San Lucas Toliman mission thriving with new leadership
by Kevin Johnson
Prairie Catholic Correspondent
“God, I don’t want this job. Please don’t let me get this job. But if Arch offers me the job, I will take it as a sign that you, God, want me to run the mission.”
That was the gist of the prayer of Leonel Tun, then-assistant principal of the school at the mission in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala. He had stopped by the church on his way from the school to the office to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, after getting a call from Arch Mrkvicka that he wanted to meet.
As it turned out, Mrkvicka did want him to take the job. The executive director of the Friends of San Lucas (FOSL) had consulted “lots and lots of people” in the summer of 2014 about who should be the mission’s next director, which led him to Tun. Reluctantly, Tun accepted, relating his prayer to Mrkvicka.
It was the right call. In the last two years, Mrkvicka said, Tun has “just done phenomenal work. It’s his leadership that has transformed the place in terms of its reputation, how it’s run.” Tun has got a great sense of ethics and accountability, he said.
Signs of progress are evident. Thanks to a new construction program, permanent, earthquake-resistant, concrete-block homes have been constructed for 23 families, each costing $12,000. Another 45 needy families have received new wooden “charity homes” with concrete floors. A new Women’s Center brings poor women in from the area surrounding San Lucas to provide education and an opportunity to socialize.
The mission’s recent successes come on top of the help and support it has been providing to the indigenous Mayan people of the area for many years. According to FOSL’s February annual report, 570 students were receiving a high-quality education from the mission’s school. More than 16,000 patients were treated at the clinic/hospital. Over 30,000 pounds of coffee, grown by hundreds of area families, earned almost a quarter million dollars at above-market prices. More than 200 new stoves have replaced open-fire cooking in people’s homes.
These programs, along with the Women’s Center, were the initiatives of the Diocese of New Ulm’s Msgr. Greg Schaffer, who began working at the mission in 1964 and headed it up for almost five decades. A non-profit organization, FOSL was put in place in October 2012 following his death in May 2012 to manage U.S.-based support for the mission, a role previously filled by the diocese.
Tun was promoted to the mission’s top administrator during some tumultuous times. In 2014, a labor dispute brought by a number of its almost 300 employees threatened the very existence of the mission.
In the fall of that year, all of the mission’s employees were let go. To settle their claims, the mission granted most of them one-fifth acre parcels of land totaling approximately 60 acres and a modest cash payment. A more sustainable staff of just over 100 employees was hired between October and December, including some former mission workers.
As head of FOSL, Mrkvicka was directly responsible for the transition.
“Arch did an amazing job negotiating land claims and distribution. He poured his life’s blood into that,” said Fr. Phil Schotzko, pastor of the Vine and Branches Area Faith Community, which includes parishes in Springfield and Lamberton. Fr. Schotzko served at the mission from 1984 to 1990 as leader of its youth group, and is now a member of FOSL’s board of directors.
New mission leaders
Along with Tun, Mrkvicka hired a new slate of program directors by the end of 2014. Identifying these new leaders was a daunting task. “We didn’t know who to hire. They are all answers to prayer,” he said. A listing of the new leadership is on FOSL’s Web site at www.sanlucasmission.org/about-us/san-lucas-mission-leadership.
Mrkvicka has been especially impressed with the leadership team’s reliance on God for guidance in running the mission. “They’re doing amazing things,” he said. “Every meeting begins with prayer.”
Commitment to prayer at the mission begins with Tun, who holds a monthly Mass for the success of the mission. All employees are obliged to attend, whether they are Catholic or not. He tells his workers that they better “be here for only three reasons: service to God, service to the mission, and service to others.”
Patricia Quiacain, the new director of the school, begins her meetings by reading a psalm, followed by five minutes of prayer. After hiring her in November 2014, Mrkvicka received confirmation that it had been God’s will all along.
June Bower from Atchison, Kan., had been going for years to volunteer at the mission and had helped to start the school’s Montessori program. During her stay in early 2015, she asked Mrkvicka why Patricia had been selected.
The reason she asked was that 10 years earlier, she had asked Msgr. Schaffer what the biggest thing was that she could do to foster the success of the school. He replied that she should work with a certain young teacher to prepare her to become an administrator. That teacher was Patricia, she told Mrkvicka.
With Francisca Cocon (Guicha) as its new director, the mission’s Women’s Center has become what Msgr. Schaffer hoped and dreamed it could be. Poor Mayan women from the 22 small communities around San Lucas are transported down by pickup truck to spend a day at the center.
“Not only are they learning new ways of weaving and cooking and sewing and growing crops, they’re taking personal finance classes, they’re taking domestic violence classes,” said Mrkvicka.
The concrete homes that the mission is now building are about 500 square feet in size, and feature two or three bedrooms, a kitchen area, and bathroom. Mrkvicka said they are constructed the way Msgr. Schaffer wanted them to be – using lots of rebar and earthquake-proof materials.
“It’s a miracle for that family. They can’t even dream of owning a home like that,” he said. “Most of these people live in the lower barrios of town. All the water in the rainy season comes their way. They’re living in mud for six months on their kitchen floor, or when they get up in their bedroom. It’s just pathetic, the living conditions these people have to live in. So those homes are wonderful.”
The new homes have also had a great impact on construction workers, many of whom are former mission employees. “The dynamic has really shifted in construction projects. More workers are independent contractors now, doing bids and all,” said Brian Mathiowetz, a member of FOSL’s board of directors. “Volunteer labor goes to profit. This raises self-worth and dignity.”
Gift of self-respect
Volunteers are heavily involved in the construction of the wooden “charity homes,” which are much less expensive. They spend two-to-three days working with a family to tear down their old shack and put up a new structure with wooden walls, a metal roof, and concrete floor.
Mrkvicka said that the mission’s guests really appreciate the work because of the opportunity to develop relationships with the family.
“And that relationship building is what Fr. Greg always said was the most important,” he said. “It’s fine to come down and work and build a house or build a stove or work in the coffee fields with our people, but the real value is that relationship you build because the one thing people in the process of poverty always lose is their self-respect.”
Mrkvicka explained that people lose their self-respect by not being able to feed their families – something even animals can do. They gain it back when others reach out to them – traveling long distances to be with them, eating strange foods, sleeping in sparse quarters, and listening to them and working with them to respond to their needs.
“That’s the greatest gift our guests give to the people of San Lucas, returning some of that dignity,” Mrkvicka said.
Blessing of volunteering
Ruthann Illikman is a graduate of New Ulm’s Cathedral High School. She is now in her third year as a teacher in south Minneapolis. Spanish is the first language for 30 percent of her students. In high school, she frequently heard about the San Lucas mission.
In each of the last two years during summer break, she has been a volunteer for a month in San Lucas, building homes and stoves. “I spent much of the time mixing sand and cement with water to make concrete. And I cut cinder blocks with a machete for building stoves,” she said.
She observed classes at the mission school. But after spending nine months in her own classroom, she was ready to be outside. She enjoyed working with the Guatemalan crews doing construction projects. “Many of the workers were married and had families. Some asked why I wasn’t married yet,” she said. “I’m 24 and tried to explain that I have a career and like being able to come to San Lucas to help.”
Mrkvicka said that the biggest challenge at FOSL remains how to continue to meet the mission’s operating expenses: the electric bill, the plumbing bill, and the salaries of the hundred employees who make minimum wage plus benefits.
“The money comes in little by little,” he said. “We don’t have any large corporate help, we have very little foundation help. We have nothing as far as legacy money. So it’s all small donations from thousands of people that have allowed us, miraculously, with maybe Fr. Greg up in heaven … to not miss a payment.”
Mathiowetz said the operating budget for the mission is about $1.5 million annually. Coffee sales contribute about $250,000. It would help if parishes could sell more, but fundraising will continue to make up the difference.
Education and health care remain top priorities. Another doctor is needed to share the burden with Dr. Rafael Tun, who is in charge of the hospital and clinic. “It’s a huge need that would benefit from permanent funding of $10,000 a year,” Mathiowetz said.
Nonetheless, he is grateful for the continued support that FOSL receives from donors in the Diocese of New Ulm. “You would be proud to know your money is going to the poorest of the poor,” he said.
Editor’s note: For information on how to donate to or volunteer with the Friends of San Lucas, see their Web site, www.sanlucasmission.org. Dan Rossini contributed to this report.
Friends of San Lucas to get new leadership
Arch Mrkvicka will step down as executive director of the Friends of San Lucas in May 2017. Bill Peterson, a member of FOSL’s advisory committee, will succeed him. They began to work together on the transition as Peterson joined the FOSL staff on Nov. 1.
Mrkvicka will continue as a member of FOSL’s board of directors. “I plan to continue working with and supporting the mission as long as God allows me to do so,” he wrote in a September 2016 letter to supporters announcing the decision.
Mrkvicka travelled extensively with Fr. Greg Schaffer to the mission during the year preceding his death in May 2012. “It was one of the great blessings of my life,” he said. He was named executive director when FOSL was formed in October 2012.
Peterson has been involved with the mission since 2008, and was also able to get to know Msgr. Schaffer. As the youth pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, he has taken volunteer groups down to San Lucas for several years. He also has experience as an engineer and carpenter.