Maryland parish shares faith, hope and love in El Salvador
By Gina Maclean
As the cream-colored cat sauntered up the aisle and lounged on the altar, retired U.S. Army nurse Roy Harris realized that language wasn’t the only difference in the celebration of Mass at San Bartolo, a large urban parish in San Salvador, El Salvador.He was there with 21 other parishioner from Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, Md., “We don’t even let the animals come into our church for the Feast of St. Francis blessing.” Harris says.
The Maryland parish has had an 18- year sister-parish relationship with San Bartolo, a Franciscan parish, where Father Domingo Solis, OFM, is the pastor. He has the huge responsibility of providing pastoral care to over 100,000 parishioners in eight neighborhoods or zones. Church of the Resurrection provides support in the form of funding social pastoral programs and providing hands-on medical help to this struggling community.
The relationship began at the end of the Salvadoran civil war as a way to provide solidarity and widen the worldview of an affluent suburban parish. After a few fundraising visits by the founding pastor of San Bartolo, Father Francisco O’Conaire, OFM, Resurrection parishioners wanted a deeper Christian relationship with their Salvadoran brothers and sisters. A group of four parishioners went for a general solidarity visit in 2000. Then a husband and wife team, Julian and Shannon Lis, a physician and nurse practitioner, who had been on many medical missions, suggested the parish try one in San Bartolo. Ten years and nine medical missions later, Resurrection has funded a clinic with a doctor and sends a yearly medical delegation, accompanied by Bro. Octavio Duran, OFM. Bro. Octavio, a Salvadoran and friend of Archbishop Oscar Romero, provides the cultural and historical context to the group as well as the spiritual direction so important to the mission.
There are about 100 people waiting for the group from Resurrection as they get off the bus in front of the San Francisco de Asís clinic in the San Bartolo parish. It’s 8 a.m., already about 90 degrees and the wait will be long for most, but the mood is upbeat. “Many people come to the clinic for reassurance that their children are healthy,” explains Terry Woessner, a nurse and five-time participant. “The care we provide is as much pastoral as it is medical.”
With four doctors, a dentist, three nurses and a support staff of 10, patients are seen at the clinic and at a mobile clinic set up in a different zone each day. In a five-day period, over 1,200 patients are seen. Not all come to the clinic to see the doctor. “This year a bunch of people came to the clinic pharmacy looking for me. They told me ‘I don’t need to see the doctor, I just wanted to see you and say hello,’ ” says Mary Maclean, a five-time mission participant, “I have a sense that I make a difference by just being here.” Maclean, a junior at Virginia Tech, sees the mission as “my main connection to my home parish and an opportunity to put my faith into action.” As she is planning a career in healthcare, the mission also gives her valuable experience in country, and a holistic view of, patient care. Mission participants come in different ways with different motivations. Dr. Gloria Fuentes, a Salvadoran by birth, welcomes the opportunity to serve in her home country.
This year her daughter, Dr. Sophia Fuentes, joined her. Dr. David Lennon still participates even after moving to California because he sees the progress made and the value to the community. Dr. Rosalie Marinelli, answered the call for a doctor after her colleague, Dr. Ted Leffler, a founding doctor of the mission, was tragically killed by a drunk driver. For some, it’s a family event. Dentist Katy Meyer wanted to share the experience of her father, Steve, also a dentist, so she took his place this year. Terry Woessner, who first came on the mission as a nurse and has taken over the huge job of medicine coordinator, was so inspired, she encouraged her husband David to become involved.
David now runs the water project that to provides water to those who do not have access to it in their homes and neighborhoods. This year, Terry and David brought their twin daughters Aislinn and Laura, first-year students at Virginia Tech, to support the mission. In addition to the Meyers and Woessners, there were three other parent/ child groups–Lynn Smalley and her daughter Alli, a freshman at Duke; Peggy Desautelle and her daughter Danielle, a junior at Marriotts Ridge High School; and Gina and Mary Maclean.
Taking a holistic view of health, the medical mission has gradually expanded its scope. This year, besides the parish clinic and a mobile clinic, a second cistern was built in Bendición de Dios, a neighborhood of dirt floor houses with very limited access to water. “The cooperation of the whole neighborhood in building the cistern was amazing,” says Tony Errera, a four-time participant. “It’s a great tribute to their community organizing.”
Julie Winpisinger, a freshman at Loyola University in Baltimore, gave a dental health presentation she designed for her Girl Scout Gold Award to school children. She also distributed toothbrush and paste packs put together by her and Christopher Resetar an Eagle Scout candidate.
A vegetable garden was also built at the school. It will provide fresh vegetables to the school kitchen and be used as part of the science curriculum. “The school children at San Bartolo were eager to plan and help build the garden,” explains Carrie Buppert and Graham Batemen, teachers from Resurrection’s parish school. “Besides the food it provides, it’s a contrast to the concrete urban landscape.”
The desire to be of service is the common thread that inspires participation; especially repeat participation in the medical mission. “It is a privilege to serve the people of San Bartolo,” says Nancy Moore, a nurse and three-time participant. As the mother of three, it’s a challenge for her family when she’s away. “I am so glad I could join the group again this year.” For Gene Eckhart, a frequent business traveler, the San Bartolo medical mission is a must-do on his calendar. He has often come right after one of his business trips. “I love going back year after year and getting to know people at San Bartolo.” Bro. Octavio, the group’s chaplain and guide, says, “Resurrection’s medical mission truly lives up to the counsel of Francis to ‘preach the Gospel always and if necessary use words.’ ”