By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
NICARAGUA – One hundred and sixty houses built, another 240 mostly paid for and in the planning stages. Throw in a couple of health clinics and community centers, a radio studio, sheep corrals, water supplies and goodness knows what else. Msgr. Francis X. Schmidt, pastor emeritus of St. Augustine Parish, Bridgeport, is fast becoming the low-cost housing czar of rural Nicaragua, although he doesn’t put his own name on his developments.
“The success of the ministry derives from the amazing generosity of the priests and people of the diocese,” he said. “We are dealing with the poorest of the poor, neglected by most agencies who concentrate on the cities.”
It started in 2004 with the sudden death of Father Charles Pfeffer, one of his successors as head of the Catholic youth office in the Archdiocese. Msgr. Schmidt wanted to memorialize him through some charitable work, and eventually hit upon housing in the mountains of Nicaragua, working through Food for the Poor (FFP), which has become the nation’s fourth largest non-profit and the largest devoted entirely to Third World relief.
So far he’s raised over $1 million ($390,000 or so coming from donors who first heard about “Father Chuck’s Challenge” through past articles in The Catholic Standard & Times).
Msgr. Schmidt, who raises much of the funds through speaking at parishes and other organizations, took a group of 28 donors and donor-representatives to Nicaragua, recently. They were joined by personnel of FFP, including executive director Angel Aloma and representatives of FFP’s local partner, the American Nicaraguan Foundation, which does the in-country work and provides some matching funds.
The purpose of the visit was to assess the needs, see the results first-hand and learn something about the shameful poverty which exists near America’s borders.
One stop was Father Pfeffer’s Village, where 60 houses were deeded over to needy families last year and where “Clinica de Santa Leanor” opened this year. That was funded by the people of St. Eleanor Parish, Collegeville, where Msgr. Schmidt spoke.
“He made a great presentation,” said Charles Sauermelch, a St. Eleanor parishioner. “In a way we are partners with this little village and I’m sure there will be future assistance. This is absolutely money well spent. It is a tremendous, tremendous benefit to the area.”
Also in Nicaragua were Tim and Pat Watson, with their daughter, Erica. They donated the water distribution system. “It’s great to see the kids and the water supply,” Tim said. “It’s amazing how many people are helped by our small gesture. Down here money goes a lot further.”
Newly constructed this year was Frances’ village, a complex of colorful little 325-square foot houses built largely through the donations of Larry Jilk, who picked up one of Msgr. Schmidt’s brochures at St. Mary Church, Phoenixville. The houses are a far cry from the rickety shacks so common to that area, and each came with its own outhouse and outdoor faucets of clean water.
“It’s named in honor of my mother,” Jilk said. “She would be pleased to know it is occupied by beautiful people in a beautiful place.”
Nearby was Father McGivney Village, named for the founder of the Knights of Columbus, built through funds donated by K of C Council 3327. The Knights were represented by four Archbishop Carroll High School students.
“This was a good visual of poverty and has given me a new outlook,” said sophomore Jake Kerins.
Another health facility, Holy Family Clinic built through the generosity of the people of Visitation Parish, Trooper, was dedicated by Father Edward Kelly of that parish.
“These people have the willingness to live and be aware of their dignity as human beings and are trying to eke out an existence,” he said.
The partnership between Father Chuck’s Challenge and FFP, he noted, “is founded on Christ; being united to Christ in one another, being truly Christ in his Mystical Body.”
Father Thomas Higgins, whose Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia raised money for the Catholic radio studio in the town of Yali, believes the project is crucial because “it can’t just be about thinking – it’s got to be about stepping up and acting.” He hopes such efforts will inspire local governments to step up and do more for their people.
Missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary Terry Shields, along for a return visit with the group, said on her first visit there were visible signs of malnutrition, but they are no longer apparent.
“When we last came I saw one woman whose eyes seemed to have lost hope. Yesterday she was completely different. Her whole attitude reflected hope. For me, working with FFP is a special pleasure when we see the fruits of our labor.”
“My dream is that we continue to build,” said FFP’s Aloma. “People need not promises and platitudes but action. They need to see things like the villages we have built here.”
For more information concerning Father Chuck’s Challenge or to donate, contact Msgr. Francis X. Schmidt at 110 Nestor Drive, Norristown, A 19403-2522; 610-676-0146; firstname.lastname@example.org; or see fatherchuckschallenge.com.
Also visit www.foodforthepoor.com.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.