Pastor: Fr. Matt Ruhl, SJ
St. Peter Claver Parish serves a community unlike any other in the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. While the parish is based in Punta Gorda, Belize, it serves the Catholics in 36 other small villages in the far south of the Central American country. In addition to the village churches, the parish is responsible for 30 schools employing 242 teachers to educate more than 5,200 students. Southern Belize is mountainous and sparsely developed, with villages connected by “washboard” dirt roads. As pastor Fr. Matt Ruhl, SJ, puts it, “We’ve got 117 buildings, all in the jungle.”
Most people in southern Belize are economically poor, literally scratching out a living as dirt farmers. Health care is insufficient, without enough providers or clinics to serve the population. Education can be hit or miss. While the Belizean government is required by law to educate children, because the schools are in towns, and the villages are in the mountains with unpaved, rutted roads, daily transportation to and from the school is almost impossible.
So, the people of southern Belize have their share of challenges. But what Fr. Ruhl wants you to know is that the region is unbelievably beautiful, and the people are generous, hospitable and passionate about their faith. “Everyone who visits comes to love this place,” he says.
Jesuits have served the people of the Toledo District for more than 150 years. Founded in 1862, St. Peter Claver is the oldest Jesuit institution in Belize. And, according to Fr. Ruhl, that history is never far from mind.
“I feel like I’m walking in the footsteps of the early Jesuits,” he said. “Their presence is very much felt. People remember the “Fathers”: the priests at St. John’s College (the Jesuit school in Belize City, Belize) and the pastors. Most Jesuits don’t realize the impact they make on these good people, but it is part of the collective psyche.”
Today, there are two priests in residence at the parish, Fr. Ruhl and Fr. Sam Wilson, SJ. They are assisted by Sr. Hignia Bol, SCN, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth. Sister Hignia is Mopan Maya, like many of the people the parish serves. The priests’ and Sr. Hignia’s schedules are necessarily relentless as they strive to meet the needs of the faithful spread over such distances.
Father Ruhl has responsibility for presiding over Masses in the main church in Punta Gorda and in four or five of the village churches. Father Wilson and Sr. Hignia take care of the rest. The village churches serve anywhere from 50 to 200 people. The priests and Sr. Hignia make it to a handful of the 36 churches every week, but some churches get a visit from the priest only about once a month.
Before the pandemic caused the cancellation of Masses, Fathers Ruhl and Wilson celebrated more than 900 Masses each year between the two of them.
In addition to the poverty and the distances, the parish has an additional specific challenge: responding to the religious situation of the area, which includes conflict between evangelical Christians and Catholics. Some of the evangelical Christian groups assail the villagers with false and misleading messages designed to attract them away from the Catholic Church.
In response, the Jesuits of Belize are redoubling their own proselytizing efforts. With the support of Fr. Brian Christopher, the Jesuit Superior of Belize, St. Peter Claver is about to launch an intensive Ignatian formation program for lay colleagues. They will begin with a small group of about 12 people active in the parish. Later, that group will be joined by a larger group of about 50. Ultimately, once the coronavirus pandemic is over, the larger group work within the parish to evangelize and educate.
Find St. Peter Claver on Facebook.