Archive for Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Order of nuns marks anniversary of Guatemala ‘Underground Railroad’

April 30, 2003


— Twenty years ago a group of Roman Catholic nuns risked jail, community outrage and the wrath of their own government by declaring their home a sanctuary for those fleeing Guatemala's civil war.

Over two years, the Sisters of St. Joseph housed about 40 people -- mostly poor Mayan Indians -- at Manna House of Prayer in Concordia. The people eventually moved on, one family going to Chicago, others to Salina and some eventually went back to Guatemala. One elderly woman died and is buried in a nearby cemetery.

The towns of Concordia and Salina were largely supportive. Immigration officials never raised questions, though in other parts of the country, people were arrested for their involvement.

"We came to believe that it was, indeed, a call, a call from God," said Sister Anna Marie Broxterman, who at the time managed Manna House. "Even today we talk about it with fire. It was a very significant moment in our lives."

A celebration Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of Manna House declaring sanctuary for Guatemalan refugees.

Now, there are official reports chronicling mass burials, burning of villages, executions and other war atrocities estimated to have killed more than 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians.

At the time, there was little understanding that the U.S. government was backing the Guatemalan army, which would later be judged responsible for more than 90 percent of the war's human rights' violations. And it would be years before the U.S. government would grant the Guatemalans a legal way to live in America.

Jeronimo Aquirre, who was among the first people to arrive, told of the army traveling from village to village, stealing land, raping women and killing men who refused to join them.

Aquirre was 17 when he fled Guatemala, his wife and children in tow. One child, now a student at Kansas State University, was born as the family moved north, near the border of Guatemala and Mexico.

"I always think of a chain, that we are somehow all related as human beings," said Aquirre, who now lives in Salina. "That we suffer the same. That is probably the way the sisters felt in their hearts."

Throughout the region the nuns, who had opened Manna House in 1978, were known for one phrase in their mission statement: "To have our hearts and home open to those in need."

At first, however, the nuns hesitated. They did not have the hindsight of today. They were used to housing runaway teenagers, alcoholics, battered women -- all legal U.S. citizens.

"There was both excitement and resistance among us," Broxterman recalled.

For the next several weeks the women began deciphering "what is it that God is asking of us," Broxterman said. They read all they could on the war, and, of course, prayed.

Eventually, a majority of the nuns wanted to accept the people.

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