Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 10, 2003
Belize captured Red Deer hearts
Catholic family's missionary work crossed heart and faith borders
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
With a laid back ambiance of swinging hammocks, large swaths of impenetrable jungle, and an underwater world of twisted corals, neon fish, and gentle manatees, Belize is a tropical treasure. Thousands of tourists visit this small Central American nation of 250,000 people every year.
The Borle family of St. Mary's Parish in Red Deer spent 10 months in Belize last year, but they didn't experience the flashy lifestyle of tourists. They spent their time doing mission work among the poor and illiterate.
In September 2001, David Borle, an oil company engineer, and his wife Barb, a Catholic teacher, took off to Belize with their six children, Brienne, 19, John, 18, Steven, 15, Elyse, 13, Ethan, 12 and Conner 10. They returned in late June, changed by the experience.
The Pallotine Fathers, who run the Pallotine Enrichment Centre in Red Deer, organized the mission, which includes assisting the Pallotine Sisters in Belize in doing their missionary, catechetical and social justice work among the poor.
The Borles' experience has led other lay people to follow suit. On Jan. 2, Roger and Therese Dion of Sacred Heart Parish left for the island for four months. They were joined by Loretta Kohlman of St. Mary Parish.
Inhabited by the Maya for centuries and colonized by English buccaneers and escaped African slaves later, Belize is bordered by Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west. The official language is English, but many other languages are also used, including Spanish and Mayan.
The Borles heard about the possibility of doing mission work in Belize through Pallotine Father Erik Riechers, who was then pastor of St. Mary's Parish. David and Barb said they came separately to the conclusion that going to the country would be a good idea and so they decided to do it as a family. They immediately sent the sisters in Belize a resume of everybody in the family.
Fortunately, the Borles were able to convince their employers in Red Deer to hold their jobs until they came back and were lucky enough to rent their house for exactly the period they were going to stay in Belize.
Some of the Borles' children followed their parents reluctantly, but now they are happy they lived in the country and say the experience changed them for the better.
"God made it clear to me it was something that he wanted us to do," said Barb. "At one point I had a very strong feeling that that's what we should do and when I told David about it, he had actually started to have that same feeling, quite separately."
"Part of it was the thought that we've been always well looked after by God and it was time for us to offer something back," David explained. "And it was really a unique time for us to offer something back as an entire family because our eldest daughter (Brienne) had just finished high school and she could take the year off to come with us."
The Borles stayed with the Pallotine Sisters in Forest Home, a small village just outside Punta Gorda, a city of 5,000 people in southern Belize.
"The main issue of our going there was really to add manpower to the sisters because there are so few nuns," noted David. "The sisters work quite a bit with the villages around the area, so they needed the manpower to support them."
Everybody's roles soon became clear, with Barb and her daughter Brienne helping in the Forest Home school and David assisting in the Jesuit-run parish of Punta Gorda. Later Brienne also taught reading classes to children with reading difficulties at a Catholic school in Punta Gorda. She also set up a youth group in Forest Home. David started as a handyman in both the convent and the parish doing repairs, plumbing, electrical work, even some gardening.
Within a month of their arrival, their roles again changed after Hurricane Iris went through the island and flattened just about all the homes in at least 17 surrounding villages and devastated the crops. "That kind of changed our focus," said David, who was immediately put in charge of distributing relief goods for the Punta Gorda Parish - food, clothing, water.
"After the hurricane, the whole family was involved in taking food to the villages," added Barb. "The sister would make soup and rice and we would take that because they had nothing. "
After six weeks of doing basic relief work, David was put in charge of rebuilding the homes of the people in the area, a task that kept him and his older son, John, busy for up to six months. The construction crew, which also included villagers, built 168 new homes and repaired another 20.
While David did carpentry work, Barb went back to the local school, where she set up and ran a library and taught basic computer skills.
The children were also surprised when Barb told them they could borrow the books from the library and take them home.
Before the Borles left for Belize, St. Mary's parishioners shipped about 640 kg worth of school textbooks to the island, which the Borles distributed. As the hurricane destroyed most of the schools' regular textbooks, the textbooks distributed by the Borles became part of the curriculum.
Belizeans are friendly and hospitable people who offer you everything they have, which is very little, the Borles said. "They have exactly what they need for a day-to-day basis, nothing more," observed David.
"And for some of the people that would mean eating corn tortillas every meal," his wife added. "Not a lot of extras."
The Borles also described the villagers as "very quiet people" who work from dawn to dusk to provide for their families. "They are very hard working people," David observed.
"One of the best times in the villages is the evening. Every evening everybody goes out to the local creek and they all take their evening bath."
Despite their busy schedule, the Borles managed to find time to visit most of the surrounding villages, where they led baptismal and marriage preparation. And in one remote village where the priest only visits once a month, they prepared the community to have lay-led liturgies when the pastor is not there.
"We prepared them for all the different ministries," Barb noted. "What we did is we trained the ministers so they can have Eucharistic services at least every Sunday," added her husband.
In another nearby village, the Borles spend time with parishioners teaching about the Mass and doing basic catechism. "They kept us busy," David said. "It was very much of a learning situation for parishioners and for ourselves."
"Actually (Belizeans) have a very strong faith, but they don't have an in-depth knowledge of Catholic faith," David observed.
"I was touched by the degree of their faith and their appreciation of God in their lives," Barb said. "They thank God for things that we don't even think twice of, like being able to get up and do the work that needs to be done."
After work, the Borles would swim in the river or play soccer with the locals. At night they would read and play board games or watch videos. "Everything shuts down when it gets dark," recalled John.
"What really surprised me is that the kids live in poverty, but they always manage to be really happy," John said. "It's surprising how they get along without TVs, stereos or electricity." The fact that people use things over and over and kids leave nothing on their plates after dinner also amazed him.
John originally didn't want to go to Belize. But when the time came to come back, he didn't want to leave. "I really enjoyed it there," he said. "I learned how fortunate I am to live in Canada."
Conner attended school there and told how children come to school without textbooks or pencils or workbooks. "The teacher lashes you with a ruler if you misbehave," he noted.
Ethan said kids had to bring their own toilet paper to school and had to help clean the washrooms, which were basically holes dug out in the ground.
"I'm very impressed by the fact people get along with what they have, which is a lot less than we do," said Elyse. "I realize now I'm a very lucky girl."