“The parish here is impacted by it a lot,” said Father Dan Carson, the parish’s pastor. “People (are) constantly asking about it.”
For 10 years, the parish has been working with sister parishes in San Juan de Limay and more recently in Esteli to build homes for the poorest of the poor in Nicaragua. The parishioners of St. John Vianney raise money to build simple brick and mud houses, which cost about $2,600 each, and then send the funds to their sister parish.
Since there is so much unemployment in Nicaragua, Don Mueller, the parishioner who leads the project, said the group does not go down to build the houses themselves, but instead pays a foreman and two workers to do the building, assisted by the volunteer labor of the people receiving the house.
Each house is 20-by-20 feet, which is roughly the size of a master bedroom in the United States, and has no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water. Nevertheless, Carson and Mueller both recalled how the people receiving the house say it is like a mansion to them, since they have often been living in three sided shelters made out of things like sticks and plastic bags.
Since St. John Vianney began this work in 2008, they have built about 450 houses.
“People who have nothing really treasure their faith, family and friends,” Carson told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington. “They have a joy that we don’t in our country because we have so much stuff. They just appreciate the little things.”
Mueller takes about two trips per year down to Nicaragua, along with a group of eight to 12 other parishioners, to visit with the families whose homes have been built and to pray with the committee that helps select the families who are receiving homes.
“Our only rule is it has to be the poorest of the poor, without regard to race, religion, politics or anything like that,” said Mueller. “The committee looks at everybody and decides who is the poorest of the poor.”
Their last trip was in January, and it was Carson’s first time there, since he had been newly appointed to the parish. While they were there, he blessed the newly constructed homes.
Mueller recalled the faithful dedication of the people who they have met in Nicaragua, who often live in remote areas. One man in particular whom they had met hiked three and a half hours with his guitar in order to get to the church to sing at Mass on Sunday.
The group from St. John Vianney had intended to take another trip this summer, but could not go because of safety concerns. The housing program continues to operate, even though the parishioners from St. John Vianney are unable to go visit the parishes and families.
In recent months, unrest in the country has increased, with police and paramilitaries killing people who are peacefully protesting the regime of the country’s president, Daniel Ortega. Many of the protesters are young students.
Since the protests began April 12, the death toll has reached 448, according to human rights groups in the country. Ortega has labeled Catholic clergy as enemies and those supporting them as terrorists.
Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata Guevara of Esteli, whom the St. John Vianney group always visits when they go to Nicaragua, has been attacked and shot at on multiple occasions. As far as they know, the parishioners of their two sister parishes are still OK.
“Bishop Mata has become a friend over the years,” said Mueller. “He has been attacked and shot at and threatened by the government and that really hurts. I consider him a friend, he has been to the states, he has been to our parish, he has been to my house.”
To help their friends from afar, donors from St. John Vianney Parish sent $20,000 to Mata to be used at his discretion for emergency purposes, which they sent in small installments so as not to raise suspicion.
Just a day after the money arrived, Ortega ordered the public hospital not to treat injured protesters, so Mata treated them at the medical school he had opened, with medicine bought with the money that St. John Vianney had sent.
“He called it a miracle that the money had just arrived the day before,” said Mueller.
Now, the Nicaraguan government has declared any doctor who treats injured protesters a terrorist.
St. John Vianney raised $464 for the housing project with a recent fundraiser at the parish picnic. Also, in solidarity with those facing violence, the parish is praying the prayer of St. Michael as the bishop and priests in Nicaragua say the same prayer.
Carson remarked that the circumstances are particularly sad for such a poor country, where it is tough “to see the people that have nothing there hurt even more.”
Sankowski is on the staff of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.