GREEN BAY — A missionary priest who grew up on a farm in Kansas continues to change lives in Central America, in part through support from volunteers from the Diocese of Green Bay.
For more than 40 years, Franciscan Fr. Emil Cook has helped educate poor children in Honduras in hopes that they can become self-sufficient adults. In 1986, APUFRAM International, a U.S. organization, was formed to support Fr. Cook’s work. The organization has helped educate more than 30,000 young people, many of whom are now serving their communities in agriculture, business, engineering, law, medicine and education.
APUFRAM is an acronym for Asociación Pueblo Franciscano de Muchachos y Muchachas which translates as “Association of Franciscan Boys Towns and Girls Towns.” The APUFRAM motto is “God, Study, Work.” Today, the organization operates elementary and high schools, orphanages, boys and girls boarding schools, a trade school, university housing and a shelter for abandoned mothers and children in Honduras, and has extended service to the Dominican Republic.
Support for Fr. Cook’s mission is provided in various forms including donations, child sponsorships, fundraisers, service trips and prayers. Volunteer groups from the Green Bay and Manitowoc areas were among those to travel to Honduras this past year.
Fr. Cook, who is based in Flores in Comayagua, Honduras, will visit the diocese for a fundraiser. “A Taste of Italy” will be held on Oct. 1 at Nativity of Our Lord Church (see box). The hope is not only to gather donations in support of Fr. Cook’s mission, but to also develop relationships.
Dr. Jane Jelinek, a member of Nativity Parish, has known Fr. Cook since 1970, when he served as assistant pastor at Trinity Guadalupe Parish in Milwaukee. Dr. Jelinek, a secular Franciscan, served in Honduras in the 1970s and ‘80s. She continues to return with service groups and hopes others will consider a mission trip, especially young people.
“There is always something for you to do,” she said. “If we encourage our youth to go down, once they have graduated high school, to take some time off and go down there, they will come back with different views of what to study in college.”
“I would really like to see each one of (the Knights of Columbus) councils sponsor a youth so that you always have a youth with you on your trips,” said Don LeBrun, a member of Nativity Parish and Knights of Columbus Council #7498.
Groups from the diocese have assisted with various tasks including cleaning, painting, flooring and building chapels. More than two years ago, a group built a chapel named for St. John Paul II.
“Fr. Cook said that he could use 200 chapels,” said Deacon Nick Williams of St. John the Baptist Parish, Howard. “He wants to build churches for the communities. That chapel (St. John Paul II) turned out awesome. We are very pleased with that one. We paid for it. I think we did it for around $14,500. They were praying for a number of years that they could have their church. They had to walk through the mud to the next village to go to Mass, so they were praying for this for their own village. They were in tears. We had a closing Mass the last day where we dedicated it.”
Steve Pamperin, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish, Howard, has made three APUFRAM trips. Years ago, he sent a donation in support of Fr. Cook’s work, which led to his volunteerism.
“I sent some money and he sent a personal letter,” explained Pamperin. “That made such an impression on me.” Fr. Cook rises at 3 a.m. to write letters to donors.
The positive spirit of the Honduran people has stood out to Pamperin on the mission trips.
“We started the footings for a foundation for a chicken coop,” he explained. “The work was slow. Nick and I asked if the boys from the high school could help us. This was heavy work, carrying stones and sand in wheelbarrows. These young boys pushed themselves doing heavy work in the hot sun, all with smiles on their faces.”
Raising livestock and poultry and growing produce and crops provides for the people and also generates income for APUFRAM. “There are cattle at one site, pigs at another site and chickens,” said Dr. Jelinek. “They are trying to be self-sufficient.”
“Fr. Cook is very proud of his farm, the chickens,” said Pameperin. “I don’t how many different birds he has. He has some of the eggs near his office. He gets up during the middle of the night to turn them.”
Volunteers stay at a visitor center located near the shelter for mothers and children.
In addition to the volunteers who make the trips, those who help behind the scenes play an important role, said Deacon Williams.
“A number of people provide items and donations,” he said. “We bring school supplies, medical supplies and children’s clothing. Everybody is required to bring two 50-pound suitcases when we go down.”
“I leave my empty suitcases down there,” said Larry Solway, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish, Howard. “They can use it for their huts. We’ve been told that Honduras is the second poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere. You see it when you are down there. You ride by their houses and see one light bulb in the living room, maybe a small TV set, dirt floors, but they keep them clean. Some are shacks. They find scrap metal and build their walls for one and two-room houses.”
When the Stations of the Cross were replaced at Nativity of Our Lord Church, the old ones were brought in suitcases to be installed in St. Francis of Assisi Church in Honduras. Among other items of note from the area are dental chairs and equipment donated by a Green Bay dentist.
“The Air Force shipped the equipment to Comayagua for free,” explained DeBrun. “A team of people installed the equipment — X-ray machines and two chairs. They now have a dental facility at the high school.”
“(Fr. Cook) started with nothing down there basically,” said Pamperin. “Little by little, it’s grown into an extensive network.”