In 1970, Father Emil Cook, a
Conventual Franciscan friar from
Salina, Kan., alit in rural Honduras
and began ministering to a 1,500-squaremile
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
cheapest and quickest,
and there’s a senior citizen
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
TCNW: What was your first parish like?
FFEC: Five hundred square miles, about
30-35 villages, and everything was done
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
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
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
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