roof Nailed Down

in town teaching English for a whole year. As we say in Pittsburgh, “The casita needed fixed.” The pattern is becoming familiar. At first is seemed the Franciscans didn’t know or care that we came and the orphans were too engrossed in movie night to give us more than a cursory greeting – inauspicious beginnings to be sure. Plans, carefully emailed, discussed on multiple Skypes and reviewed, failed to survie first contact with reality. People were cold at night. Showers were cold. Rooms were crowed and, of course, God worked his magic. Jenna was the first to surrender her heart to the



missions. For her it was working with the pre-schoolers at San Bernardino. For others it was the orphans at the Hogar. Surely Oneal enjoyed his rock-star status on the basketball court and the roofing crew gave their all, making new friendships with Luis and his men. We truly visited the poor, the lame, the widowed and the dying. We worshiped the Lord in the colonial era church as well as the chapels located at the two Franciscan communities. I was especially moved by visiting the sick. Sister Elena clearly

rock star

Rock Star

has a heart for the poor and lame, making her way to visit a boy in serious need of motorized transport. Sister Elena even made contact with the former Hogar resident Yaclene, whom her mother has supported for nearly a decade through the St. Richard Mission Group. I was pleased by the calm assurance of Ella and Doria, travel veterans from Burundi. I was touched by the rock ribbed faith of Jayln and Deanna.  Amber and Julia put to voice their wish to come back with other groups. Kayla was ministering to me with my new physical needs and Eric was clearly in love with this mission and his vocation of photographer. Nicole had the bounce of the youthful athlete and seemed always to be smiling. Fr. Tom Gillespie, a four time visitor to these missions, was – as always – a blessing.

boat on Atitlan

On the boat to Santiago Atitlán.

Then there was Jane, Prof. Arnold these days. I loved her as my student. I loved her as my employee. I loved her in Guatemala and I love her smile in this photo.

I save perhaps the very best for the last. That would be Adella. Adella was afraid (please check all that apply) of being kidnapped, of insects, of intestinal parasites, of exotic diseases, and so forth and so on. I only have photos of Adella in



the group and this side shot at the market. Being my usual self I teased her endlessly about her phobias. She not only took it, soon she began to reward me with big smiles. She asked if I would tutor her in calculus and I was touched.

At evening sharing I confessed that I was surprised that I needed a refresher course in the greatness of God. As I spoke to person after person I began to know


The Weaver

the depth and beauty of each, more than I suspected was there. Somehow I had forgotten, as I so often do, that God don’t make no junk. We are made in the image and likeness of God. Is it any surprise that His children from La Roche are precious?

People figured out the showers which were, in point of fact, warm. The schedule was full to the brim and everyone was


Mas at the New Chapel

exhausted. Cement was patched. Paint was applied. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters!” and give glory under new roof! We fed the hungry, visited the sick,  sheltered the homeless and comforted widows and orphans. Mass was celebrated and prayers were prayed.

I was acutely aware that my time is coming to an end. In the beginning I ran these mountains to stay fit. I can no longer walk between the Hogar and Colegio without extreme pain. I take great comfort in knowing that I have played my part and, more importantly, that others will carry on. Study the hands and faces of the people in these photos. When I can no longer even make the trip perhaps it will be one of them, maybe the most unlikely of them, who takes my place. God has a great sense of humor and none of these people is on this earth by accident.  Of course they’re nice. They’re from La Roche.

Kayla and Kids

Behold, I make all things new.

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… una noche tranquila y una santa muerte.

Harry and Helo, Spring 2012

Harry C. Miller and Helo

My father died at about 2 am this morning, January 31, 2013. In declining health for years the past 16 months had seen him pause at successively lower plateaus of health. He turned 91 in early September so decline and passing were not unexpected. It had been a few months since I last visited. Due to my own health issues travel over Christmas and New Year was not plausible.

At the very end of night prayer we ask God to grant us a tranquil night and a holy death, at least that is how I translate the Spanish title of this blog. I pray night prayer out of the single volume liturgy of the hours that Madre Carmen gave to me nearly 20 years ago and so I pray it in Spanish. My 20 year habit had been to pray morning and evening prayer with night prayer coming into my daily routine just this past summer. Fr. Roche closed each day with night prayer as he led the Oakland Catholic girls on their first mission trip. It is a joy.

Lt. Colonel Miller from Sgt Miller

Sgt. Miller thumping newly prompted Lt. Colonel Adam Miller on the chest, 2012

I find great comfort in asking God for a good night’s sleep and a holy death. I expect the request to be honored. This brings us back to my father. The last day was difficult but by the time my son, James, and I arrived Dad was in a tranquil sleep. It kept running through my head, “What more can a person ask than a good rest and, upon a holy death, eternal life.?” It is comforting to believe that my father will have every tear wiped away; that he will be with my mother, wife of 42 years and this time without the cancer. He will be with my step mother, Mary Lou, wife of 25 years but this time without the dementia that came at the end. He will be with my brother Frank and Frank will be at peace as he praises Jesus. I can hope my father will find at the banquet his mother and brothers and perhaps his father who was Jewish. There is no harm in hoping and even reason to believe it can be. It is comforting to believe that my father will be worshiping in the presence of Truth and Holiness.

My father led the most wonderful and most ordinary life that you might imagine. Decorated for WWII service my father never once brought up the subject and always deflected questions. The Great Depression hit hard but you wouldn’t know it from Dad. Harry Miller was a pillar of Hoge Memorial Presbyterian Church and a tireless worker at the Y’s Mens Club. He loved Ohio State football and Cincinnati Reds baseball and I, for one, am happy that the two never competed against each other. He loved his grandchildren with the kind of love that gives me a sense of the vastness and depth of God’s love. I believe that I never made him more proud than when I became a member of the Ohio State Marching Band.

Life was tough. He lost a job with a wife and five kids to support while he was far from home. He made his way back to Ohio and there earned a living selling builder’s supplies. Dad and I came together over paint brushes. I painted my way through college, forming my own house painting business. He sold paint brushes and would give his best samples to me in return for my opinion. We shared paint brushes the way other fathers and sons might share golf clubs. We had rough times and good times. Through all the times he never wavered in his love for my mother. Then, after her death, it was just the same for his second wife as he became Dad to children whose own father died all too young.

In time of greatest need at the missions, when Padre Justi died and there was no money to pay teachers at San Bernardino or to pay the pediatrician who cared for the orphans and the existence of the Patzún missions was in doubt my father stepped into the breech. He was a man of modest means. Instead of holding back he shared the little that he had so that orphans that I told him about would have a roof over their heads; so that San Bernardino could continue to operate.  It was the widow’s mite; giving without counting the cost. It was WWII all over again when Sgt. Miller, not armed for battle, led the men in his charge into the gap to face a German battalion that was not thought to exist. He faced them with nothing which was everything that he had. Bronze StarHe never spoke of it but the citation that came with the bronze star that he never touched or even mentioned was unambiguous.  This business of living is difficult. My father did it well. I am content, blessed to have had the parents that I had. I am especially happy that my father’s death came with a tranquil sleep and though I don’t get a vote in these matters I believe it a holy death. I pray for the repose of his soul.

James Miller-Marquez lighting candles for Harry Miller at the Cathedral in Columbus.

James Miller-Marquez lighting candles for Harry Miller at the Cathedral in Columbus, January 31, 2013.

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I’m not a religious person.

“I’m not a religious person but I decided that my family and I will spend Christmas day atAndrew-FB an orphanage in the slums”, explained Andrew Lewela Mwanyota to a group of people who gathered at the pilot offering of the Software Developer Certification in late December 2012. A little context will surely help. Andrew is project manager with the Kenya Information and Communication Technology Board and he is managing me.  I lead a team from Carnegie Mellon University in building a professional certification under contract to Kenya. There is so much here. Let’s start with slums. Nairobi knows slums like few other places in the world know slums. The Kibera slum to the left, just one of several in the city, Kiberais estimated to have as many as 2 million residents. What is it that animated this, “not religious” person to to pass on the traditional week-long family reunion at the ancestral home that is Christmas in Kenya? We’ll get to that but frist you need to know that I love Kenya and Kenyans. I do. I went to pursue my life’s work which seems to be equal measures of computer science education and service to the poor. I found Kenyans relaxed with easy smiles and great senses of humor. I found families of size, faith and cohesion. I found a country committed to lifting itself out of poverty, in part, by claiming leadership in information technology. I found the Catholic Church, don’t I always? I found it packed on Sundays and heavily attended at any Mass at any time on any day of the week. Andrew-2Eucharistic Adoration, which in Nairobi is every day, is the never solitary Holy Hour that I know from the Oratorio in Pittsburgh. Andrew, as others with whom I have worked in Kenya, is well educated, articulate and dedicated to doing a good job. He is proud of President Obama and the school shootings in the United States sicken him. He knows that I serve the Franciscan missions in Patzún and find my way to Mass at Holy Family Basilica most mornings when I am in Nairobi. Words help but Andrew had something more. He had India. In India we saw the Basilica where the remains of Saint Thomas lie. This is not just any old Saint Thomas, this is the “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands  … ” doubting Thomas. He saw that church sitting across the road from the massive Chennai beach. He knew the 2004 Tsunami that took lives in far away Kenya and that on that beach in


Andrew with Salesian Sister Superior at Mercy Home, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Tamil Nadu we were near the epicenter. As St. Thomas commanded, the sea did not rise to the height of the Basilica, not this time not any time. He saw this and more. He went to Mercy Home, an Indian mission to the dying. He saw the old, claimed from the streets by Salesian Sisters. He saw the elderly living their last days in dignity and comfort. Here we peeked Andrew-day-careinto the day care, safe harbor for children of the poorest women in Chennai. We bought lunch for everybody, less that $100 US. We prayed before Christ at Eucharistic Adoration on the premises. He could see my excitement and my feeble attempts to help. Nearly a year later, that December day in Nairobi when Andrew admonished me to “fix America first” he allowed to those with us that he and I were supposed to meet in India to visit the mission and the Basilica. Andrew is not a religious man and yet gave food to the hungry and comfort to the poor. He gave up a most special holiday and turned it back into a Holy Day. Some times you have to go all the way to India to know what you should do for a day or an afternoon back home. I may have caught you in the act of giving your heart to Jesus Christ. Fair warning my friend, once that happens He doesn’t give it back.

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They all bore witness to the Word: she bore the Word.

Our Lady

Nuestra Señora

It had been a few years since I visited Mary at her Basilica in Mexico City, maybe 3 years certainly not yet 5 but way too many for sure. It seems there is nothing I can say or do for my unbelieving friends to let them in on the delight that is faith in Jesus Christ. Even more I am helpless to share my passion for Mary. Not even my evangelical brothers and sisters get it. Not to worry, the day was December 12th 2012 and I was at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the very ground where María showed herself to Juan Diego on December 9th 1531 (make that San Juan Diego, first indigenous American saint – as of 2002) . My first visit was in late 1998. I returned to the site of the apparition  on nearly each of my dozens of trips to Mexico City, usually attending Mass, occasionally offerring confession and always praying to Theotokos, the virgin bearer of God. Here I am at home and at peace. The image above the Mexican flag was and is and

always will be burned onto the tilma worn by San Juan Diego during his second and decisive encounter with the Blessed Mother on December 12th in 1531. This cactus fiber poncho has survived the 482 years and at least one direct hit by a bomb. Our Lady, loving the indigenous as she loves us all, left from the eternal the above picture of herself. Let the faithless mock Truth itself as we enjoy reverie – basking in the presence of the one who bore and suckled God, never abandoned Him even to the foot of the cross, held the lifeless body of Jesus the Anointed, encountered her resurrected son and finally was assumed bodily into heaven where she reigns today and always. ¡Amen!

My own story has a little miracle. I had been serving in the missions, a week or two each year, for nearly a decade and over that time I went from marathoner to cripple. I was the victim of undiagnosed Perthes Disease. It struck me in 1953 when I was 4 years old. The symptoms went away after a few months but came back with a vengeance as osteoarthritis at age 50. After a couple OLG-crowd1of years the pain was more than I could take and my hip was replaced on December 12th 2003. My hip was replaced actually means my leg was pretty much cut off along with the ball of the hip. The femur was drilled out and 6 to 10 inches of titanium were pounded in where moments before there had been only bone and blood. A fresh titanium socket was hammered into place and I was put back together. That this surgery is routinely performed and most people enjoy great mobility and lead pain-free lives is itself a miracle of medicine. My case extended a bit further. I suffered no pain. OK, there I go exaggerating. I olg-medicsactually took a few tylenol and felt something like a mild sunburn. Folks, I was pain free, really. I felt and feel that God was sending a message of both love and sovereignty. The following year I found myself in the Basilica on the night of December 11th back to back and belly to belly with 2 million worshiping pilgrims along with dozens of Mexico’s finest pick-pockets.  I worked my way through the crowd until I was inside the Basilica itself standing with my friend and Mexico City native, Manuel Sandoval. As midnight approached  famous Mexican singer after famous Mexican singer performed. At the stroke of midnight the crowd shouted ¡Viva María! three times, Mañanitas, Mexican Happy birthday, was

olg-images blessed

sung to Our Lady. Next came Mass after Mass after Mass in Spanish and Nahuatl. Beginning in November, after All Saints Day the pilgrimages start from all over Mexico. They arrive at La Via, the Way, with mysteries of the Rosary posted along the avenues leading to the Basilica.  At the plaza of the Basilica many shift to their knees, acknowledging the Holy Ground, their own sinfulness and their love for Mary and her yes that enabled God to enter history. They bring their images of La Virgen to be blessed before the alter and beneath the tilma that bear her image.

It was 2012 and here I was back home again this time on the day of the 12th, this time carrying an image of Nuestra Señora that would grace the home of a friend of a friend, this time, like the last, joyful and thankful, crowded and tired. Thank God I believe.

1. Quote taken from  On Being Catholic, Thomas Howard, Ignatius Press, 1997.

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