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 | Donna Connell and Julianne Connell Sachs

Santa Catarina Church Is the Center of Community

Santa Catarina Church in Old Ixtahuacan stands proudly in the center of the village, looking over the eucalyptus trees, the Marian Center, the Family-to-Family training center, the small market square, the municipal building, a handful of shops and clusters of small homes.

The 500-year-old church has survived earthquakes, landslides and hurricanes and has played a central role in the lives of thousands.

Ixtahuacan is located at 7,500 feet in the steep mountains of the Sierra Madre range, in an area known as the Guatemalan Highlands. More than 24 neighborhoods nestled in the surrounding mountains are considered part of the parish and often gather at Santa Catarina Church for religious activities.

Spokane and Santa Catarina have shared a connection with Spokane since 1960, when the bishops of Spokane and Sololá signed a “Sister Diocese Program” to address the spiritual and material needs in Sololá. Spokane agreed to assume responsibility for five parishes, including Ixtahuacan. Over the years, nine priests from the Spokane Diocese have served in these parishes. Father David Baronti, assigned to Santa Catarina Parish in 1976, remained for more than 40 years, immersed in the language and culture of the Mayan community.

The relationship between the dioceses has always included a philosophy of development and self-reliance; thus, in 1988, steps were taken for the Diocese of Sololá to assume more direct ownership of the various ministries.

In 1990, Bishop Fuentes of Sololá and Bishop Skylstad of Spokane signed a revised ministerial covenant transferring the responsibility of the five parishes to the Diocese of Sololá. Spokane agreed to maintain and foster the “sister diocese” relationship with prayer and financial support. Although this agreement expired in 2001, the Guatemala Commission has continued the relationship.

Old Ixtahuacan has persevered through extreme hardship. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch ravaged the highlands, with heavy rains and landslides. Loss of homes and lives devastated the community, which was isolated for three days. When the government proclaimed that Ixtahuacan was located in a danger zone, about 600 of 650 families moved to higher ground, founding a new village, New Ixtahuacan.

Still, Santa Catarina Church survived. Ten years later, Jerry Monks observed, “Life in the remote village (Ixtahuacan) has seen something of a rebirth. Even while the evacuation was taking place after Hurricane Mitch, the large reinforcing steel beams of the Church of Santa Catarina were conveying a contrasting message. The core of the village would endure like steel, along with the faith of her people in eternal life. The village remains a focal point that links thousands of residents in the surrounding mountainsides to the outside world.” (Inland Register, July 2, 2009)

Over time, improvements have been made to the interior of the church, and the population has grown. Through local efforts, tile was put on the concrete floor, and walls have been painted. New wood pews were created by Spokane volunteers and, in 2001, a church bell, heard throughout the region, was donated through Spokane funds. The roof has been stabilized on several occasions to adapt to the shifting ground, but it again is in need of repair due to leaks.

The church community is vibrant and prayerful with robust music, altar servers, beautiful liturgies, and processions. When Father Baronti retired in 2017, he was replaced by Father Manual Nicasio, a native of the area. He has trained more than 100 catechists this year alone, with training ongoing. Religious education is offered for the young, and there is an active youth group. Lay people are involved as sacristans, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, teachers, prayer leaders, and choir groups.

Pascual Tahay, a young resident who served as church secretary and is now attending school to be a lawyer, plans on attending the eighth annual Guatemala Mission Celebration, scheduled for May 9, 2022. Another beautiful quilt will be raffled at the celebration, with this year’s proceeds to help with repairs of the church roof and the roof of the Marian Center patio.  If you would like to host a quilt raffle at your parish, please call Susan at 509 939-5113. Donations can be sent to: Guatemala Mission, PO Box 1453, Spokane, WA 99210.