By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Good priests never stop working, they just change ministry. Take Msgr. Francis X. Schmidt, theoretically retired after a long career in youth and parish work. For the past three years or so he has been raising tons of money to provide housing and other basic needs to destitute families in Central America, especially Nicaragua, which after Haiti, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

So far, his “Father Chuck’s Challenge,” named for the late Father Charles Pfeffer, a successor as head of the Archdiocesan Office for Youth and Young Adults, has raised in excess of $1.6 million, which, funneled through the relief agency Food For the Poor (FFP) and the American Nicaragua Foundation, has made possible the construction of 400 sturdy little houses, along with community centers, latrines, water systems and also basic furniture, animals, trees and tools thrown in. {{more}}

These concrete houses with corrugated metal roofs are only about 355 square feet, but they are palaces compared to the scrap wood and plastic sheeting hovels they replace. They are deeded free of charge to the occupants.

From time to time FFP and Msgr. Schmidt take donors to Nicaragua so they can see first hand how their dollars have been spent. He and 13 others, including Father Thomas Higgins, pastor of Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia, braved the mud of the Nicaraguan rainy season to see several of the sites during the week of May 24.

They visited San Agustín village, 3,500 feet above sea level, with 40 homes and named for the generosity of St. Augustine Parish, Bridgeport, supporters of the project. Here they dedicated the little community center named in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. San Agustín provided a forceful image of the need because interspersed with the new housing were remaining primitive huts.

“Nowhere at any time have we seen poorer conditions,” Msgr. Schmidt said.

Other villages visited included Father Pfeffer’s Village, dedicated two years ago. Some of those who accompanied Msgr. Schmidt have done so several times in the past. Connie Hunt, who works closely with him on the project, has seen the changes there.

The people, she said, “are safe and secure. They are in a much healthier environment. They have a new start in life and they are very appreciative.”

Teresa Miller of Sacred Heart Parish in Royersford was a first time visitor, although her teenage daughter, Emily, who accompanied her, made the trip several times while at Archbishop Carroll High School. Her son, Thomas, also visited.

Miller remembers praying the whole week her children were gone in those other visits. Now seeing for herself, “it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought,” she said. “It was heart-wrenching to see how deserving these people are and they have nothing. It was a chance to see we are all brothers in Christ.”

Before her personal visit, Miller thought of the project as simply providing housing. “It’s more than a house, it’s providing identity to the people,” she said.

Gene Halus, a professor of political science at Immaculata University, was also on a first visit to Nicaragua, although he has visited other projects over the years and personally knew Father Chuck Pfeffer.

He too saw the project as more than supplying housing.

Under the program, the houses are usually deeded to the mother of the family for the simple reason that the fathers of the children are often not living with them.

“When you build a house it has other effects,” Halus said. “Often husbands who left return; the family stays intact.” Then, because of the chickens and farming tools supplied, the children are probably healthier, he noted. The children at the well-established villages look healthier than those at San Agustín, the most recent village. “They eat better,” Halus suggested. “Father Chuck’s Challenge is a great untold story.”

So far Father Chuck’s Challenge has funded five villages in Nicaragua with a sixth on the way, but that’s not all.

Now the group, still working with FFP, is replacing 30 homes in Neply, a coastal area of earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Along with the homes, the villagers are being supplied with a pure water system and deep sea fishing equipment to give them a livelihood. The new “Father Pfeffer’s Fishing Village” is expected to be completed in the fall of this year at a cost of $310,000. God’s work is never done.

Donations to assist Father Chuck’s Challenge in the corporal works of mercy can be sent to Father Chuck’s Challenge c/o Msgr. Francis Schmidt, 110 Nestor Drive, Norristown, PA 19403-2522. Also visit

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.