A light that burned brightly for nearly 50 years on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala has gone dark: Fr. Greg Schaffer of the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, died last week. During nearly a half-century of committed ministry, Fr. Greg accompanied the mostly indigenous community of San Lucas Tolimán through a painful civil war, countless natural disasters and the persistent violence that characterizes present-day Guatemala. He also devoted himself with loving generosity to building community in the broadest sense: among the Kaqchiquel and Spanish-speaking people of San Lucas, between his community in Guatemala and his community in Minnesota, and between the people he loved and served in Guatemala and the countless people whose spirit of solidarity led them into to the welcoming embrace of the San Lucas Mission. He was an extraordinary pastoral agent who ministered to his people’s sacramental needs without ever losing sight of their acute material ones. His legacy includes more than 50 ongoing projects in and around San Lucas, including the Juan Ana Coffee Project.
I only came to know Fr. Greg near the end of his remarkable ministry in Guatemala, and never had as much time with him as I would have hoped for. Even so, in that short time I came quickly to appreciate what a truly special person he was, and what an incredible contribution he had made to the communities of San Lucas and New Ulm. He and the community he led were so unique, that we asked Fr. Greg to baptize our youngest son, who was born in Guatemala. The weekend of the baptism is one I will never forget, but not for the reasons you might think. That weekend, Fr. Greg quietly put his life on the line for members of his community.
I never put this personal story into print during Fr. Greg’s life, but I can’t think of a better way to honor the example and memory of this extraordinary individual than to share it now.
The baptism was arranged by a friend who worked for the Mission and lived with his family in modest quarters next to the parish. Our friend was traveling that weekend and was not able to join us for the ceremony, but lent us his house in his absence. On the appointed day, I arrived with my family and we spent the morning getting settled in the house. That afternoon, we walked over to the Church to meet up with Fr. Greg. He warmly greeted my wife and three kids, and as was his custom, reached deep into his pockets for some chocolates for the little ones. He suggested that my wife take them up to see the altar while he and I talked. As soon as they were out of earshot, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I need your help.”
Turns out, there had been a threat made against the life of our mutual friend. Fr. Greg was trying to ascertain whether the threats were credible. He had arranged to meet with members of the group the following day, and asked me to help him gather some information in the meantime on our friend, whom I knew before he started with the Mission. I told Father I was happy of course to do anything I could to help. But I did wonder whether we were safe in our friend’s house. I worried about a case of mistaken identity — that the shadowy group issuing the threats might come for us during the night by mistake. Fr. Greg dismissed my concerns and assured me we would be alright.
When my wife and kids returned from the altar and we prepared for the baptism, I discreetly whispered into her ear a summary of the conversation I had with Fr. Greg. Needless to say, neither of us were as focused as we might have been on the baptism that followed.
Despite Fr. Greg’s assurances, we lacked his confidence and his courage. We hurried to pack our things and move to a hotel down the street as soon as the baptism ended. I spent the evening tracking down the info that I could and reported it back to Father.
The next morning, Fr. Greg celebrated Mass, greeted some of the members of his community and visitors that had gathered at the weekly pancake breakfast that followed, and quietly excused himself. He put on an old baseball hat, climbed into his road-weary car, and set off, alone, for his meeting. He was instructed to drive to a certain point in the road, park his car, and hike into a coffee farm and await his visitors in a small shed there. He waited. After a while, his appointment arrived — men wearing masks and carrying automatic weapons. They repeated their threats and asked Father to intervene to avoid our friend’s return. Father listened patiently, talked with the men a while, then made his lonely way back through the coffee fields to his car and the Mission.
When he returned, he said simply: “I think the threat is credible.”
I remember being so moved by the whole episode, which I considered to be powerful testimony to the depths of Fr. Greg’s commitment to his pastoral work and his willingness, quite literally, to put his life on the line for the people and the mission he served. This was one isolated incident some 45 years after Fr. Greg first arrived in San Lucas. I wondered how many other times he had assumed personal risk in service of his mission during the previous decades.
He lived in San Lucas during most of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war — a war that saw more than a quarter of a million people killed. He lost friends and parishioners. His contemporary, fellow missionary and friend Fr. Stanley Rother, lived just a few miles down the road in Santiago de Atitlán. Fr. Stanley once wrote in a letter to his family, who was concerned about his wellbeing: “the pastor doesn’t run.” Fr. Stanley was assassinated for his pastoral commitment. The same could have happened to Fr. Greg the day after our son’s baptism, or, I presume, countless other times during his work in Guatemala. But that never kept Fr. Greg from responding to the calling he heard so clearly.
Thank you, Fr. Greg, for everything you did for me and my family, and the countless people whose lives you touched in San Lucas, New Ulm and around the world. Godspeed.
I had the pleasure of meeting Father Greg a little over 2 years ago when I was visiting a CRS food security project in San Miguel Pochuta. We met at the church he had been guiding in San Lucas Toliman for nearly 50 years. In fact, I recall that on our visit there were still banners hanging from the church celebrating the 50th anniversary of Father Greg’s ordination as a priest. It was clear that he was loved by the church community.
Over lunch that day, Father Greg recounted many of the challenges and joys that he had experienced during his time in San Lucas Toliman. He also told of how, under his leadership, the church had devoted significant effort to purchasing land that was distributed to church members (a few acres each). In providing this land, he advised his parishioners to FIRST devote 2/3 of their land to food so that there was always food on the family table, and SECOND to coffee, as a source of income to purchase needed items for the family.
This advice resonated with me, and brought home the importance of helping families become food secure, as a top priority in providing for their own health and development. In describing this priority, Father Greg’s strong, down-to-earth, and joyful personality was fully engaged. I left San Lucas Toliman with a new friend. I will miss him as a person, as well as his common sense approach to life and caring for the well-being of others.
Thanks, Rick, for sharing your thoughts on Fr. Greg’s approach.
Curator’s note: Rick Peyser is the Director of Coffee Community Outreach and Social Advocacy at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the largest buyer of Fair Trade Certified coffees. He directs the company’s reinvestment at origin in Guatemala and throughout the world.
I have known Father Greg since our very first Coffee Kids trip to Lake Atitlan in 1989. He was a big, beaming bear of a man, and took his ministry very seriously. He hosted a Coffee Kids expedition that brought down dentists and public health nurses, letting us yank teeth all day long at the Parish house.
Father Greg was old school. He believed in service, but on his own terms and through his own lens. He and I disagreed about what constituted development and what constituted charity. Even though I felt his top-down, charity based model was not the ultimate way to go, as the community was not that involved in the planning and execution, but relied heavily on the kindness of stranger, I certainly respected his commitment and integrity.
Over the years I had occasion to visit him and kept up an on-going dialogue with him about styles of development and community service. He was always respectful and open minded, even though as he once told me old dogs don’t learn new tricks that easily.
He will be greatly missed around the Lake, and an era has certainly passed along with him.
Thanks, Dean, for the great reflection.
Curator’s note: Dean Cycon is the founder of Dean’s Beans, a 100% Fair Trade and organic coffee roaster based in Orange, MA. He has supported community development projects in Guatemala and other coffee origins throughout the Americas, Africa and Asia.
I am so sad to see this news. I spent two months in San Lucas in late 1999 and carry many of those lessons with me to this day. Fr. Greg was a man of God in the truest and deepest sense of the word.
I made 4 trips to the San Lucas Mission over the last 6 years and each time I visited, Fr. Greg was visiting our home state of Minnesota. However, I could feel the love of the people of San Lucas for their Padre Gregorio even though he wasn’t there. Last week I was writing something to post to Fr. Greg on the Caring Bridge site, knowing that death was around the corner. I found it difficult to put my gratitude into words. The San Lucas Mission is unique in its approach- allowing groups to come and work with the people, experiencing their way of life for a few days. That experience is such a gift and one that we can’t find in our own daily lives. After one visit I was certain that my life would never be the same.
Anyway, after struggling with putting this into words, our daughter, Lauren, called from San Lucas to tell me that Fr. Greg had died just minutes earlier. Lauren is the current volunteer coordinator at the mission. So, Fr. Greg has had a huge impact on our family. His service in San Lucas has impacted the people of those communities but also the lives of thousands who were guests of the mission over the years. I am fortunate to live in Minnesota and to be able to attend the funeral tomorrow of one of the greatest people I will ever meet.
Thank you, Shelby and Martin, for sharing how Fr. Greg touched your lives.
Thank you for a moving post and insight into Fr. Greg.
Thank you for also recommending to Cabrini College that we visit San Lucas Toliman. We have returned each year for five years with students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
We have continually learned from him and all the members of the mission about how to live our lives in solidarity.
We were able to make some videos of Fr. Greg during our visits.
Thank you Michael and everyone who has responded, for this great tribute to Fr. Greg. Fr. Greg touched the lives of so many, not just in Guatemala but abroad as well….especially in Minnesota! He was a man of greatness and made things happen; San Lucas Toliman being a testament to his commitment and mission. He was a great friend to the CRS family and I’m honored to have met and spent time with him during my visits to San Lucas.
I can remember the time I ran into Fr. Greg in the Guatemala airport and he said “Anne, I need your help, the authorities told when I was checking in my bag that I cannot send coffee in my luggage to the US, that I have to buy it in the airport.” I told him that I didn’t have any problem sending coffee in my luggage, but he was so concerned that a new law was being enforced and asked me to try to do something about it. I thought to myself the problem is probably that everyone knows Fr. Greg and knows that San Lucas produces quality coffee so they just singled him out knowing he was probably bringing coffee in his luggage. Since that time I have traveled with coffee in my luggage on numerous occasions without any problem. Fr. Greg, I think more people knew you than you thought. You left your mark in this world and we will not forget you. God bless. Anne