Divine Mercy Sister Parish Project
Sister Parish Committee
In the fall of 2003, a small group of Divine Mercy parishioners and a representative from the Center for Mission of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Archdiocese began to discuss the concept of a sister/twin parish. We were open to the whole globe to select our parish: from Africa and the Caribbean to parishes in the U.S. We narrowed our search to Latin America and then to Mexico or Guatemala.
In 2004, Divine Mercy teamed with Parish Twinning Program of the America, PTPA, a liaison group in Florida who twins parishes of Latin America with North American parishes.
In May 2005, the committee selected the Carmelite parish of St. Francis of Assisi of Panajachel in the province of Sololá on Lake Atitlán, in the highlands of Guatemala. This choice was approved by the Divine Mercy Parish Pastoral Council in June 2005.
St. Francis of Assisi in Panajachel on Lake Atitlán is located about 108 miles or three hours west of Guatemala City. The parish is in a mountainous zone with a cooler climate. Altitude is about 2150 to 1650 meters above sea level. The rainy season is from May to September.
Lake Atitlán is one of the deepest lakes in the world and is surrounded by three volcanoes. The lake was formed from a volcanic eruption 84,000 years ago. The views are spectacular.
The first church in Panajachel was built in 1657. Priests from the Carmelite order in Spain have been associated with this parish since the 1950s. The present pastors of 2008 are Fathers Vicente Planells, Martin Lecuona, both of Spain and Father Benjamin Sandoval of El Salvador.
In the beginning we may have been naïve in thinking we would have a cozy relationship with one parish/village or no more than two. In contrast, this parish covers a vast territory of 36 unique villages in five townships. Population is about 44,000. The villages are either on the shores of the lake or off shore into the mountains around the lake. Twenty-seven of the villages have chapels with the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and where Holy Mass is celebrated. This is a perfect example of a cluster parish.
Most villages are indigenous and the people speak one of about 24 dialects of the Mayan language. Most speak Spanish as a second language. The language of our sister parish is Cakchiquel.
Most villages in this part of Guatemala are strong on tradition. Many people, especially the women, continue to weave and wear clothing that is unique to their own village. Think of it as a dress code for each village.
The Carmelites depend on 200+ catechists to keep the Catholic faith alive as three priests cannot be in every village each week. These catechists are in charge of instructions of pre-Matrimony, pre-Baptism, First Communions and Confirmation etc. They also organize prayer services.
The parish has an energetic youth group in Panajachel. They are especially active during Lent and Holy Week with preparations and activities. They meet every Saturday night.
Travel between villages is by 4-wheel drive or motorized boat. Two villages can only be reached by boat. Most villages have a school. Literacy level is at 50% throughout this vast parish.
The economy revolves around farming and textile artisans. Some of the main agricultural products are corn, onions, anise, coffee and flowers. The average daily salary is about $20.00. Many of the corn fields are planted straight up a mountain and all the work is done by hand. The women of the villages are weavers. Some of their designs are centuries old. Each pattern has a story.
The Carmelites helped their parishioners cope with the effects of tropical storm Stan in October 2005. The storm ruined 80% of the farmers’ crops after six days of torrential rain. The river flooded about 200 homes that were close to the river bank. Divine Mercy also sent an emergency fund that has helped in the rebuilding process. One of the villages lost its source of fresh water and it was many months before the pipes were fixed. Another village across the lake, not part of this parish, was buried in a mudslide. It has been since turned into a cemetery.
Divine Mercy members made the first trip to Panajachel in January 2006 followed by trips in 2007 and 2008 both lead by our pastor, Father Kevin Finnegan. While there we are treated as family. Some gifts are exchanged. We have brought them a Book of Gospels in Spanish, childrens’ books, school supplies, music CDs of Divine Mercy choirs and rosaries made by the Secular Franciscans of Faribault. They have copies of the 2000 and 2007 church directories of Divine Mercy which are quite popular with the Carmelites.
They enjoy looking at all the faces and families of our parish. In these three years Divine Mercy members have visited at least ten of the 36 villages. We are in hopes that St. Francis of Assisi will soon send a group to visit our parish.
While there we visit schools and have exchanged cards made by our students. We return with cards made by their students. We attend many masses, some nearby and others long distance but all part of the parish. Many times the presiding Carmelite invites us to the front of church for introductions. We have participated in two hour Friday night Lenten Stations of the Cross in the streets of Panajachel where the faithful fill the streets and then the church at the end at 10:00p.m. We shop the local markets of the villages and try to learn some words and phrases in Cakchiquel. The people are getting to know us a little bit more with each visit and are less shy to talk to us. They have invited us into their homes.
We have teamed with Fair Trade Organic products to raise awareness and some funds to fuel this project. The products include hot chocolate, tea, dark and milk chocolate bars, regular and decaf coffee. Some of the coffee is grown on the shores of the lake, very near the parish. We also offer ceramics from Cerámica Palopó which are made in one of the villages of our sister parish, San Antonio Palopó. We have met the owner, Cristóbal, who is very active in the church there and is grateful for our interest in his ceramics.
At this time we are still getting to know each other. We correspond through email, telephone and the postal service. You can read news of the parish in the Divine Mercy weekly bulletin under the Social Justice column. We hope to build our friendship with St. Francis of Assisi in the coming years. We are very different but we have many things in common. Sister parish is about friendship and spirituality and helping each other grow in our shared faith. Please pray for our sister parish as they pray for us.