I went with Linda Whitlock Brown of our Parish and the Crystal Room renovation architect, Tom Reinecker and his wife, Jeanette. Also visiting at the same time was Father Mark Hughes and two of his parishioners of Holy Redeemer Parish in Kensington (which will be Fr. Ryan’s twinning parish); a book author and her photographer. We arrived Wednesday, Feb 13th.
Leaving paved roads far behind, we arrived in the village of Ewe with an amazing greeting. Young boys in bare feet ran ahead of us in welcome. Each of them could have qualified for the Olympics. A couple motorcycles also greeted us with wheeles. Then as we approached the town, about two hundred people and a band, along with Father Ryan, greeted us. Children grasped our hands – a child on each finger; as the group sang and danced the mile walk to the pastoral center of Our Lady of Guadalupe; past the mud huts , palm branch roofed homes of the village. At the Parish we were welcomed by the Chief of the Village in full regalia and the Elders. Various groups put on welcoming dances and songs, as they provided refreshments.
Next day we visited a palm oil factory which Father created. It gives employment to several people who produce palm oil for cooking and palm oil soap. In the afternoon we visited the Catholic schools in Avegan and Avelebe where we met the faculty and distributed little bags of candy to the children. Father Ryan has created seven schools and is educating 1100 students ! For students in the middle school who must leave their distant, outlying villages the cost of tuition, room and board for ten months totals $7. Some need scholarships. The middle school students wore attractive uniforms of tan pants or skirts and pink shirts or blouses.
Later that day we visited two of the eleven wells Father Ryan had developed – his first project for people who were lugging and drinking muddy water from a distant stream. Using donated solar panels a massive water tower stores water which is gravity distributed to three villages.
The next day we visited two of the parish schools in Tsati and Kpoguere. Again we distributed candy – I brought a suitcase full of nothing but candy for the children, and chocolates for the sisters and the staff. Later, one of the school sisters led us to the moonshine still. The friendly moonshiners cut down the plentiful palm trees and for six days collect the palm juice – a gallon a day. Quite tasty. Then they ferment the juice to create palm wine. The wine is then distilled to make the local fire water – powerful stuff ! The government doesn’t bother to collect taxes because it would cost more to hire a collector than they could ever squeeze out of these destitute people.
Friday we took a motorcycle trip to the school at Assahoun almost an hour away. I clung for dear life to the back of the motorcycle as we got around “pot holes” as big as a van. Once the driver and I took a spill in soft sand. We stopped at a school in Kpoguere, distributed more candy. I was so glad to get off the motorcycle for a while ! We also saw two outlying chapels and two more wells – one given by the Kidwell family of Saint Rose of Lima. The last well and school was in a pagan village, with only two baptized persons. We rode by the village idol housed in a grass tent.
We visited Father’s teak tree project. He hopes to permanently fund all the work of the Parish by planting 100,000 teak trees; $1 each with two years of maintenance. After ten years the parish can harvest 10,000 a year, and those trees begin growing again from the roots ! Some acreage is set aside to assist neighboring parishes. Teak trees are much in demand on the world market. I suggested to Father that he find someone to train the villagers and someone to fund the equipment so that the villagers could make teak cutting boards to produce income. Many places in the area grow teak trees, so the supply is there. Teak wood is in high demand with constantly rising in prices on the world market. On the same plot of land we visited the parish’s cassava flour project which provides work for several people. The cassava, which look like long sweet potatoes, are ground up twice; then placed in porous bags under pressure for three days to drive out most of the water. Then the “dried” cassava is warmed in metal pots over an outdoor fire to create a fully dried cassava flour, which allows the subsistent farmers to earn more for their product. We also visited the parish clinic and pharmacy. They had just delivered a baby – one of fifty the clinic delivers each year – a vast improvement over delivering a child on the soil of a mud hut ! There were three patients on beds in the clinic when we arrived.
Saturday we drove to Assahoun for the regional market day which covered a few acres. Some of our number bought African cloth which the villagers turned into clothing to bring back to America. They market sold spices, luggage, rice, cassava, clothing and all kinds of plastic stuff. I noticed that there was no indigenous art.
Saturday, each of thirteen village choirs put on an entertainment in our honor. The Chief, and the whole village attended. They had come from far and wide for Sunday Mass, mostly walking.
Father Ryan is building a beautiful church to accommodate hundreds! The crowded Sunday Mass lasted three hours, but went by like a flash. Tremendous energy, singing and dancing. During Mass I was given a dancing lesson, for apparently I was not dancing correctly; nobody form New England does. Towards the end of Mass my Chasuble was removed and they wrapped a large African garment around me and , along with Father Hughes, we spoke to the congregation. All nine of us shook hands with every person who attended. The distant villagers had spent the night sleeping on the floors of the schools, commenting on how smooth the floors were. After Mass, the boys and girls of the middle school staged a play, telling the compelling story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Then, each village went to its designated area for a meal provided by the Parish.
Back at the rectory on Sunday, we celebrated a nice meal with the family of Father Jonathan, a dynamite young Togo priest, just ordained and assigned to the parish as Father Ryan’s assistant. A good dancer ! He had to celebrate seven First Masses in various villages in which his family is known.
The temperature when we arrived was 99 degrees and 80% humidity. There is no air conditioning.
So, in summary, this amazing priest, Father Bill Ryan, who visits us each summer, in twelve years has: Drilled eleven fresh water wells; constructed a sun powered high tank for water distribution; created a clinic and pharmacy; started a palm oil and palm soap operation and a cassava flour operation giving work to many persons; started seven schools, now enrolling 1100 students; built four chapels an a major parish church and started a teak tree project to support these ministries on a permanent basis. Besides the teak tree project, his biggest current work is the construction of a residential Lyceum, a higher form of education in the French system. So students can continue their education. In Togo, the graduate of a Lyceum can receive a job as a teacher in the public system. The priest doesn’t stop. Pray for the continued success of Father Ryan and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish !
We left from Lome Sunday night. I will try to put together a show in the Crystal Room with pictures of this amazing , transformative trip.