Jesus in their Midst

Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 05
Jesus in their Midst
By Ruth Giammichele/ SUN contributing writer
Parishioners and Pastor Travel to Mexico for Church Dedication

JOHNSON CITY — On the Feast of St. Juan Diego, Dec. 9, 2004, a little church in Cuernavaca, Mexico was dedicated. Father Thomas Ryan, pastor of St. James Church in Johnson City, and seven other pilgrims from that parish traveled to Mexico for the dedication. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, according to those who went. Those hundreds of Mexican Catholics who live in extreme poverty but yet have an eagerness for the Divine Presence in their midst were obviously overjoyed on the occasion. As Bishop Florencia of Cuernavaca set the Holy Eucharist on the barren, consecrated altar, he looked into the tear-stained faces of over 200 parishioners filling the church and pouring out into the dirt road outside. He then held the Eucharist high and said gently, “Jesus is here in your midst. He is here and will always be here. Come to Him.”

The bishop then turned and the Holy Eucharist was placed into the tabernacle in reserve. Jesus will remain there in that tabernacle that was once in the sisters’ chapel in the convent at St. James Church in Johnson City. The “seeds” of the plan for this “Sister Parish” of St. James go back to 1995. Jack and Helene Gilroy of Endwell along with an ecumenical group from around the country, made an “Immersion Retreat” with the Benedictine sisters in Cuernavaca, Mexico. At the conclusion of the retreat the group decided to start a social action project, which they called “Frutas,” to help poor families in the neighborhood of Lomas de Ahutlan in Mexico.

The following year, Jack planned to join the people of Lomas de Ahutlan in an outdoor Mass, only to have it cancelled because of a downpour and muddy conditions. On his return to the U.S., Jack spoke to a confirmation class at Our Lady of Angels Parish in Endwell. An instructor from that parish, Beverly Musa, and her students decided to help. They were impressed to learn that the people of Lomas de Ahutlan did not have a chapel for Mass. Jack had challanged them to do something about it and they raised $4,000 which was sent to Mexico. Padre Octavio, the pastor of Santa Catalina Parish in Cuernavaca, was their contact and he became instrumental in obtaining land in the little colonia and finding an architect to build a chapel for the people there.

By the fall of 1999, the cost of the new, revised chapel was growing and was too much for the smaller parish of Our Lady of Angels to take on. So Jack approached Father Thomas Ryan and the parish council at St. James Church. They agreed to be sponsors of the proposed chapel and to adopt the Mexican parish community as a “Sister Parish.” St. James parishioners began to raise funds for the project through 5K Runs, pasta suppers, direct donations and even help from a Buffalo, N.Y. parish that donated funds from one of its 5K Runs. The project became a work of solidarity. As the visits of St. James parishioners to the Lomas de Ahutlan area continued and photos of the ongoing project were posted in the church, more and more parishioners became enthusiastic about the project and were motivated to see it to completion.

On Dec. 9, 2004, the chapel was dedicated. Appropriately, both Father Ryan and Jack Gilroy spoke at the dedication. Father Ryan’s comments, in Spanish, told the people of St. Juan Diego, “In the year 2000, our parish of St. James celebrated the 100th anniversay of its founding. It was then that we accepted the invitation of Jack and Helene Gilroy to partner through Santa Catalina Church this new, as yet unnamed, parish to be formed in Cuernavaca. Our partnership began with prayer and commitment. That prayer and commitment has continued and we are delighted to have contributed to the building of this holy place.” Father Ryan presented the people with an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, created by Roseanne Rouff, a St. James parishioner.

Those of St. James Parish who traveled to Mexico for the dedication have been impacted by this experience in ways they never expected. There was an initial response of wanting to bring some of the children home with them so that they could have a better life, but that changed. Glenn Miller, who traveled to Mexico, said, “We may be able to give them a better physical home, richer meals and other material things, but I envy the simple, loving life they all seem to enjoy in the colonia!” Betty Keyes, another parishioner who took the trip, commented that the whole experience was an eye-opener for her; she intellectually realized that such poverty did exist in the world, but she didn’t realize the extent until she actually saw it.

Then there were the visits to the VAMOS projects (VAMOS is one of St. James other titheing projects). The theme of these projects is that the world’s problems are NOT so great that they defy solutions. The VAMOS project tries every day to empower the poor of Mexico by teaching children and adults to read and write, by feeding the hungry children and providing day-care for infants, by offering medical, emotional, and spiritual support to the empoverished elderly, by initiating cooperatives for struggling street sellers and a market for their goods, and by building simple community centers throughout Cuernavaca. There, the people who live in one-room shacks can gather for classes and build community.

Numerous parishioners from St. James gave donations to those traveling to Cuernavaca to be used as needed. Resources were pooled and the travelers asked Marguerita, an active member of San Juan Diego Parish, to designate seven “neediest families” to be recipients of the $700 the parishioners had brought with them. The disbelief of the families who unexpectedly received such a windfall was like water and air and bread and all the necessities of life being poured out in an instant.

The people of St. James Parish discovered again a sense of awe as they made their attempt to respond to the needs of the poor in Mexico. It is a nourishing experience for them. In the little colonia it was so easy to find a listening ear, a ready smile and happy families. The joy of the people for having the Holy Eucharist in their midst was evident, even for those members of St. James who knew no Spanish.

At the Christmas liturgies at St. James this year, Father Ryan reminded parishioners, “Our connection to the compesinos of San Juan Diego Parish lies right here — in the Holy Eucharist and in the tabernacle we gave them when we closed our convent chapel — in the very presence of Jesus. It was not so much the money that made this connection possible but the love and commitment of this parish family that recognizes that Jesus is here and has blessed us abundantly. We continue to give witness to that Divine Presence by our sharing with all of our brothers and sisters.”

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