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The Catholic New World

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today’s Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.


Missionary priest educates kids to help others

In 1970, Father Emil Cook, a Conventual Franciscan friar from Salina, Kan., alit in rural Honduras and began ministering to a 1,500-squaremile parish.

Now the soft-spoken 67-year-old priest spends nearly five months each year traversing about 25,000 miles of U.S. highway, spreading the word about his mission, which educates or cares for about 1,000 children at a time. Meanwhile, some of the first students his Honduran schools taught have grown up and are running the mission foundation, which has expanded to schools, orphanages and homes for abandoned mothers in Honduras, as well as smaller installations in the Dominican Republic, and most recently, Liberia, through Mission Honduras International.

Give a man a fish, the saying goes, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Father Emil’s work goes a step further; he not only taught his boys and girls to fish, he taught them to teach others, too.

He spoke with staff writer Michelle Martin on a recent swing through Chicago.

The Catholic New World: What do you find the hardest part of your work now?
Franciscan Father Emil Cook: I think the hardest thing is coming back for these trips. I consider Honduras my home now. It’s sort of family there, and it’s difficult to be away from family for a long period of time. But I understand it’s very important. What I do here makes it continue to happen there. Living out of the car for 4 ½ months is not a happy thing. We dine at McDonald’s—it’s the cheapest and quickest, and there’s a senior citizen discount.

TCNW: In 1970, when you first went to Honduras, what was hardest?
FFEC: I only knew one person in the whole country, a bishop who was there. It was my first time ever outside the United States, and I got off the plane, and there was no one there to meet me. So I was walking up and down, as we say in Kansas, like a chicken with its head off. Finally I saw a couple of brown Franciscans getting out of a car … I didn’t know what I was going to do if nobody met me.

Because the bishop had a diocese in the department of Olancho in Honduras— that’s the size of El Salvador—and he only had 10 or 11 priests, he really needed priests. He said, go around and see where you’d like to be. I spent the first five or six weeks looking around, and I found a place called Gualaco. When I got there, within a day or two, that was where I really felt called to. Afterwards, I find out that its feast day is my birthday. It was like God saying, yeah, you made the right choice.

TCNW: What was your first parish like?
FFEC: Five hundred square miles, about 30-35 villages, and everything was done by horse.

I grew up on a farm in Kansas, and that really helped. There were no lights, we just had an outside restroom—a jakes, whatever you want to call it. And for the first 16 years of my life, that’s what we had in Kansas, so that didn’t bother me. I was prepared for that sort of living.

Today, looking back, I don’t think I’d want to go back to that primitive situation, but I’m glad I did. I’m glad I spent six years there. I don’t know if I could handle it now. At that time, it didn’t seem hard.

TCNW: How did you go from being a parish priest to starting a network of schools and orphanages?
FFEC: I’m a Catholic priest, which means that I’m worried about people knowing Jesus and getting to heaven. But if you look at Jesus in the Gospel, he met people and their needs where they were. He met people who were hungry, and he fed them, and he met people who were sick, and he healed them.

Now in Honduras, you get off the plane and you see this poverty everywhere and it’s very impactful. I think it’s a moment of grace, because the first question is, what are you going to do about it?

Within in the first year of being out there, the idea of education seemed to me to be the key. In Olancho, there were only four high schools in the whole province. Only four. If you weren’t rich, you could only get to the second or third grade hardly. If you went to the sixth grade, everything stopped there. So I had this idea of education. Why don’t we start a junior high here and a senior high?

Then there were some problems. The government began to be very suppressive of the popular movements, and the church was very supportive of the popular movements— radio schools, cooperatives and things of that sort. There was an attack against the church and against these organizations. My assistant (pastor) was killed, and another priest was killed from Colombia, and about 10 or 11 laypeople from these organizations were killed. I got some threats against my life, and another priest was coming to help out, to take the other priest’s place. So I left Gualaco so that he would not have to have anything to do with me, so he would not have any bad associations because of me.

I went to Tegucigalpa when the new priest came because we needed to get a place for our students to be able to go to university. Then I moved to where I am now, about an hour north of Tegucigalpa, and that was where it really took off.

TCNW: How does education help?
FFEC: The fruit of education is hope, life, future and dignity. If you take a little girl or boy who is poor and give them a chance to study, to go to junior high, senior high, university or trade training— one of the things you’ve done is you’ve probably helped 10 or 15 people down the line. That child will give their future spouse and children a whole different lifestyle and a whole different mental attitude about life. They’ll believe in hope. They can take advantage of it. That person will also have brothers and sisters who benefit, and parents they can support in old age.

But there’s another thing. Poor people— poor kids—do not feel good about themselves. They don’t believe in themselves. They think they are receiving God’s punishment. So if they can believe in themselves, which they start to do when they go to school, they begin to discover what’s in them. By the time they finish trade training or university, they come to appreciate themselves. They see that there’s wonderful things within them.

TCNW: How are the schools and other facilities run.?
FFEC: We have 10 sites in Honduras. The graduates formed this organization called APUFRAM, which means Franciscan Boys Towns and Girls Towns (as a Spanish acronym). They formed the organization to keep my work going, so it wouldn’t die with me. They are the owners of everything we have there, and they are the project directors. The project directors all came up through the system and now are professionals.

They are also reaching out beyond Honduras. We have two sites in the Dominican Republic. One is a boarding school for boys, and then in the capital, we have a house for university students.

I’ve also always felt that we should do something in Africa, because Africa has suffered terribly too. I was telling a friend that we should do something in Africa, and he used contacts he had and went over to Liberia. It had 14 years of civil war and 300,000 to 400,000 people were slaughtered there. He rented a little house, got a staff, and then in November 2005, I went over there with two Hondurans. We bought land, and now we have 34 orphans. A lot of those kids have seen their parents killed.

TCNW: What do you want American Catholics to do? FFEC: I always ask for prayers, naturally. And I ask for help to continue in our work and to grow. Every child is a miracle. Each new child that we can bring into this situation, we’re giving them these gifts, hope, life, future, dignity. And it’s not even a drop in the bucket. But one at a time.

Also, we try to get people to come down. We get maybe 500 short-term volunteers a year. All you need is a good heart and two hands to do something. We owe it to them, to allow them to come out of their culture, to come down to our culture and see the problems and meet the orphans.

TCNW: Why do you tell people to come down?
FFEC: They really see poverty from a poverty situation. They are not living in the Ramada Inn or Holiday Inn; they’re living with us. I tell people you come down and see us and bless us even if you just paint a wall or put one brick on another. This is Christ working among us.

Also, the people that come down, miracles happen inside them. It’s a moment of grace. People are always talking about their needs. They are really talking about their wants. Their needs are here (hands close together) Their wants are like this (hands spread apart). It becomes very clear that all these needs are really wants. The other thing is that they see people happy down there, even in the midst of poverty. They see our kids happier than their kids or grandkids, and they say why? They don’t have toys, and my kids have hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars worth of toys, and they aren’t happy. They get the idea that “I have too much, and these things are really not making me a better person.” Seventy-five percent of the people who come once come again. We are helping them meet Christ and see Christ.

I think people who go down there and come back come back happier people and better people. That’s our goal.

The third thing is they talk to their parish, their friends, the people they know. They say things people need to hear. I think every Catholic should give two years of their life to Jesus Christ. He has died for them. Why cannot we give him—at one time, or maybe three months a year—at least two years, in love and in evangelization?

Father Emil Cook is the subject of “Man on a Mission” by Barbara Pawlikowksi (Acta Publications, 2007). For information on Mission Honduras International, visit www.missionhonduras.com.

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