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I really do not know where to start writing this! I have just spent nine eye-opening weeks in Santo Tomas de Castillo in Guatemala, visiting Father Anton Grech, or as he is known with the people here, “el  Padre”.  I have experienced so many great things that it is difficult to put them all down in one article, but I’ll try. How did I come here in the first place?

Over the last eight years or so I had been hearing a lot about this missionary priest from my village of Victoria who is stationed in Guatemala. Thus, when last year I decided to spend some time travelling in Central and South America, some of my friends back home suggested that I spend some time with him. And I agreed. After all, free accommodation for a week or so is a budget-traveller’s dream. I contacted him, asking for nothing more than a bed and something to do in return for the hospitality. His reply: “Come as much and for as long as you want….even for company”. Perfect!  I also realised that I knew him from when I was younger. He tells people that he remembers me and my twin brother when we were kids.  He doesn’t tell them about the nutmegs I used to do to him playing football in the Seminary (the last time we met I was in secondary school where he was a Seminarian).

As the time of my arrival drew closer, I began to worry about the fact that I was going to spend an amount of time in the middle of fanatical religious piousness. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. El Padre is a man of this world who knows the real problems and troubles of the people he was asked to guide in his mission and who keeps his feet rooted to the ground. He also has a great sense of humour and banter: he came to greet me with the “Ta Ljun” shirt knowing I’m of the “Ta L’istilla”  back home in Malta.m1

           That shirt hurt my eyes

Growing up in Malta, my idea of missionary work was: give money to poor people, and when you have a chance go and take a photo with them. I am not saying that this is still not happening (I witnessed it myself) but not with Fr Anton. As I see it, he works by the motto of: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for life. He gets a lot of spokes in his wheels trying to do the right thing (death threats, accusations…) but as I see it, he is definitely winning this battle.

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Need to know how to fish before teach a man how to fish

Aldeas

El Padre’s community/neighbourhood in Santo Tommas (La Collina) is in the middle of one of the poorest, roughest and most neglected in the Parish (it’s one of the few without paved streets). Apart from the two churches he runs in Santo Tomas, the area he has to deal with includes around 28 villages (or Aldeas) based in the mountainous jungle around Santo Tommas, each of which he makes sure to visit at least once a month. m1

This is not an easy feat, considering the nearest ones are at least 45 minutes drive on dirt roads (if you can call them roads). The farthest one I went to with him was a 2 hr drive up mountain tracks plus an hour and a half jungle trek, and one we had to cross a river by foot where the water was waist-high.  For me this was an adventure, but I don’t know how I would handle it doing it over and over, in the cold, rain and mud.

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The main reason to go to the aldeas is to say mass but he also acts as a kind of social worker with the villagers, helping with their educational, health and material necessities apart from their spiritual needs. This is not an easy task (the support of a number of local catechists who are his ‘envoys’ in these villages and who report to him about the issues in the aldeas helps as well) especially if his humanitarian and catholic morals clash with the sometimes-primitive cultures of the parishioners, most of whom are Q’eqchis (the predominant indigenous Mayan culture in Guatemala).

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But one trait I admire was that he is not afraid of saying what is right and what is wrong, and stands his ground. It’s not the first time this puts him into direct conflict with the villagers, sometimes with a risk to his own personal health, like when he objected that two thieves where burnt alive as a punishment and ended up with a death warrant from the elders of the particular village. In the end he was justified in his stance, and the same elders invited him back more respected than before.

Parish Work

The work in the parish is no less demanding. I think in the time I was there I saw him take an afternoon rest only a couple of times. I am amazed at his stamina.

Every morning or afternoon I spent at his house, there was a constant stream of knocking and “Buenas Padre” s… parishioners popping in to ask him this favour and that advice, or just to talk to him about their troubles (they know he really listens). His time is spent between the church at the Collina where he lives and the main church down in the Manantial.

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Stella Maris (La Colina)

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Manantial Church

Being a recent parish, it is not one that has a history of Catholic tradition. He is changing that, also making sure the work and events are run in the most professional way as the place can afford. This he does with the help of some dedicated youths who help him out, and I think keep him young at heart and energized as well.

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Setting up an exhibition of the two soon-to-be saints on Good Friday in the Cathedral of Puerto Barrios

A current project he is working on is the beatification of 2 Guatemalan martyrs from Izabal, killed during the troubles in 1981. Portraits, booklets, promotions, pilgrimages…you name it, he is involved. Even in the setting up of an 80-strong choir for the main mass in October. The choir, by the way, had its first outing on Good Friday mass and it was a total hit with the parishioners.

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Maria and Matthew being interviewed by Kathya for a program on Stella Maris TV

The same as with the Aldeas, the work he does is not only of the spiritual side. He tries to educate and support socially as well as he could. An example of this was when he invited Maria Attard ( the founder of an organisation that helps single mothers) and Matthew Bartolo (a renowned sexual and family counsellor)  to come over from Malta to give talks and raise awareness  on sexual education and child exploitation, both to catholic catechists and to teachers and nurses.  When a parishioner went to A&E and there were no doctors, she called el Padre, who at once contacted the director and went to visit to make sure all was OK. These are just 2 examples of the many I witnessed where he goes out of his way to help others.

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The Stella Maris TV team (Valentina missing)

In the eight years he has been in Santo Tommas (the previous 12 where spent in a parish on the other side of the country), el Padre has managed to build a new church (La Collina), a football pitch (the GuateMalta arena) and also started a TV Station (Stella Maris TV), run exclusively by youths, mainly Tatoy, Yamie and Valentina with the help of a number of volunteers including Jorge, Jonathan, Emerson, Esteban, Wilmer and a number of others. I mention them by name because I had the pleasure of spending most of my time with them in the Canal (including his assistant Maria), since the project the Padre asked me to work on was connected to the TV station. Even though it is run by youths and is only about 1.5 years old, I (and a lot of others I saw visiting it for the first time) was impressed at how professionally it is run. Fr. Anton firmly believes that this is the best way for his message to get into people’s home.

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Yeimi and Heidi adminiring some Tatoy magic with all things TV

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Filming one of the live programs

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Setting up for the live transmission of the Good Friday Mass at the Cathedral

For now, this station “only” produces three live programs, but its reach is one of the highest of the area, and it is planning to expand to cover the whole of the Izabal department: this despite the lack of both human and financial resources.  Apart from the live programs, it also broadcasts live masses from the adjacent Stella Maris church and has recently acquired the possibility of broadcasting live from the outside, with the first broadcast being the Good Friday mass in the Cathedral of Puerto Barrios.

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Improvising light during the live transmission of the Good Friday procession in Puerto Barrios

Somewhere above I mentioned that the Padre gave me a project to work on. His idea is of a quiz show on TV, part of an educational program called IzabalEduca, in which local school teams can compete against each other on subjects they are being taught in school. My job?  To program the quiz. I was more than happy to accept this as it kept me busy with something I love doing and could do at my own time. Needless to say, I did not stay just 2 weeks here.

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Early tests of the Quiz Graphics

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First test on the set… the girls on the left where very excited

 

As someone once said (or wrote a 1000 times on a wall), “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. In fact, my time here was not only work and issues, and el Padre made sure of this.  Even with his busy schedule, he found time to show me Rio Dulce and the Castel San Felipe, the Encenada Verde and teach me how to fish as well. When the MV Logos Hope, the largest floating library in the world, made port in Santo Tommas, we went not once, but twice, including a personal tour of the ship.

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On the way to Las Escobas

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Castillo San Felipe in Rio Dulce

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Chilling in Las Escobas….El Padre as sociable as ever

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On the MV Logos

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Trusted to sleep all the time

I cannot finish this article without mentioning Fr. Anton’s most trusted companion….Goofy. A dog taken off the street, he goes everywhere el Padre goes (including on live TV and under the altar during mass) and loves nothing more than to sprawl himself on his back and sleep, especially on hot days. Accompanying Goofy are his best friend of the 4-legged type Kuku, and Kuku’s mother Pepita, with all three of them making sure there is always entertainment in the house.

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All in all, this was the most amazing 2 months of my now 6-month trip. I am not a religious man myself, but if there is anything such as a holy man, I think I have found him … and also hopefully a friend as well!

MARIO FARRUGIA.