Forty years ago, the Rochester area was caught up in the spirit of giving.
Two parishioners from St. Lawrence Church in Greece were leading an effort to sell $1 spiritual shares to help build a brick factory and help set up a worker’s cooperative in La Paz, Bolivia.
Looking back four decades, one of those parishioners, Norbert “Norm” Jagodzinski, said the effort was a success and raised $30,000. The factory was built on 50 acres of tax-free land, a medical clinic was established and the factory has employed countless Bolivians.
Jagodzinski said he was reminded of the fundraising effort during the funeral of fellow organizer W. Daniel Cannan and decided to reminisce about the project during a November presentation at St. Lawrence. He was joined by Father Peter Deckman, parochial vicar of Rochester’s City West parishes (Holy Apostles, Holy Family and St. Anthony of Padua), and retired diocesan priest Father Edward Golden, resident priest chaplain at Cherry Ridge retirement community in Webster. The two priests served as missionaries to Bolivia and worked to improve conditions in the country, one of South America’s poorest.
Priests from Rochester were among those who answered Pope John XXIII’s call to serve as missionaries in South America by setting up San Jose Obrero (St. Joseph the Worker) Parish in La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia that now has a population of about 1 million.
“It’s a unique city,” Father Deckman said. “It’s two-and-a-half miles up in the air.”
The diocese had a presence in Bolivia from 1966 to 1989. Father Golden worked there from 1968 to 1974, while Father Deckman worked there from 1966 to 1974 and from 1980 to 1985. They were part of an anti-poverty program sponsored by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and also were joined by Father Paul Freemesser and Tom O’Brien. The missionaries ministered to the indigenous Aymara and Quechua populations.
The idea to build a factory was sparked by O’Brien who, during a brief visit to Rochester when he was a missionary, told Jagodzinski about the destitute conditions in Bolivia. One problem Bolivians faced was the collapse of adobe homes during the rainy season.
“Most of the homes were made out of adobe, which is a wonderful building material, but bricks were much more stable,” Father Deckman said.
Jagodzinski promised on the spot to build a brick factory, not knowing how he would do such a thing. However, with Cannan’s help, they studied the idea, found land in Bolivia to build on and received funding from the diocese and its parishioners.
“Nothing would have happened if they weren’t behind it,” Jagodzinski said.
Jagodzinski and Cannan, both employed by Eastman Kodak Co., enlisted friends and neighbors to create and show a professional-quality slide presentation of the conditions in La Paz.
During presentations to churches and service groups throughout the area, they and about 40 volunteers offered spiritual shares in the factory for $1 and the chance to win a mission vacation to the country to see conditions firsthand.
The group hoped to raise $100,000. Though they fell short, they did raise about $30,000, which was enough to get the factory up and running.
“Our objective was also to check the spread of communism,” Jagodzinski said. Communist revolutionary Ernest “Che” Guevara was shot in Bolivia in 1967 while trying to spread communism among Bolivian peasants.
Once the brick factory was a reality, the missionaries worked with lay leaders among the Bolivians to create cooperatives to bring water and sewers to the city, to establish a credit union and to build a new church building. A medical clinic, which offered basic medicine, including care from a doctor, several nurses and a dentist, was built on to the parish, Father Deckman said.
According to the U.S. State Department’s Web site, today almost two-thirds of the 9 million people of Bolivia live in poverty, and many are subsistence farmers. The per-capita average annual income is $940, officials said.
Revolutions and political instability have hindered Bolivia’s development, despite the country’s natural wealth in minerals, state department materials said. Most recently, ongoing protests have provoked the U.S. government to issue travel advisories for American citizens.
However, the economic legacy from the factory has been far-reaching, said the missionaries, who last returned to the country in 1994 for the now-independent parish’s 25th anniversary.
“It helped out the families that were involved with it, with employment and income,” Father Golden said.
Using a professional brick mold, a husband-and-wife team could turn out 500 to 700 bricks a day, according to the November presentation. Father Golden noted that the bricks were used in many buildings, and the missionaries’ home even had a fireplace that was built from the bricks.
Father Deckman said the goal of the mission was accomplished: to help develop lay leadership enough to put the missionaries out of a job.
The factory also helped to spread good will toward the missionaries and any visitors from Rochester, Father Golden said.
“They were always received very warmly,” he noted.