FRANCISCAN FRIARS Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist

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September 04, 2020

20 years in Jamaica

They listened, they learned, they served

BY TONI CASHNELLI

Twenty years ago, four friars were asked:

“Are you willing to serve as missioners in the Church of Montego Bay, Jamaica?”

They answered, “We are,” a response that would change their lives, and the lives of the people they were privileged to serve. For Louie Zant, who would spend 17 years in Jamaica, it was the start of a journey he never planned – but is glad he made.

Sept. 3 was the 20th anniversary of the first missioning ceremony of SJB friars to the Diocese of Montego Bay. Louie, now stationed in Detroit, recalls how it unfolded. “I remember it very well, all the excitement of that day” at St. Clement Church, he says.

Provincial Minister Fred Link sent forth the “First Wave” – Louie, Humbert Moster, Mark Gehret and Henry Beck – with the words: “Go among the people of Jamaica humbly aware that they will be your first and best teachers. Listen to their stories and learn from their lessons. Begin your life in Jamaica with hands empty and hearts open. It is the gift of brotherhood lived among the poor that will open up their eyes to their own dignity and will surely bring them hope.”

Some friars dream of serving in exotic locales. Louie wasn’t one of them. “I remember the novices talking about it in the novitiate, ‘Would you want to be a missionary?’” He ruled out one place where the province had ministered since the 1950s. “The Philippines was too hot. I thought, ‘Maybe a domestic mission, closer to home.’ When the discussion about a possible Jamaica mission came up [in 1999], I thought, ‘This is something I could do. That’s not very far away. We could get back home once a year.” He read the initial information. Fellow friar Rock Travnikar, who himself thought of going, assured Louie, “You’d be good at this.”

With his family’s blessing – “That’s not very far away,” they conceded – he and his three brothers arrived in Montego Bay on Sept. 12, anxious to man their mission. But, “There was a challenge,” Louie says. Because Bishop Charles Dufour asked them to serve two parishes, “We had to split up,” with Mark and Henry in Negril and Louie and Humbert in Savanna-la-mar, 17 miles away. The second challenge was learning to navigate roads that were notoriously serpentine and scary. That, “and driving on the left side of the roadway.”

First impressions? “We discovered it was a very beautiful country. For the most part, the people were welcoming and gracious.” Humbert was the pastor at St. Joseph’s in Sav-la-mar, but to many, Louie was the face of the friars, the one who responded to the heart-wrenching needs of their neighbors. “A lot of people were poor and didn’t have access to regular food,” let alone proper housing. “There were a lot of father figures lacking, a lot of single-mother households.” He listened, he cared, he did what he could. “We always assumed they were honest,” Louie says. “Not many were deceitful.”

Once he and Humbert were settled, “I did my major thing of doing repair work, trying to keep equipment going, cutting the grass all year long, helping the local maintenance man, working around the parish. I always enjoyed visiting the sick and shut-ins, helping take communion, especially out of Revival,” one of several satellite missions.  As he learned about Jamaicans, he learned about himself, “that I could adapt to a different living situation, and I realized that all different cultures have many good traits, and some not-so-good segments, like here in the U.S.”

Above, Louie Zant; right, Humbert Moster greets parishionersHumbert returned to the States in 2003, but Louie stayed on – and on, as others came and went. “At first I was thinking, maybe I’ll stay five years. As it went along every time we went for renewal, I thought, ‘I could do this again.’” Along the way there were “happy changes,” he says. “When we first got there, there were a couple of outlying communities, like Grange Hill. We friars helped them build a church there and in Little London.”

As for Bishop Dufour, “He was glad friars came because of the stability they brought, a group commitment to serve rather than the individual friars” he had recruited. “If one friar left, another friar came to take his place. I think people saw that individuals would change, but the Franciscans were hanging in there.”

Back in the States since 2017, “I miss some of the people and the relationships there,” Louie says. “I never really did enjoy the hot, humid weather, but it was tolerable – and comfortable in the winter months. It makes me happy I was able to participate,” he says of his ministry in Jamaica. “All experiences make you who you are, and this was a good experience.” If other friars asked for his advice, “I’d be very encouraging for them to go.”

What he prays for now is what he and his fellow missionaries prayed for as they set off in 2000. “I hope more people will embrace the Catholic faith,” he says. “I hope the people of Jamaica will continue joyfully serving the Lord.”

A Pakistani presence

Top, Saleem; above, Felix; right, BernardIn the past 20 years five Pakistani friars traveled 8,500 miles and faced daunting differences in culture and language to join SJB friars in serving the people of Jamaica. For that and more, Mission Office Director Vince Delorenzo offers thanks.

The Custody of St. John the Baptist in Pakistan was responding to an invitation from St. John the Baptist Province that had its origins in a General Chapter conversation from 1993. “That’s where it was initiated that we could interact in various ways,” says former Provincial Minister John Bok. The result was the missionary presence in Jamaica of Patras Sardar, Felix D’Souza, Bernard Bhatti, Ken Viegas and, most recently, Saleem Amir Maseh.

“The friars of SJB Pakistan have been generous in assisting us with the Jamaica missions over these many years,” Vince says. “Even though they are a small custody and had needs for their ministry in Pakistan, the friars responded to the needs that we had for our presence in Jamaica. We are certainly grateful.”

In the past 20 years five Pakistani friars traveled 8,500 miles and faced daunting differences in culture and language to join SJB friars in serving the people of Jamaica. For that and more, Mission Office Director Vince Delorenzo offers thanks.

The Custody of St. John the Baptist in Pakistan was responding to an invitation from St. John the Baptist Province that had its origins in a General Chapter conversation from 1993. “That’s where it was initiated that we could interact in various ways,” says former Provincial Minister John Bok. The result was the missionary presence in Jamaica of Patras Sardar, Felix D’Souza, Bernard Bhatti, Ken Viegas and, most recently, Saleem Amir Maseh.

“The friars of SJB Pakistan have been generous in assisting us with the Jamaica missions over these many years,” Vince says. “Even though they are a small custody and had needs for their ministry in Pakistan, the friars responded to the needs that we had for our presence in Jamaica. We are certainly grateful.”

Called forth to Jamaica

BY SCOTT OBRECHT, OFM and JEFF SCHEELER, OFM

Jim Bok with Christmas party guests in NegrilIn Jamaica, “Ya mon” is a Patois term used to describe something as being “just fine or OK.” The friars of St. John the Baptist Province gave a resounding “Ya mon” at the 1999 Chapter when they voted to take on Jamaica as a new foreign mission.

Provincial Minister John Bok and the Provincial Council began serious discussions about having a new foreign mission in the late 1990s. In searching for a mission, they were looking for a place where people lived in poverty, English was the main language, there was a need for personnel in the diocese, and it was a manageable distance for most friars to travel back and forth. In the process of making a decision, the Provincial Council assigned teams of two friars to visit various English speaking countries in the Caribbean; among them were Grenada, Belize, the Bahamas and Jamaica.

Jeff Scheeler and I were asked to visit the Diocese of Montego Bay with Bishop Charles Dufour and Mandeville with Bishop Paul Boyle. It was an eye-opener for both of us. In Montego Bay, we visited a home for children with AIDS. The next day the child we visited had died. There was a clinic near the chancery that a group Sisters ran which provided medical service to the poor.

Bishop Dufour was eager to have the friars.  There were very few priests and religious in Montego Bay – something like 12-15 in the whole diocese – and much poverty.  He gave a tour of places where he thought that we could serve, and invited members of the parish in Savanna-la-mar to meet with us and tell us about life in Jamaica. There were small towns with chapels to visit and people to meet.

We were struck by the lush green, the beautiful clear water, the warmth even in November and the dirt roads. We also remember thinking that there were two Jamaicas: the beautiful resorts often closed in behind walls and gates with plenty of food and drink, and the simple villages, often tucked away in the hills, down bumpy dirt roads, with people of clearly less means.

Comparing notes of all the countries visited, it was decided that the greatest need for the service of our friars was in the Diocese of Montego Bay. Negril was chosen as the first place we would go. There have been a lot of changes since our missionaries arrived in September of 2000, but 20 years later, the friars are still there, serving the poor.

Measuring progress, one life at a time

BY TONI CASHNELLI

Top, There was another Jamaica, away in the hills, down bumpy dirt roads; above, Bishop Dufour with Provincials Fred Link, Jeff Scheeler and John Bok in 2011.When Jim Bok volunteered for the missions in Jamaica in 2008, the Provincial Minister seemed skeptical. “Really?” said Jeff Scheeler. “Are you kidding?”

Twelve years later, Jim is the second-longest serving SJB friar in the Diocese of Montego Bay (second only to Louie Zant’s 17 years).  And the energy and creativity he brought to his previous job as provincial Director of Development is on full display in Negril, where Jim is Pastor of Mary, Gate of Heaven Parish. “We cover six of the churches in the diocese,” he says, in a region that is “starving for priests and religious.”

Jim is known for making things happen in a country where societal change moves at the speed of a glacier. “One of the things that keeps me here is that we are affecting people’s lives, and people are very grateful,” he says. “I personally think the impact of the friars has been profound and the bishop has been blessed to have us here.”

He admits that “The ongoing challenges are exactly the same today as they were on Sept. 11, 2008, when I came here.” What saddened him then still saddens him now: poverty; a lack of jobs, health care and educational opportunities; staggering dysfunction in families. The latter “shows up big-time over and over again in the behavior of people,” he says, and plays out in violence and a general “lack of loving” among the people. “That is very disheartening to see. But I always try to keep my focus on the good, the success.”

When Jim adds his considerable people skills to a project, the successes are notable.  One Sunday after Mass in Negril the parish Women’s Guild said they wanted to start a soup kitchen. “I sort of had that in my mind,” he says. “It became the seeds for St. Anthony’s Kitchen, where we just celebrated the 10th birthday in April.” They typically serve 150 for lunch and dozens of children at breakfast but have seen numbers soar with the economic impact of Covid-19 on workers in Negril’s tourist industry.

“Then we started observing numbers of kids coming to lunch at the kitchen when they should have been in school.” Their full-time attendance was hindered by a lack of transportation, lunch money, uniforms and school supplies. The involvement of Jim and of Joan Cooney of the Rotary Club of Negril led to the birth of Get Kids to School, making education more accessible to hundreds of children since 2011. In 2017 they launched Get Kids to School Plus, extending college opportunities to gifted students.

What’s on the horizon? “Maybe three years ago we had this idea of starting a learning center where kids could access the Internet.” A group called Cornerstone Jamaica is investing in the project – and they’d like to name it the Bok Learning Centre in honor of Jim.  Fellow friar Colin King is “working very diligently, trying to start a medical clinic” in rural Revival.

“At this point,” Jim says, “I guess my dream is just to continue to do what we’re doing and continue to touch people’s lives.” Asked about his aspirations, he says, “No, categorically no, I never thought of myself as being a missionary. I never thought I would be here 12 years, but I had no reason to leave. I’ve been content and happy.

“We’re doing good work,” work that may not change the world, but definitely impacts this little corner of it. “I made the decision to continue here until 2023,” but he’s concerned about what might happen when individual friars depart.

“Our hope is that in the restructuring, other guys will see this as an attractive ministry,” Jim says. “Our prayer is that somebody – or a couple friars – are gonna come.”

Missionary memories

Past and current Jamaica missionaries gathered for a group portrait at the Chapter of 2017.Blane Grein, OFM

What I remember best is the spirit of the liturgies—people with big smiles on their faces, bodies and arms moving to the beat of the music, interacting with the people nearby.  The spirit was catching. The joy of the Spirit at work filling their hearts was evident.

Tom Gerchak, OFM

When I was living at Mary, Gate of Heaven Friary in Negril there was a young homeless man camped out perhaps a half-mile down the road. He stopped by twice to express his anger at something that had happened to him. I was happy to see him leave the friary with a big smile and hear him say, “We must forgive.” This reminds me of how (then Bishop) Charles Dufour often spoke of forgiveness in his homilies.

Joe Hund, OFM

Being in Jamaica deepened my understanding of the history, culture and peoples of Jamaica and other islands. Preaching for Food for the Poor made it possible to enlighten people in the U.S. about their neighbor to the South. Food for the Poor supplied our church and neighbors in Sav la-mar with food products and some church equipment.

A significant happening was the building of two new churches at Grange Hill and Little London after much documentation and seeking of funding. Before the churches were built the people were worshiping in small, uncomfortable classrooms.  With the churches they now have a place to worship with dignity, a place which may attract other members.

Stephen Dupuis, OFM

(Assumption Province)

It’s the people who have had the greatest impact on my life here in Jamaica. I know a man named Lloyd who is dirt-poor. He always greets you with a smile as he says, “Let us give thanks to God that we have life,” or some similar statement. He truly is a joyful person. Another man named Dwayne took me under his wing and  we became good spiritual friends. He lives his life on spiritual values.

My hopes for Jamaica? There is such a need here for health care, both physical and mental. We deal with people on a daily basis who need mental care but our hands are tied.

Mark Gehret with parishioners at Mary, Gate of Heaven in Negril.Mark Gehret, OFM

One of the events that I will always remember is Hurricane Ivan in 2004, a year before Katrina. I don’t know how many times during the years I lived there that someone would say that Hurricane Andrew was the worst ever. But after Hurricane Ivan, that was the “new” worst ever.

Vince Delorenzo and I made preparations in the friary and church and then a parishioner family, the Moo Youngs, offered us shelter in one of their cinder block hotel rooms to ride out the storm. Ms. Pearl Distin and her grandson stayed in another room. The hurricane winds and rain battered us for a night and the next day and night. It was a slow moving storm at 8 mph. I watched the palm trees bend over at 90 degrees during each wave of the rotation, with rain blowing sideways.

I think it ended late Friday night and John Joseph Gonchar came over Saturday afternoon to see the damage and whether we could have Mass on Sunday morning. The church was in decent shape but there were limbs and branches all over the yard and all along the road. I’m thinking we did have Mass Sunday morning. I remember going into town to check on parishioners and help them in any way I could. None of them were injured. I was surprised going down one street helping people and I saw some teenage boys sitting out on their porch and wondered to myself, why aren’t they helping their neighbors? It took several days for power to be restored and the streets to be cleaned up. That was the most violent storm I lived through.

Max Langenderfer and Tom Gerchak in Savanna-la-marVince Delorenzo, OFM

The impact that my ministry in Jamaica had on me was that it has made me very aware of how I make use of things—water, paper, food, etc.  It has helped me simplify my lifestyle, knowing how people in Jamaica do not have access to many of things that I take for granted in the U.S.  I am conscious of not letting the water run unnecessarily, of using both sides of paper and reusing paper when possible, as well as being appreciative of the food that I have.

Chris Meyer, OFM

The Franciscan presence on the Island of Jamaica has made considerable impact. We join a long history of dedicated Franciscans sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Province of St. This photo of Joe Hund by Jack Wintz was on the cover of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.John the Baptist continues the good work of the first Franciscans who arrived 500+ years ago on the coast of Jamaica’s St. Ann’s Bay and of the work of the Holy Name Province and Conventual Franciscans who served in the Archdiocese of Kingston.

Over our years of service we have nurtured souls, built homes, educated the youth, fed the hungry, shared our love for the Gospel, and honored the dead. We have done well what was ours to do in building up God’s Kingdom.

For my work with the Diocese of Montego Bay, I was able to travel extensively. There are many turns in the road where I was in awe and rejoiced by experiencing God’s creation.

John Joseph Gonchar, OFM

It was a Sunday afternoon, shortly after I had arrived in Jamaica.  I had finished my Mass assignments for the day and was in the friary in Savanna-la-mar.  Suddenly I heard music blaring.  I went to see what was what. Seeing people walking down the street in front of our friary,  I imagined it was some sort of parade.  Lo and behold, there came a hearse following the people.  It was the source of the blaring music.  They were all on their way to the cemetery from the Seventh Day Adventist church located near our friary.

I was struck by the great importance the Jamaican people placed on honoring their deceased. A funeral is a very important social event for them, as well.  A meal is served on the vigil of the funeral and then on the day of the funeral itself, after the burial.   Top, Left, Jim with Bishop Burchell McPherson of the Diocese of Montego Bay; above, Jim makes two Rastafarian visitors feel right at home.The body would be held until certain family members or relatives living away or abroad could be present for the funeral service.  The viewing of the body took place in the church just before the funeral service.   They would also open the casket one last time for a final or, perhaps, a first look before it was lowered into the ground.  (I almost got pushed into the grave on one occasion.) People would remain at the grave, singing their funeral choruses, until the grave had been completely covered.

Henry Beck, OFM

I had been feeling a call to work with persons in the African-American community before I left for Jamaica.  Once there I was opened up to the blend of African and Caribbean cultures, and I felt more profoundly the toll that slavery can have on a people and a society.  I was exposed more fully to the economic poverty there and to the affects of victimization and addiction on the people.

I also experienced steadfast and heroic persons of faith and resolve to care for their family members and strengthen Jamaican society.  I was impressed by the grandparents and the young adults especially striving to develop healthy children for the future.  I also learned things about myself, especially in terms of what I can adjust to and what I struggle with in another culture.  Most of all, I am grateful for my time there as one where I was blessed with caring and mutual relationships with a core group of persons.  My experiences in Jamaica deepened my prayer life and my self-understanding and widened my heart.

BY MARK SOEHNER, OFM

Dear Missionaries of Jamaica, both living and deceased,

FILE PHOTOMark, Humbert, Louie and Henry met with Bishop Dufour soon after arriving in 2000.This is a letter of thanks and appreciation for your journey of experiencing the Gospel with people of another culture in the beautiful country of Jamaica.  When many people hear that we friars are in Jamaica, they can only imagine the American resorts that dot many of the beaches.  They wink and nudge as they say, “Hey, who wouldn’t want to be stationed in Jamaica?!”  And yes, there are bright and sandy beaches, and an island filled with natural beauty all around.  But there is also poverty, homelessness, hunger, uneven access to education and proper housing.  I’ve seen the shacks that serve as homes, even witnessing a young father caring for his son in a cave with only a fire at its entrance to ward off mosquitos and bigger predators.  I’m sure that you have many stories of the stark poverty, but also the beauty of both the people and the country.

The majority of Jamaicans have lived Christianity for many years.  Most of us need constant re-evangelization.  Brothers, your willingness to come from another culture with your own experience of Jesus allows both you and the Jamaicans to be re-evangelized, converted, once again to Christ.  And when you return for our Chapters, you tell the stories of God’s work there.  It allows our eyes in the States to be opened to God’s generosity among you.

FILE PHOTOChildren are receiving breakfast, supplies, and transportation to school.Most of us come to believe as we meet the Body of Christ in action.  And over the years, brothers, your lives have been filled with a genuine compassion for those with whom you live.  You were inspired to start St. Anthony’s Kitchen, where a nutritious breakfast and lunch are served.  You walked through many neighborhoods, getting to know people in their own homes, offering to pray and anoint.  With your help, children who lack transportation are assured they will reach school on time.  Many more are receiving an education and are incentivized to strive for a college tuition scholarship.  Medical clinics have been established.  Small starter businesses for raising goats or chickens have begun.

No wonder the Jamaican people know more about the healing and compassion of Christ by your work and presence.  And we know more about Christ the Good Shepherd as we see Him in your action and struggle.

For these 20 years of generous work, prayer and presence, we thank you.  And we thank God, who has done this work in you and through you.

Gratefully,

Mark

Send comments or questions to: sjbfco@franciscan.org

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FRANCISCAN FRIARS Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist

Above, Louie Zant; right, Humbert Moster greets parishionersHumbert returned to the States in 2003, but Louie stayed on – and on, as others came and went. “At first I was thinking, maybe I’ll stay five years. As it went along every time we went for renewal, I thought, ‘I could do this again.’” Along the way there were “happy changes,” he says. “When we first got there, there were a couple of outlying communities, like Grange Hill. We friars helped them build a church there and in Little London.”

Jim Bok with Christmas party guests in NegrilIn Jamaica, “Ya mon” is a Patois term used to describe something as being “just fine or OK.” The friars of St. John the Baptist Province gave a resounding “Ya mon” at the 1999 Chapter when they voted to take on Jamaica as a new foreign mission.

Top, There was another Jamaica, away in the hills, down bumpy dirt roads; above, Bishop Dufour with Provincials Fred Link, Jeff Scheeler and John Bok in 2011.When Jim Bok volunteered for the missions in Jamaica in 2008, the Provincial Minister seemed skeptical. “Really?” said Jeff Scheeler. “Are you kidding?”

The Franciscan presence on the Island of Jamaica has made considerable impact. We join a long history of dedicated Franciscans sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Province of St. This photo of Joe Hund by Jack Wintz was on the cover of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.John the Baptist continues the good work of the first Franciscans who arrived 500+ years ago on the coast of Jamaica’s St. Ann’s Bay and of the work of the Holy Name Province and Conventual Franciscans who served in the Archdiocese of Kingston.

I was struck by the great importance the Jamaican people placed on honoring their deceased. A funeral is a very important social event for them, as well.  A meal is served on the vigil of the funeral and then on the day of the funeral itself, after the burial.   Top, Left, Jim with Bishop Burchell McPherson of the Diocese of Montego Bay; above, Jim makes two Rastafarian visitors feel right at home.The body would be held until certain family members or relatives living away or abroad could be present for the funeral service.  The viewing of the body took place in the church just before the funeral service.   They would also open the casket one last time for a final or, perhaps, a first look before it was lowered into the ground.  (I almost got pushed into the grave on one occasion.) People would remain at the grave, singing their funeral choruses, until the grave had been completely covered.

FILE PHOTOChildren are receiving breakfast, supplies, and transportation to school.Most of us come to believe as we meet the Body of Christ in action.  And over the years, brothers, your lives have been filled with a genuine compassion for those with whom you live.  You were inspired to start St. Anthony’s Kitchen, where a nutritious breakfast and lunch are served.  You walked through many neighborhoods, getting to know people in their own homes, offering to pray and anoint.  With your help, children who lack transportation are assured they will reach school on time.  Many more are receiving an education and are incentivized to strive for a college tuition scholarship.  Medical clinics have been established.  Small starter businesses for raising goats or chickens have begun.

FRANCISCAN FRIARS Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist

FRANCISCAN FRIARS
Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist