Church Architecture and the Corporal Works of Mercy

A New Kind of Aid to Colombia

by Michael S. Rose, appearing in Volume 10

America’s appetite for cocaine and heroin sends hundreds of millions of dollars to Colombia each year, funding drug lords and strengthening their brutal cartels. This same money provides over half the income for both Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitary forces that have been declared international terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.

As part of America’s “war on drugs” and its more recent counterterrorist efforts, the United States also sends hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid through the U.S. government. This assistance is used to train the Colombian armed forces and provides sophisticated military equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters.

In other words, money from the United States is one of the major sources that finances all sides in the bloody civil war in Colombia. At the same time, one of the most palpable side-effects of this four-decade-old conflict is extreme poverty throughout the South American nation, a kind of poverty unknown even in the ghettos of North America’s poorest neighborhoods.

When Father John McGuire left the United States to serve as a missionary priest in Cali, Colombia, he quickly came to realize the extreme need of the common people on the streets—those who have been most affected by the illegal drug trafficking and the many civil war conflicts. He proposed to send a different kind of American aid to Colombia: Fr. McGuire founded Mission Share to aid him in his work as pastor of Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza Church in Cali. The Catholic charity later broadened its horizon by working with a number of the poorest parishes in the city.

The goals of Mission Share, as much today as when Fr. McGuire founded it, are feeding and clothing the poor, housing widows and orphans, providing dignified places of worship for the impoverished, and supporting community development. The Ashland, Kentucky-native raised millions of dollars in North America in order to accomplish the goals of Mission Share. Working directly with the Archdiocese of Cali, Mission Share helped the late Archbishop Isaias Duarte to establish 45 new parishes in some of the poorest slums in Colombia. Replacing ramshackle bamboo huts that passed for parish churches, Mission Share has funded and overseen the construction of 22 beautiful and functional church buildings. It has also assisted with building parish schools and rectories as well as helped to make much needed renovations and repairs to existing buildings. Just last year, Mission Share rebuilt the church and rectory for Nuestra Señora de los Remedios in the town of Dagua, after rebel fighting had bombed the parish.

Father William H. Hinds, the present director of Mission Share since Fr. McGuire’s death in January 2001, travels to Cali twice each year in order to determine need and assess the charity’s progress. “Mission Share has been very helpful to the archdiocese in providing much needed infrastructure in what is quite possibly the most troubled city in the world,” he said.

None of the parishes assisted by Mission Share, he added, can afford to build proper churches. “The average income of a parish in Cali is $85 per week, and the parishes that I work with have incomes much lower than even that.” Residents in the areas served by Mission Share typically live in one- or two-room tenements built of concrete block or bamboo frames covered by wooden boards. Others live in squatter housing without the modern conveniences of plumbing and electricity, or they simply live on the streets.

The new churches are all simple but elegant and dignified structures for Mass and devotions. The obvious benefits, however, go beyond that. The new buildings also serve as centers of community activity where none existed before. The result is a solidarity and Christian pride that spills out into the neighborhood.

“It builds community in a very positive way,” said Fr. José González, the Archdiocese of Cali’s Mission Share representative. “It also tends to bring families together. Because a new beautiful church building makes people feel proud about their community, residents often react by taking more pride in their own houses and property, fixing up their yards and cleaning up the streets. This reflects the order of the church building.” The spiritual life of these parishes also improves immensely, added Fr. González. “There’s no way to even measure that.”

Speaking of the churches, Fr. Hinds says that not just any plans will do. “We have three main requirements for the churches we design and build,” he explains. “First, the tabernacle must be visible to the entire congregation. That means it will be situated in the sanctuary. Second, there must be a spacious use of property, and third, there has to be ventilation.”

While Americans have been spending millions of dollars on what many regard an ugly and dysfunctional churches over the past several decades, Mission Share has built over 40 churches in one of the poorest places on earth at a cost of merely $100,000 each. And there are no complaints, assures Fr. Hinds, of these churches being either ugly or dysfunctional.

“The Church in Colombia,” comments Fr. Hinds, “is the greatest hope for peace, stability, and happiness of the people. Mission Share has enabled Catholics in North America to help offer some of that hope.”