Unforgettable Monsignor Greg Schaffer
After presiding at the early-evening Mass, the big, white-haired American priest walked toward the big doorway at the side of the 400-year-old Church of San Lucas Church, greeting his people along the way.
It was a lot like watching John Paul II in action.
He’d shake hands.
When he’d stop to talk with someone he’d put a hand on their shoulder.
He’d wave with an open-handed gesture to make a point.
That was the Monsignor Gregory T. Schaffer I saw pastoring some 15 years ago in San Lucas Toliman in the Central Highlands of Guatemala.
“I really love the liturgies here,” he told me as we spoke outside the ancient church in the town 5,000 feet above sea level. “It’s informal, but simple and beautiful.”
Back in 1997, the man his parishioners called “Padre Gregorio” had been their pastor for 34 years already. He’d go on to minister to the people of San Lucas for another 14 years before coming back to Minnesota. A terrible skin cancer finally took him May 24 at the age of 78.
If he’s not a candidate for sainthood, none of us are.
One busy missionary
Although he’d been born in St. Paul and trained at the St. Paul Seminary, in 1960 young Gregory Schaffer was ordained a priest of the new Diocese of New Ulm, the nation’s most rural diocese, one that was carved out of the southwestern portion of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
He had only been a priest for three years when he took the assignment to go to Guatemala as a missionary.
A number of dioceses in the United States had taken to heart Pope Paul VI’s suggestion that relatively vocation-rich countries share their priests with countries where vocations were few. (It’s why our own archdiocese continues to have a presence in Ciudad Guyana in Venezuela, where the pastor is also named Gregory Schaffer. It’s not a coincidence.)
The year was 1963 when Father Schaffer began to minister in Guatemala.
By the time I got there in 1997 the Church of San Lucas had accomplished much and had more projects underway than the busiest suburban parish you can name.
- Next to the church was a library/dining hall.
- Attached was the parish center, where coffee beans raised by 170 families were bagged before being sent for sale in the United States.
- Across the courtyard was the parish medical clinic.
- A few blocks away was the dental clinic and eye clinic, which was being expanded to be a full-service clinic with 60 beds.
- Up one hillside a parish crew was putting in a water tank, the first step in building a new “colonia” or neighborhood for 56 families. The construction crew built 16 new homes a year and always had three under construction.
- There were parish apprentice programs for the needed trades, for carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians and mechanics.
- At the south end of town the parish had an experimental farm.
- Drawing international attention was a parish tree reforestation project.
- Of course there was a parish pre-school and grade-school.
- And all the sacramental prep programs.
Weekday mornings I watched Monsignor Schaffer lean against a wall in the dining hall and simply observe as the male Guatemalan leaders of the parish – the project managers for all those programs – planned the day’s work, updated one another to learn when the skills of their crews would be needed, and told Padre Gregorio where they could use some help from the volunteers he was always hosting.
Each afternoon he’d listen in again as the women of the parish met to discuss the programs they were working on.
After 34 years of organizing and building up indigenous leaders from among the Mayans, the pastor didn’t need to say much at these meetings.
When he did the talking was when he was in front of groups – lots from Minnesota – who came down to volunteer at San Lucas. Marker in hand he’d explain the socio-political situation of the place they’d come to, writing on a white board to explain what he taught as “the process of poverty” that his parishioners were living.
A teacher at heart
Two volcanoes dominate the geography of this town of 25,000 on the shore of Lake Atitlan, and a volcano was the priest’s favorite image to use to explain Guatemala to outsiders.
He’d draw the familiar triangular form, then add a line across it fairly near the top.
“The top of the volcano is small, held up by a great big body,” he’d start out.
“The country is run by 18 to 22 extended families, people who live the good life, and 94 percent of the land in Guatemala is in the hands of 7 percent of the population.”
Monsignor Schaffer would draw another line somewhere around the center of his volcano, explaining that was the military and the middle class.
“The bottom of the volcano, the base holding it up, is the 84 percent of the population that are people living in the process of poverty.”
The lectures to his guests explained that industrialized economies needed raw material, cheap labor and markets to sell their goods and services, and that was how the poorest Guatemalans were being used.
At the base of the volcano, he explained:
- 54% are unemployed.
- 84% who do work make less than the daily requirement to provide for their families.
- 70% are illiterate.
- 46% lack access to health care.
- 51% of all children die before the age of five.
“A volcano is an explosive situation,” Monsignor Schaffer explained. “It may not be erupting now, but it certainly has the potential to erupt.”
Literacy and land
The priest tapped fund-raising sources in New Ulm, in the Twin Cities and elsewhere to address the issues parishioners brought to him. When he’d have groups of Norte Americanos come down, it wasn’t just to be lectured to but to work side-by-side on projects with Guatemalans. His idea was to put volunteers into situations where they can appreciate the gifts of the people of this developing country.
He took pride in the fact that the people of the parish did all the decision-making, did the hiring and firing, set the salaries, planned and managed the projects.
He was justifiably proud, too, that the literacy rate in his parish was 85%.
“I can tell we’re making progress,” he said, “because the newspapers sell out every day.”
He humbly acknowledged, “We’ve met a lot of felt needs,” but claimed that the parish had made its greatest contribution in helping the people get the one thing they want most: land.
“The greatest request is one I hear on a daily basis: Help us get land,” Monsignor Schaffer said. “The people want to be farmers. They want to work the land with a hoe and a machete, and they are very good at it.
“We’ve been able to help 3,000 families get about three acres of land apiece. They plant corn and beans on two acres and then coffee on the other as a cash crop.”
Reaping what he sowed
Monsignor Schaffer, however, planted a few things himself.
One was a missionary spirit in his namesake nephew, Father Gregory J. Schaffer, a priest of the archdiocese who is pastor of Jesucristo Resuscitado parish, the mission of the archdiocese in San Felix, Venezuela. Visits to his uncle’s mission in Guatemala played no small part in the younger priests’ own vocation. Between college and the seminary younger Greg spent two years volunteering at San Lucas and visited the mission about a dozen times.
He’s been a missionary himself in Venezuela now for 15 years.
Monsignor Schaffer also planted concern for the people of another culture and country in the hearts not just of Catholics in the New Ulm Diocese but with the thousands – many college students – who visited and worked at San Lucas Toliman at his invitation.
Finally, what Monsignor Schaffer planted were some invaluable gifts in the people he served for those 48 years: Confidence. A sense of self-worth, so every person in town knew they were created in the image and likeness of God. And hope. Hope that there is a way out of living in the process of poverty.
* * *
After a funeral Mass in New Ulm’s Cathedral and another here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Monsignor Schaffer’s body was flown to Guatemala for a final funeral Mass and burial in the cemetery at San Lucas Toliman.
Learn more about the Diocese of New Ulm’s mission in Guatemala at http://www.dnu.org/service/sanlucas.html.