by Jane Graves
LAWRENCE — It was like a scene out of an old-time movie.
When Lawrence’s Corpus Christi parishioner Matilda Petesch first learned in 1996 that she was going to get to meet, in person, the Tanzanian priest she has sponsored since his seminary days, her instructions to him were very simple.
“I told him to be sure he wore his Roman collar, his black suit, and so forth, and I would wear a corsage,” said Petesch. “And when he got off the plane, I knew immediately it was him. He looked at me and smiled and came toward me, and I knew that that was Father Damas. It was wonderful, really.”
Petesch, who has no children, has sponsored the ministry of Father Damas Chale of Songea, Tanzania, East Africa, for the past 26 years. It started when Petesch and her husband Elmer, who died in 1989, decided to provide financial support for a seminarian. Through the Benedictine Mission House — a ministry that assists missionary priests, Brothers, and Sisters working in various parts of the world — they were matched with Father Chale.
For the longest time, however, the support was anonymous.
“I didn’t know who was paying for my studies until I was ordained . . . in 1988,” said Father Chale. “My bishop revealed the secret by [telling] me to say a Mass of thanksgiving and write a letter to Elmer and Matilda Petesch.”
The young priest and Petesch then began corresponding by mail, but were unable to meet in person until eight years later when Father Chale completed post-graduate studies in Rome and traveled to the United States before returning to Tanzania.
“It was a very joyful day,” Father Chale said of the meeting.
Although it was wonderful to meet in person, said Petesch, it was sometime during the course of their long correspondence that the sponsorship developed into a friendship and their salutations grew more familiar.
Father Chale, whose parents are deceased, began addressing Petesch as “mother”; Petesch, in turn, began to think of the young priest almost like an “adopted son.”
The relationship has become more typical than one might think.
“He’s like a son — whenever he needs something, he comes to me,” she said with a laugh.
In turn, Petesch relies on Father Chale as well.
“He’s really a caring person,” she said, “and whenever I need something, all I have to do is mention it in my letter and he, in return, immediately says, ‘I’m remembering you in my prayers and I said a Mass for you today.’
“That’s pretty comforting.”
Father Chale said that the spiritual and financial support Petesch has provided has been critical to his ministry.
His Tanzanian parish includes seven outstations and 12,000 parishioners; most are self-sustenance farmers. Of those that are able to bring home an income, most earn less than $100 a month.
Because of this poverty, it would be very difficult, Father Chale said, to accomplish his work without Petesch’s support.
“What I get from her helps me also with my food for the parish,” he said. “It helps me also for the fuel for going to the outstations; it helps me with my health.
“If I get sick, I also go to the hospital by using this, with the help which she gives. Even spiritually, when she writes to me and I write to her, it gives me also the spiritual courage to continue to do my work.”
Mwangaza, for example, is one of the outstations assigned to Father Chale. It was holding services in an open-air structure with a grass roof.
“Father [Chale] thought they were entitled to a better place to offer up the holy sacrifice of the Mass,” explained Petesch, “and with his encouragement, the parishioners began making the 20,000 bricks needed for the church out of available clay soil, which were then burned to harden, and in 2005 began building their church.”
The structure needed a roof before the start of the rainy season in Tanzania, however. And a roof required lumber and the money to purchase it, both of which were in short supply at Father Chale’s parish.
“The people of this community [in Mwangaza] are very poor people,” Petesch explained. “They are so willing to give their time and their labor for their future church, but have no cash to contribute.”
So Petesch paid for Father Chale to return to Lawrence in 2006 so he could speak at Masses at Most Pure Heart of Mary in Topeka. The financial support from those parishioners, along with Petesch’s own donations, was enough to pay for the roof.
When the church needed a name, Father Chale didn’t hesitate. He proposed calling it St. Matilda, as a way to honor and thank Petesch and to make permanent the memory of her support, should he eventually be reassigned.
“When he mentioned it, I was real surprised,” said Petesch.
She decided to learn a bit more about St. Matilda before responding to Father Chale’s proposal and found that the saint was noted for the building of three convents and a monastery.
“When he asked my permission, I said, ‘Well, I don’t really feel like I deserve such an honor as to have a church named after my patron saint, but I’m sure that she would be real happy,’” she said.
Petesch said it’s a wonderful feeling knowing that she has helped the parishioners of St. Matilda in this way.
“What better thing can we do in this life but to build a church where a lot of people come to worship and honor our Lord and offer up the holy sacrifice of the Mass?” she asked. “I don’t know of anything that you can do that is much better.”
Petesch takes a mother’s pride in her adopted son’s accomplishments and in the fine impression he made on local Catholics in a more recent visit back to Lawrence.
“Everybody that meets him makes the remark [that] he is such a nice person,” she said, “and he is. He is really a kind and thoughtful person.
“I certainly feel blessed to have, as you might say, a priest in my family.”