San Lucas Tolimán on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala’s highlands doesn’t attract many tourists. But 46 years ago, the village became the destination for a priest from Minnesota who arrived reluctantly and ill-prepared. 

Msgr. Gregory Schaffer was a high school teacher in Marshall, Minn., when he was chosen to serve San Lucas Mission as part of a partnership between the Diocese of New Ulm, Minn., and the Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala.  

“My initial commitment was for five years,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “But I soon felt indebted to these people who accepted me with great kindness.” 

That was, in part, due to a pivotal encounter with a dying patriarch. “After I had prayed with him, he asked to pray for me. ‘Dear God,’ he said, ‘help this young man learn to be patient with himself and with my people.’ And then he died. That was a turning point. I started to listen. ‘Don’t give us food,’ I heard people say. ‘Give us land to raise our own food.’”

Housing, land needs 

Msgr. Schaffer has spent the intervening years in Guatemala doing just that. When he arrived in 1964, more than 97 percent of the villagers were illiterate. Today, 85 percent are graduates of the area’s 49 schools that Msgr. Schaffer’s mission helped to build. At the time of his arrival, 90 percent of the homes were made of corn stalks and sat on borrowed land.  

Msgr. Schaffer recalled an encounter with a plantation laborer named Celestino, whose hut stood down the road. “I make 50 cents a day. I cannot feed my family on that,” he told Msgr. Schaffer. “My children are dying. And my house is not fit for an animal.” 

He offered to put Celestino on salary if he could learn to cut trees, make lumber and build houses. With a hand saw, Celestino and his compañeros soon cut 125 sheets of lumber a week; after building 15 homes, he built one for his own family.  

Msgr. Schaffer has also helped secure much-needed land. In fact, lack of land is a major reason why 80 percent of the indigenous Mayans remain impoverished. For example, after a 2005 hurricane wiped out a nearby community, the government promised homes for the survivors but had no land on which to build those homes.  

When a plantation went up for sale, San Lucas Mission, with help from private foundations, bought it and gave 166 families titles to the land. The government came through with housing, roads and a school. The new town of San Andres is surrounded by pine forests that shelter coffee trees. Their berries turn into Guatemala’s top export commodity.  

Buzzing business 

For generations, Mayans have cultivated and harvested coffee, toiling on plantations, often indebted to the owners. With Msgr. Schaffer’s help, thousands of families now own land and raise coffee as a cash crop. Fluctuating prices on the world market, however, make coffee growing an uncertain business, and so, in 1992, the mission created a processing plant that guarantees farmers a fixed price by cutting out middlemen.  

“We started with six, now we have over 650 families in the program,” Msgr. Schaffer told OSV.  

He used an inheritance to finance the coffee project, and Juan Ana Coffee, named in honor of Msgr. Schaffer’s parents, John and Anna, has attracted buyers from around the world. 

Beloved pastor 

For his work, Msgr. Schaffer has earned many honors, including the Order of the Quetzal, Guatemala’s highest award for work in social justice. 

Last February, Msgr. Schaffer, 76, celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination. With detached wonder he surveyed the mission’s feverish preparations for the event.  

Standing tall in his Guatemalan shirt, he hugged family and friends as they arrived from thousands of miles away. The townspeople had erected a larger-than-life statue in his likeness; the women had cooked for days to feed over a thousand people; and teenagers had made carpets of pine needles and flowers for a procession that included the bishop and the Vatican’s representative. But it was Msgr. Schaffer who had the last word: “Gracias para permitirme servirles como tu sacerdote, ” he said. “Thank you, for letting me serve as your priest.” 

Valerie Kreutzer writes from Washington state.

On the Web

For more information on San Lucas Mission and how to buy Juan Ana coffee, visit