Maryknoller from Brooklyn Is at Home in Guatemala

by Beth Griffin

Maryknoll Father Bill Mullen is pictured during Mass in Peten, Guatemala. The U.S. missioner, marking 50 years as a priest, has spent most of his years of ministry in rural Guatemala with the indigenous people of the area.

To the more traditional elements of their job description, two Maryknoll missioners in Guatemala have added the responsibility of being a presence in the face of injustice and inhumanity.

Father William F. Mullen and Brother Martin J. Shea said their combined 110 years of service to Maryknoll, most of it in Guatemala, included evangelization and pastoral care of the local church, as well as temporal and emotional support for people displaced by that country’s civil war.

“The church is very vital, very alive and very present in the face of inhumanity,” Brother Shea said in an interview at the Maryknoll Mission Center.

He and Father Mullen were among 37 Maryknoll fathers and brothers who recently celebrated milestone jubilees at the society’s headquarters. Brother Shea professed his first oath to Maryknoll 60 years ago. Father Mullen, a native of Brooklyn, was ordained in 1962.

Father Mullen said his work was primarily pastoral when he arrived in rural Huehuetenango after studying linguistics at the University of Oklahoma following his ordination. “There were no roads, electricity or running water,” he recalled.

There were three priests, and Catholicism was already well-established, he said. “We’d set out on five-day visits to small villages and townships. We’d sleep in people’s houses. The catechists would have prepared people for the sacraments, and we’d administer Baptism, marriage and first Communion. And we’d meet with the catechists to see how things were going.”

Father Mullen said he is able to celebrate sacraments, offer Mass and preach in three of the Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. He said the Second Vatican Council encouraged missioners to appreciate the types of religious expression indigenous to a culture. As a result, Maryknollers began to value “the beauty of Mayan faith and culture,” he said.

Over the years, Maryknoll sisters introduced preventive health programs, and the Maryknollers and other religious orders established agricultural projects and schools, Father Mullen said.

At the same time, he said, “There were things going on in Guatemala that we weren’t conscious of,” referring to the brutal civil war waged from 1960 to 1996. More than 200,000 people died during the war, but Father Mullen said the missioners did not see direct evidence of the war until “a very violent genocide” aimed at Mayans in the early 1980s.

Some 100,000 civilians were massacred, he said, and in one particularly gruesome incident, more than 1,000 people were killed in a parish he had previously served. “I started to cry when I read the report by (Maryknoll) Father Ron Hennessy,” Father Mullen said.

Maryknoll leadership training, literacy programs and agriculture initiatives were halted at that time, Father Mullen said, because the Guatemalan military considered the activities subversive. “Ten priests, many catechists and health promoters were killed,” he said.

“We became sources of information for reporters, the church, the U.S. Embassy, Congress people and the Department of State,” Father Mullen said.

Brother Shea was assigned to Huehuetenango in 1955 and has worked in pastoral ministry, education, health care and post-earthquake reconstruction. He accompanied a group of Guatemalan refugees to safety in southern Mexico in 1985 and lived with them for three years.

Brother Shea said the experience of living with the refugees changed his life. “You get kind of caught up in it,” he said. “The mission is to survive and people are survivors. They get on with their lives despite the challenges. The good news is life.”

Many of the refugees relocated to Guatemala after a peace accord was signed in 1996, he said. Brother Shea, although retired, continues to live and work with immigrants and returnees in Peten, Guatemala.

The face of the Catholic Church in Guatemala has changed during the years Father Mullen and Brother Shea have served there. Father Mullen said the balance has tipped from missionary priests to local priests. There are now six Maryknoll priests and brothers in Guatemala; there were 64 in 1962. Father Mullen said most of the priests and bishops in the country are Guatemalan. There are 26 indigenous priests in the state of Huehuetenango.

“Every parish there has an indigenous priest; many are Mayan and we helped a lot of them get educated,” he said.

The men said new parishes are being established to accommodate the growth of the church in Guatemala, but there is a shortage of priests to staff them. They said catechists celebrate the Liturgy of the Word and “a priest shows up three or four times a year” in remote areas.

Brother Shea said, “The church today is the church of the people. It’s alive and beautiful. The catechists are the future. The church is there.”

Father Mullen added, “It certainly does not depend on Maryknoll.”

“Haven’t we done what we came to do?” Brother Shea asked. “Maryknoll’s goal is to develop a native church, and we’ve worked ourselves out of a job.”

Father Mullen said his more recent pastoral emphasis was on visiting 30 Q’eqchi villages and training lay leaders. “They’re very religious, family-oriented, good people,” he said. “It’s very hard to leave there.” Father Mullen will now be assigned to Maryknoll’s house of formation in Chicago.

Father Mullen, while growing up in Brooklyn learned of Maryknoll from the Maryknoll magazines displayed on the chalk ledge in his grammar school classroom and the stories told by Maryknollers who visited his parish, Good Shepherd, Marine Park.

Brother Shea hitchhiked to Maryknoll headquarters out of curiosity when he was working at a summer camp across the Hudson River.

“I was intrigued by the mission,” he said, “and began to think, ‘Well, I could do that!’ and 60 years later, I am doing that and I’m still hitching rides here and there.”

One thought on “Maryknoller from Brooklyn Is at Home in Guatemala

  1. I knew both father bill Mullen and brother Marty when I had worked in Guatemala as a maryknoll sister in the 60s in the department of huehuetenango. They were great people then and they sound like they have grown in wisdom, age and grace well over the years. Yes, building a native clergy puts missionaries out of a job as it should be. But we can still be the people’s friends and continue to rally for justice and peace in Guatemala and in the many places and countries where the maryknoll presence has been felt.