by Jan Dumay
Special to The Leaven
OVERLAND PARK — When Tom Kolarik retired this year, his wife Debbie asked him where he’d like to go for a retirement trip.
Anywhere in the world, she said. Australia? Europe? Greece?
Kolarik’s answer was surprising. He wanted to go to the Central American country of Belize to see firsthand the mission supported for 43 years by fellow members of Queen of the Holy Rosary Church in Overland Park.
So, the Kolariks mentioned the idea to Father Bill Bruning, Queen’s pastor, who eagerly agreed to join in. Plans were made for a trip Nov. 2-8.
Joining the pastor and the Kolariks were Debbie’s mother Patty Wernel, also from Queen; Tom’s sister Mary Jo Audley; and a lifelong friend of Debbie’s, Cindy Hill, who grew up in Queen parish.
By all accounts, the trip was eye-opening and rewarding for the six travelers. Their activities included attending Mass every day, painting two of seven grade school buildings and participating in an All Souls’ novena in a rainy, muddy cemetery where Father Bruning blessed each grave.
The mission was started by Deacon Cal and Ginny Cathers of the Overland Park parish with the goal of educating children while spreading Catholic values. Belize, which has a population of 390,000, was a British colony until 1981 when it received its independence.
Though it is not a Third World country, its quality of living is far below that of the United States.
“When we arrived in Belize in August 1976, only 10 percent of the children born in Belize were graduating from high school,” said Deacon Cathers, who is affectionately known by all as Deacon Cal.
“Less than 40 percent of the children born in Belize were graduating from grade school,” he added.
But things have changed, primarily thanks to a printing company the Cathers started called BRC Printing. By 1995, it was the largest nongovernment employer in Benque, where it is headquartered.
The company, which employs about 40 people, prints reading and math books written by Deacon Cathers and distributed for free to the more than 40% of the children in Belize who live in poverty.
By 2007, almost all the 220 or so schools in the country were using BRC’s reading books. Close to 90% of the children born in Belize can now read and write above the third-grade level.
But the program founder cares far less about where they’ve been than where they’re going.
“I rarely think about [our accomplishments],” Deacon Cathers said in an email. “I think about how we can improve.”
The mission has impacted the culture as well, he said, particularly in how men treat their families.
“When we arrived in Benque Viejo del Carmen 43 years ago, men, empty- handed, would ride their horse 20 feet in front of their wives,” he said. “Their wives would be carrying an infant or a bundle. Men were never seen with a child of any age. Very few men went to Mass.
“Ginny and I made it our goal to change that culture. As Father Bruning and the Queen group can attest, now most men carry their infants, play with their children and take care of their families.”
It took a community to change the culture, but the couple and their family of six children were a big part of that change because the people could see a loving, close, Catholic family modeled for them.
“I was very impressed with the impact Deacon Cal and Ginny have made in the areas of education and Catholic formation of so many young students throughout the country of Belize,” Tom Kolarik said. “Everywhere we went, both inside and outside of their town of Benque, we met people who knew the Catherses, some going back 20 to 30 years. They had nothing but praise for them and their accomplishments.
“Thanks to Cal and Ginny’s efforts, the literacy rate in the country is dramatically improved, and Benque has become the Catholic center of Belize. All in all, it was a very enjoyable and worthwhile trip.”
Wernel was among a group of Queen parishioners who first went to Belize 22 years ago.
“When I see Ginny and Cal walking hand-in-hand, it’s like two little saints,” she said.
The recent trip is only the second trip made by parishioners and the first by a Queen pastor. Father Bruning said he was humbled by the experience, stating that Queen parishioners send about $700 a month to support the mission.
“This parish has been supporting for 40-plus years this mission down there, sight unseen,” he said. “How beautiful is that?
“I believe someday, when our parishioners die, these souls will welcome them into heaven. I get a little choked up thinking about that. I believe that as long as we keep our hearts for the most vulnerable and keep that present in our lives, God will continue to bless this parish.”