Father Arano-Ponce saw the number as a sign to help rebuild a church in Chile
by Kara Hansen
Special to The Leaven
The Spirit is said to speak in tongues.
But in Father Jerry AranoPonce’s experience, God is fluent in numbers, too.
20,000 to be precise.
It all started when the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park heard the news of the tsunami and earthquake that devastated parts of Chile in February 2010.
“I had flashbacks of the Osawatomie flood (where he was pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in 2007) and my heart ached,” he said. “I felt a strong calling not just to be sad for the tsunami victims in Chile, but to do something for them.”
Remembering a Chilean couple in his parish, Gonzalo and Monica Lagos, Father Arano-Ponce asked them whether their family members in Chile were safe.
“Gonzalo informed me that his mom was OK, but that hundreds of families had lost their houses and that even the church had been damaged,” he said.
“I asked Gonzalo to ask the parish priest to contact me via e-mail to see what we could do to help,” he continued.
Father Mario Alfonso Agurto, pastor of St. Ignatius Parish in Empedrado, Chile, was quick to respond to the American pastor’s offer.
The pictures he sent showed an incredibly damaged church structure.
Since the earthquake — which registered 8.8 on the Richter scale — Mass had been celebrated outside.
The parish hoped someday to have a space where they could celebrate Mass indoors again.
But the plan to rebuild, said Father Agurto, came with a huge price tag — $20,000.
“When Father Mario informed me that rebuilding their church would cost them around $20,000, I heard God speaking through that number,” said Father Arano-Ponce. “Why? Because back in the summer, we just put a new carpet in the church that cost us $20,000.
“I interpreted that exact number as if God was telling us that if could raise $20,000 for a carpet, we could also raise $20,000 to help the people of St. Ignatius Parish in Chile to have a church.”
For St. Agnes, $20,000 was a lot of money to raise.
But for St. Ignatius in Empedrado — a town that relies on farming and the timber industry — it was a sum that was next to impossible.
Given that context, Father AranoPonce’s idea was an easy sell to the parish.
x“I prayed about it and then presented the idea of helping this community in Chile to rebuild their church to the parish council and finance council. They both wholeheartedly endorsed the idea and gave me green light to present this project to the people,” said Father AranoPonce.
“I told the people that helping with this ‘Church in Chile’ project was only an invitation,” he said. “And that if they wanted to be part of that, they could give a special donation any time or any Sunday, and that I would not be asking for money.”
But the project piqued parishioners’ interest — and help and donations came rolling in.
“Every year our company allocates a certain percentage of our profits to charities, but we often don’t see where the money goes,” said Willie Dugan, a St. Agnes parishioner whose company donated to the project. “Being able to see the transition of the church being renovated in Chile and seeing where the money goes made it more real. It was nice to follow our donation and see how it affected people.”
Dugan and his business partner, Tim Prier, a parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, were enthused about the opportunity to assist St. Ignatius in Chile — as were their employees at Prime Lead, a marketing company based in Overland Park.
“The idea of helping with this was Catholic, but it was also even more human,” said Dugan. “This building is a center for the community — it has classrooms for meetings.
“It’s hope for the town.”
Donations came by the way of younger parishioners as well.
“One family told me that their kids had donated their savings from babysitting to help rebuild this church in Chile,” said Father Arano-Ponce.
Father Arano-Ponce was at St. Ignatius Parish in Empedrado on Jan. 25 when the first Mass was celebrated there and Bishop Tomislav Koljatic Maroevic blessed the parish’s new site.
“When I announced to the entire parish that we had reached our financial goal and even surpassed it, a family asked me if I was planning on going to Chile,” said Father Arano-Ponce. “I replied that I had not thought about it yet. They offered to pay for my airfare to Chile so that I could go and see how our financial gift was making a difference in that parish.”
The experience was both gratifying and humbling.
“What we helped them accomplish was to renovate an old school gym to become the new church,” said Father Arano-Ponce. “The financial help from St. Agnes parishioners helped rebuild the ceiling, paint the walls, buy new doors and windows, lay a new floor and build a sanctuary.
“There is still need of more, such as renovating the old school classrooms so that they can be used for CCD classes and youth group, and renovating an office and a little meeting room.
“But our main goal was to help them have a shell, a simple church, where they could celebrate Sunday Mass and receive the sacraments.”
Lagos, especially, was touched by the support given his hometown and his mother by his new home and parish.
“I was moved by Father Jerry’s concern and willingness to help my hometown after such a devastating earthquake,” said Lagos. “I am very grateful for St. Agnes’ generosity to help a small community in Chile.”
All in all, St. Agnes raised $25,000 — $5,000 more than the parish’s original goal. The extra funds provided a sound system, church vestments and flowers for the Blessed Mother at St. Ignatius.
“At. St. Agnes we have worried too much about our own financial challenges for the last five years,” said Father AranoPonce. “Now was the time to do the unthinkable and reach out to others.”