Missionary priest has had global impact
Franciscan who has served people in three countries visits diocese
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
Support Fr. Cook's mission work
Donations in support of Fr. Cook's mission may be sent to: Mission Honduras International, P.O. Box 56007, Chicago, IL 60657-0007. Ninety-five cents of every dollar donated goes to the mission. For more information, visit www.missionhonduras.com.
ASHWAUBENON -- Credit a story in a Catholic newspaper for changing the lives of thousands of people in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Liberia.
When he was 12-years-old, living in Salina, Kan., Conventual Franciscan Fr. Emil Cook read a feature about 40,000 priests serving in Latin America.
"I call it a moment of grace," said Fr. Cook. "I knew I wanted to be a priest. I had read about St. Francis in a book about saints that my mother gave me, so I knew I wanted be a Franciscan. From that article, I knew I wanted to be a missionary in Latin America. Those were my goals."
In 1970, Fr. Cook left Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Milwaukee to become the first priest from the St. Paul, Minn., province to serve in Honduras.
Fr. Cook shared his story on April 18 at Nativity of Our Lord Parish as part of his 18-week fund-raising tour in the United States. He is not a stranger to the diocese. His visits have included Cooperstown, Two Rivers, Little Chute, Niagara and Appleton.
His ministry in the early years required him to travel by horse from village to village. Fr. Cook saw firsthand the effects of poverty in the country, and he recognized that education was the key to change.
"Fifty percent of the children didn't get beyond third grade," he said. "Ninety percent didn't get beyond sixth grade. It's a terrible waste of their futures. Poor people discard themselves. There is no motivation for education."
In his 38 years in central Honduras, Fr. Cook's Mission Honduras International has built two grade schools, three high schools, five houses for university, seven boarding facilities, a home for abandoned mothers and their children, a retreat house and three orphanages. The ministries are a means for the people to help themselves and to be of service to others, he
"We are helping people help themselves through education," said Fr. Cook. "We are also giving them dignity and strength to help other people. There are no free gifts. If you give handouts, you create dependency and they believe that the world owes them a living. We are teaching them to fish and education is the fishing pole."
Fr. Cook stresses the importance that university graduates stay in Honduras to give back. A companion organization APUFRAM (Association of Franciscan Boys' and Girls' Towns), founded in 1986, is run by former students. It recruits university graduates into the mission as teachers and administrators. APUFRAM built a mission in the Dominican Republic, which features two Boys' Town sites.
In 2003, Fr. Cook ventured into Liberia. Twenty years ago, the government was overthrown, which eventually led to civil war. More than 300,000 people were killed, all the schools were closed and there was no electricity in the entire country. When President Charles Taylor's regime ended, Fr. Cook took action to start an orphanage.
"We have 50 acres," he said. "A lot of the orphans have seen their parents killed. We now have 137 students in school and have built a church. Liberia is an interesting situation because they need foreign investment, but they are afraid of foreign domination. It's a place of great need. We have orphans in Liberia who have traveled 4,000 miles from Somalia. The Hondurans who are helping in Liberia are very proud. They have received aid and now they are helping other people."
Fr. Cook's mission has suffered its share of difficulties over the years. Political unrest was prominent in Honduras in the 1970s when the military took over the government. In 1975, Fr. Cook returned from a fund-raising visit to the United States to find that his assistant pastor, Conventual Franciscan Fr. Michael Casmir Cypher of Medford, Wis., and 13 other people had been murdered.
"The temperature was very high at this time, but I was there to stay," said Fr. Cook. "You had to be very careful. You couldn't go out by yourself."
A free election in 1981 changed the political landscape, but priests were still suspected of being Communists.
Each year, Fr. Cook travels 25,000 miles by automobile to raise support for Mission Honduras. While in Ashwaubenon, he stayed with the family of Dr. Jane Jelinek, a secular Franciscan who served in Honduras in the 1970s and '80s.
"Early on, I wanted to get the lay people involved," said Fr. Cook. "It's still important today. Last year, we had more than 700 people come to Honduras. Most stay 10 to 12 days."
Don Lebrun of Nativity Parish visited last November with a group from Michigan.
"We helped install some dental chairs and two X-ray machines," he said. "I was really impressed by the kids. There was one young man, Julio, who knew the whole campus, and showed us around. I would like to go back. I would like to see a group from Nativity go down there."
The mission needs prayers, financial help and visitors, said Fr. Cook.
"I think it's important to invite people. I think it changes them. They grow spiritually. Many people are surprised to find the kids happy with such minimal things. They ask themselves, 'Do I own my things or do my things own me?' I want them to have that experience."