Art Rathbun has logged countless hours toward his parish’s Nicaragua Mission over the past 18 years, but he doesn’t look for special credit. After all, he pointed out, his lifestyle is a whole lot easier than what the Nicaraguan natives must endure.
“A worker down there makes about a dollar a day. I was surprised that a teacher only makes about $3 a day,” Rathbun said. “There’s very few things they don’t need.”
Ray Ruhmel, another big supporter of the Nicaragua Mission at Elmira’s Ss. Peter and Paul Parish, saw the poverty firsthand when he journeyed to the Central American country 10 years ago. “I wanted to really see what it was like to live there,” he said. He found out quickly, encountering a bug-infested outdoor toilet and observing a small tin hut where 12 people lived.
The Nicaraguans’ plight is well-known throughout Ss. Peter and Paul, which donated an estimated 600 items for its annual truck loading that took place Sept. 8. In addition, more than $4,000 in cash was raised through a second collection held Sept. 11-12.
During the year donated items are dropped off during business hours at Ss. Peter and Paul’s office, located at 161 High St. Rathbun packs everything up and stores items wherever space is available — the parish garage and basement, a rented trailer. Among the goods collected: clothing; shoes; toys; nonperishable foods such as peanut butter and canned goods; household items; medical, school and sewing supplies; bedding and linens; personal-care items; and religious articles — such as the 165 rosaries made this year by parishioner Angie DeLaura. Rathbun noted that Nicaraguan children — many of whom are orphaned and abandoned — are especially prioritized.
Nearly 20 parishioners helped put the boxes on a rented truck outside the parish office last month. The truck loading normally involves the parish’s Teen Reality youth group, but this year it fell on a school day so an all-adult crew stepped forward. Ruhmel then drove the truck from Elmira to St. Patrick’s Church in Seneca Falls, which operates a Nicaragua Mission of its own in conjunction with St. Mary’s in Waterloo. From there the donations were all transported to Newark, N.J., where they were then put on a ship that was due to reach Nicaragua by the end of September.
The Nicaragua Mission originated in eastern Elmira in 1986 at the former St. Cecilia Parish, where Rathbun was a parishioner, and St. John the Baptist, where Ruhmel belonged. Both men are longtime parish maintenance workers and have been involved in the project since its inception. The late Father David Gramkee, then-pastor of St. Cecilia/St. John, founded the effort after consulting with two parishioners, Aileen Tremblay and Fran Monroe, about a presentation they had attended by Ann Marie Zon, a lay missionary in Nicaragua.
All in all, Ruhmel estimates that 9,000 boxes have been packed for donation since 1986. The outreach has endured through two parish reconfigurations — the clustering of St. Cecilia/St. John with Ss. Peter and Paul in 1990, and the closing of St. Cecilia and St. John in 1998. Father Gramkee, who died in 2002, also established the Nicaragua Mission at St. Patrick’s in Seneca Falls after he left Elmira to become pastor there in 1992.
Zon, a Buffalo native, has spearheaded the overall project since establishing it 26 years ago. She lives and works with poor in Boaca, Nicaragua, most of the year, returning to the United States in the summer. Much of that time is spent traveling throughout western New York, following up on donation efforts by sponsoring organizations. Zon spoke at Masses at Ss. Peter and Paul Sept. 11-12 — just a few days after the truck loading, and in conjunction with the special second collection.
“She basically paints a picture for us of life in Nicaragua. She is quite descriptive, and usually her stories revolve around the children,” said Father Patrick Connor, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul. “The people trust her and know that their help is going directly to the poor.”
Ruhmel drives the truck every year for the Nicaragua Mission; in the past he has also driven to Buffalo, where donated items were dropped off at Zon’s parents’ home before being taken to New Jersey. Ruhmel also spent time with Zon when he traveled to Nicaragua in the mid-1990s. At first he was so taken aback by the conditions there, he said that “I was ready to pack it in and fly home.” But he ended up staying two weeks, helping build a new convent for missionary sisters.
Despite being thousands of miles away, Ss. Peter and Paul Parish also feels the urge to assist, Rathbun said. “It’s more or less like a personal thing,” he remarked. “There are a lot of good charities the churches do, but with this one, we know who it is and are personally involved in it.”
“I see our support of Nicaragua as a natural outflow of our recognizing that we are not a kingdom unto ourselves, but that we have a responsibility to the body of Christ we are connected to beyond parish boundaries,” Father Connor added. “I like to think our parishioners’ service to the poor as another great light that shines here in Elmira.”
A thoughtful ray of that light recently showed up in Ss. Peter and Paul’s mail. Laura DeMartino, 10, donated her business earnings — $7.50 from her lemonade stand — and asked that the money go toward the children of Nicaragua.