Bringing dreams to those 'too poor to dream'
Missionary looks back on over 30 years in Honduras
By Sarah Malcore
Young Adult Immersion Trip to Honduras
Members of the Green Bay Diocese ages 21-39
Fr. Emil Cook's Mission Honduras in Flores, about an hour from Tegucigalpa.
To learn more about Honduran culture and to help improve living conditions.
Sr. Peg Gabik, 1-877-500-3580, ext. 8309, or [email protected]
Fr. Emil Cook knew since he was 12 years old that he wanted to be a priest. Not just any priest, but a Franciscan missionary working in Latin America. The priest, now in his 31st year as a missionary in Honduras, was in Green Bay to speak at a dinner in his honor sponsored by the Knights of Columbus.
After he was ordained in St. Paul, he was sent to work with the less fortunate in Milwaukee. During his third year there, he met a woman religious who mentioned that she was a missionary and had just returned from Honduras. Fr. Cook learned what he could about her work and who he should contact to get involved with the missionary work.
That was Bp. Nicolas D'Antonio, who was coming to Milwaukee from Honduras within the week to visit cousins.
"I had to get permission from the head of my province in order to meet with the Bishop about this," Fr. Cook said. "I did not think my chances were very good of being permitted to go to Honduras alone to serve as a missionary. Usually we were sent out in groups."
But to his surprise, he was given permission. "I was the first in my province to go to Honduras. I had to live alone among Hondurans in the same conditions as them. There was a trust and a dependence built between myself and the Hondurans."
When Fr. Cook arrived in Honduras, he found that the peopl were poorer than most Americans could ever imagine. There was no indoor plumbing or electricity. The living areas stank. The only "convenience" they had was a small common water faucet at the bottom of a hill.
A Honduran would be lucky to ever meet a Catholic priest, let alone build a relationship with one. In the United States, there are about 1,250 Americans to one priest; there are 45,000 Hondurans to every priest, and Honduras is 90% Catholic.
"Despite everything, the toughest obstacle to overcome was the fact that Hondurans did not believe in education," Fr. Cook said. "Over 83% of the people there did not go beyond a third grade education. They did not think education was important. Survival, where one's next meal would come from, that was the number one priority."
The lack of educational opportunities has other effects, he said.
"If someone would ask an American child 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' you are likely to get an answer such as 'a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher.' In Honduras, a child would be confused by that question," Fr. Cook said. "They are too poor to dream there!"
So he decided to make education his top priority.
"By educating one Honduran child, you are providing security for 15 people," Fr. Cook said. "That one educated person can take care of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents and children. That is why education is so important."
Since beginning with nothing, Fr. Cook has helped start two grade schools, four junior high schools, two senior high schools and a trade school. There are dorms available, such as City of Our Children, for students who must leave home to go to school.
There are also five Boys Towns and two Girls Towns for the students to live while in school. They return home in summer to help their families.
Besides the schools, Fr. Cook has started two boys' and two girls' orphanages and a program for abandoned mothers with their children.
In all, Fr. Cook is responsible for projects at 11 sites.
"Through the schools and programs, I want to be able to help people help themselves. I consider education like a fishing pole to helping people feed themselves," he said.
Last year, he helped build 10 churches. He has six pastoral workers he pays to help in different areas. Although Honduras is largely Catholic, most people know little about their faith. The pastoral workers offer Bible studies to increase people's understanding and Fr. Cook wants to hire three more.
Vocations look promising too. "We have had four men so far who have come through our system become a priest. We currently have five men in major seminary. We are now averaging one ordination a year."
Although he has been a missionary for 31 years, Fr. Cook knows his work is important and plans to keep going full steam.
"There is so much to do," he said. "This is just a drop in the bucket, and there is no time to get discouraged. These people are lacking so much, and the need is desperate. There is no time for burnout."
Fr. Cook appreciates the help he gets from Wisconsin parishes. "In the last 10 years, I have encouraged Americans to come for 12 days to help out. I have an average of 400-500 each year. I have a group from Waupun which comes every other year, and a group for Little Chute and Green Bay that comes every year."
These working retreat incorporate prayer, spiritual work and 4-5 hours a day of work.
"Poverty calls and reaches the heart," Fr. Cook said. "About 70% of the people who come down return again because the find the retreat to be such a live altering experience. The Holy Poverty allows ones heart to be free of material things."
To donate money or time as a volunteer to Fr. Cook's mission, write Mission Honduras, P.O. Box 1715, Milwaukee 53201.