The rear axle bounds off the road and the tires spit out a shotgun blast of rock. Instead of stopping, the Rev. Jim Hazelton gives gas to the Range Rover and powers it up the mountain.
The engine roars — a plane before takeoff — and the morning sun winks through the jungle with hot, blinding flashes. Bishop George Thomas of the Helena Diocese who has come to visit, pulls on his shades and returns his grip to the door. He would rather not watch the mountain road unfold like a horror movie beyond the windshield.
So he turns his focus to the men packing machan leaves in the jungle’s concealing shade. The leaves resemble banana leaves. After the leaves are sold at market, the women will use them for cooking.
Even at 83, Hazelton is a master behind the wheel — an evangelical road racer who has walked and driven these roads for more than 45 years. He drives the way he preaches, doing it his way. Thomas can only grin and hold on tight.
For the next hour, he is simply along for the ride.
“The road used to go straight up the mountain,” Hazelton says, shrugging off the steep ravines that could swallow the truck whole. “Back in those days, it was too steep to drive, so I’d walk up to visit the people.”
The mountain Hazelton navigates is an extension of Valcan Santo Tomás, one of three coned volcanoes marking the horizon. The village he aims to reach is Pasacquijuyup (pronounced Pasa-ki-yoop), a Mayan settlement perched 7,500 feet above the distant Pacific coastline.
The village is an hour’s drive from Hazelton’s quarters at the Catholic mission down in Santo Tomás La Union. He knows this region like he knows the gospels and the Ten Commandments. These mountains cradle the villages he watches over in his charge as a Roman Catholic priest from Montana’s Helena Diocese.
A priest, yes, but Hazelton prefers to call himself a missionary instead. He walks the same path as Christ, following, as Thomas puts it, “a road of poverty and obedience, of service and self-sacrifice.”
The fact that Hazelton is from Butte may lie at the root of his stubbornness. If you ask — and many do — it may be why he has dedicated his life to helping those who live here.
They may be poor, but their spirituality spills over.
They may not have much, he says, but it is hard to say they are unhappy because of it.
They come knocking on Hazelton’s gate before most other people roll out of bed. An old woman as frail as a ghost risen from the Spanish cemetery across town. Men whose backs could never bear the weight of machan leaves, twigs or rice.
When they smile, they flash more gums than teeth. When they extend their hands, hoping Hazelton drops in a coin, they tremble. Their brows furrow with wrinkles as deep as the volcanic canyons.
They have nowhere else to turn.
So Hazelton gives in. Sometimes he does so early in the day. Sometimes he waits until he has finished his supper of black beans and tortillas. The needy wait around regardless. A mother needs money for food. A man needs money for seeds to plant his crop. A woman needs wood for her cooking fire.
“When I was growing up in Butte, my mother had to gather wood to heat our house,” Hazelton says. “It was hard work. If these women are out looking for wood, then they can’t be home cooking for their children or earning a living.”
They are the poorest of the poor, even in a region of Guatemala where the conditions are difficult to comprehend. Small shacks with corrugated roofs and ill-fitting doors pass as homes. Fires burn in pits cut into dirt floors. Women sweep dirt from dirt, taking pride in what little they have.
Pigs roam the narrow rows between homes.
Hazelton is their guardian, their angel, their spiritual leader. He is their friend. He knows them by name, and while they follow him around like the Pied Piper, waiting outside his door from dawn until dusk, he never tires of their presence.
He is always there, and it seems he has always been here. His life has unfolded here since 1964 when he joined the Revs. John Ward and Jim Toeckes as a newly ordained priest.
Hazelton cannot imagine not being here. Thomas cannot imagine it either. To the bishop, Hazelton is “Hazy,” a man he speaks of as a brother. To the people he is “Padre Santiago,” a name dating back to the Apostle James.
Thomas says Hazleton is practically Guatemalan at heart. He is the best thing to ever happen to this mission. In many ways, he is the mission, and that is what has Thomas worried.
Hazelton pulls the Range Rover to a stop below Pasacquijuyup. The volcanic dust explodes in a cloud and settles in a fine, chalky haze.
The aging priest, who was severely burned last year in a freak accident and who fell from a ledge a few months ago, dusts off his shirt. His hair shines white in the sun as he leads Thomas up a cut in the bank. A dozen Mayan villagers are waiting. They have lined the walkway with palm fronds. They have covered it with pine boughs.
This is their version of rolling out the red carpet.
“Buenos días,” Thomas says, extending a hand to the village leaders. He greets them with a smile. They do the same. “¿Como estás?”
It’s not every day the village receives so many guests, let alone a Catholic bishop who comes bearing gifts and spiritual wisdom. Like city leaders courting a senator, the villagers know that with a stroke of his pen, Thomas can direct resources to their community.
He could court Montana engineers to tackle the village’s water problems. Money could be found to construct a larger church. He could solicit donations for clean-burning stoves, reducing the need for wood while cleansing the homes of choking smoke.
But this is only Thomas’ second day touring the mountain district. Even with a full week ahead, the requests are already pouring in.
They include simple needs like desks for rural schools. A few books for the library. These are reasonable requests that may easily be filled.
But there are costly needs, too. The mission-run health clinic in Santo Tomás could use funding for its infant nutrition program. The teens who run the radio station could use a license to legally operate their catechistic station.
They are worthy requests, and Thomas would very much like to fill them all. But the needs are too many, the resources too few, and deciding how to distribute a limited amount of funding will not prove easy.
It rarely is.
“I will sit down with Father Hazelton at the end of the week,” Thomas says. “He will help weigh the gravity of all the different requests. Luckily, Hazy is really good at helping prioritize.”
Hazelton and Thomas walk among clucking chickens and scrawny dogs. Hazelton is greeted like a king returning to his kingdom. Thomas snaps photos of the children who tug at his sleeves, begging to see their image, wanting to stand close to the two religious figures.
To stand close to Hazelton and Thomas is to stand closer to God.
As a kid growing up in Butte, Thomas heard stories of this mission — stories of Hazelton’s work. Even then, Hazelton’s devotion as a missionary had achieved legendary status.
It has only grown over the years and his stories are epic — like those of Sir Gawain, Gilgamesh, Beowulf. But instead of fighting monsters or visions of evil, Hazelton fights to lessen the plight of human beings in need. It lies at the heart of the social teachings he subscribes to — life and the dignity of the human person.
“When the mission was founded in Santo Tomás, Father Kevin O’Neill and I were only in grade school,” Thomas says as O’Neill, the monsignor from the Helena Diocese, stands at his side. “We’d hear stories about Father Hazelton in Guatemala. Little did we know that someday we would join him here — myself as bishop — and see firsthand his work of so many years.”
The task of shepherding the mission into the future may now fall on Thomas’ shoulders. Nearly five decades after the mission began, it faces an uncertain future.
Who will replace Hazelton when the time comes? Who will replace sisters Ana Priester and Mary Waddell, who together have given more than 50 years to the mission? Who will oversee the schools the mission has built? Who will finance the health clinic to ensure it receives adequate funding?
And who will feed the spiritual needs of the Mayan people living in these rugged mountains? Who, besides the Mayans themselves, will preserve their language, culture and customs?
Yes, the future is in question, but with a touch of calm, Thomas offers assurance. As long as he remains bishop of the Helena Diocese, he will use the full weight of his office to keep the mission going.
“I make this promise to you,” Thomas will say throughout this week. “As long as Father Hazelton wants to stay here, the bishop of Helena leaves his blessing.”
Pope John Paul II appointed Thomas bishop of the Helena Diocese on March 23, 2004. When Thomas took formal possession of the diocese on June 4, he stood at the helm of a district that spans all of western Montana.
In taking the post, Thomas also inherited Montana’s long-
running mission in Guatemala, which was founded in 1963 by Bishop Raymond Hunthausen. With it came Hazelton — a shy priest who avoids attention. Hazelton has lived here since 1964, when he was installed as pastor in the nearby village of Santa Maria.
Hazelton leaves this rural corner of the world only on occasion. He leaves to visit Montana, simply to quench his curiosity about the world beyond the jungle. He speaks Spanish fluently. He may be the only priest in the region who reads Mass in the local Mayan dialect of K’iche.
“The problem with some of the younger priests is their awful attitude toward the indigenous
people,” Hazelton tells the bishop, sharing his concerns for the future. “They come in here and they don’t speak the language of the people. The people, they think, should learn Spanish.”
Hazelton will not deny that he is getting older. While he moves about like a man half his age, he takes his job day by day. He cannot say what the next year holds, though he would like to continue what he is doing.
He might live forever if the Lord would have it.
“When I hit 70, I told myself to see if I could make it another five years,” Hazelton says. “When I turned 80, I told the bishop not to be making any long-range goals. ‘Make them short,’ I’d tell him. That’s it.”
“That’s never it,” Thomas replies with a grin. “We’ll find ways to keep you going.”
The children call out “Padre! Padre!” as Hazelton and Thomas make the slow walk up the mountain to the church. It is a small and simple building with a black cross painted over the door. The adobe walls do little to fend off the tropical heat. Festive ribbons, fabrics and palms decorate the interior.
Women wear pañuelos on their heads. Babies grow fussy. Men wait anxiously for the service to begin. Even the dogs are welcome to enter if they can find a place to sit.
Hazelton opens with a prayer in K’iche. He reads from a book he has carried with him for years. Candles burn on the altar. The floor is covered with pine boughs and small white flowers resembling plumeria. Behind the altar a sign reads, “Jesus es el camino, la verdad y la vida.”
It is from John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
“Exactly 10 years ago at this hour, I stood in a great cathedral surrounded by hundreds of priests and many hundreds of people, about to be ordained a new bishop,” Thomas tells the throng gathered for this special service. “I can think of no place I would rather be celebrating this anniversary today than with the people of Pasacquijuyup.”
Priester translates Thomas’ words to Spanish. A third interpreter translates Spanish to K’iche. The Mayan parishioners nod their heads. Their brows furrow in concentration.
They want to hear more and Thomas has plenty to share. He speaks of the Eucharist, the importance of the laity, the diversity of the church.
A brotherhood, he tells them, has grown between Guatemala and Montana these past 40 years. It is a measure of Hazelton’s tenure. It is a relationship that has endured hardship and pain, good times and bad. Thomas hopes it will continue over time, and he will do everything he can to ensure that it does.
“We are all one family in Christ,” Thomas tells the room. “We are all loved by Jesus.”
Outside the church, children play on a ledge overlooking the village and the valley beyond. The boys and girls are shy but curious. They giggle and run at the sight of the camera.
In the next 15 years, some of those kids might try to enter the United States illegally. They might find a job and send money home to the families in Guatemala who scratch out a living growing crops on the mountain slopes.
Already this week, Thomas has heard stories about the young men who crossed into the U.S. For these families, they are proud stories. The money sent home provides the people here a better life.
Yet for every successful crossing there are more who fail. Women leverage their land, their homes, to get their sons across the border. If the chosen one fails to reach America, it often results in his family’s financial ruin.
“We’re all one world, and I really do think we should be more brother and sister to each other,” says Sheila McShane, who runs the mission’s health clinic. “It’s an aspect of immigration that rarely gets discussed.”
“It’s a problem the Catholic Church is out on the forefront on,” Thomas adds. “Cardinal Roger Mahony (the archbishop of Los Angeles) is on the forefront of immigration reform. He’s out to help legalize those who have lived in the U.S. for a long time.”
The wheels of politics — campaigns of compassion — turn slowly. But today, at least, the children in Pasacquijuyup seem happy.
There are no bells to mark the end of service.
Parishioners leave the church, their colorful outfits flashing bright against the dark jungle backdrop. They make their way down the path. Some stop at the woman selling shaved ice from a 1930s-era hand grinder for 2 quetzales, or 30 cents. Most disappear into the trees to their tin-covered huts.
Thomas and Hazelton — along with others in this delegation — stay behind to enjoy a bowl of cabbage soup. After a round of thanks, they make the lengthy trip back down the mountain, passing small huts set into the jungle, villages and burning trash.
It is a massive area in the scope of its terrain. And as recently as the 1980s, it was ravaged by civil war.
Among those at Hazelton’s door back at the mission in Santo Tomás is Louisa, a woman whose father was murdered by members of the Guatemalan army. They killed him and left him to rot as a symbol to the rest — a statement in violence.
He was not the only one.
“Her father went up one Sunday morning to look at his corn crop,” Hazelton says, translating Louisa’s story. “He had his son with him that day. He told his son to go home, but the army told him to wait. They said his father would be right back.”
Louisa sits next to Hazelton holding a photograph of her family taken in 1976. They are bunched together in the fading color photo.
Louisa studies the picture, recalling the memories before continuing her story. Her father walked off that Sunday morning with the soldiers. Her brother was left waiting. It was the last time anyone saw the father alive.
“They found his body a few days later,” Hazelton says. “His tongue was cut out. His face was burned away with acid.”
Hazelton says they did not need a reason to cut out his tongue, to burn away his face. He calls it terrorism, an effort to frighten the people. He had his own share of close calls during those days. But despite the violence and the death squads, he stayed in this corner of the world, a place the Mayans saw as the center of the universe 2,500 years ago.
“Mi papa …” Louisa continues.
“He was very friendly and committed to his community. He was a community leader, that’s why the army persecuted him. They left her mother with six kids. I helped them out. I helped them get through school.”
It is impossible to count the people Hazelton has helped. It is impossible to count the golden-colored quetzal coins he has dropped into the hands of the needy. It is impossible to measure the impact of the schools he has built.
One may never know the reach of his sermons in the rural churches.
It has been a good life, and Hazelton is proud of his service. Yet given past boundary disputes in the Diocese of Solola, which oversees this parish, he admits that he may be the first and last Montana priest to serve these mountain villages in a mission capacity.
Hazelton has done it his way to benefit the people to whom he is dedicated . It has not always been easy. He admits during a late-night walk that he has strayed from certain Catholic traditions in order to preserve the Mayan culture and the people’s interest in the Church.
He accepts “petitions,” or prayers, at the beginning of service. The songs sung in his churches are written locally. He has not read a Eucharistic prayer at Mass in nearly 30 years, he says, even though it is required by the Vatican.
Hazelton grins coyly when he says this. After all, he admits, he worried what Thomas would make of it in the days leading up to his visit.
“I didn’t want him to think I made changes to the Mass that aren’t permitted,” Hazelton says. “I was kind of confessing to the priest that I don’t follow all the rules of the Catholic Church.”
Hazelton’s eyes are bright and blue in the sun. Despite his age, he retains the traits of his youth.
“I don’t think the bishop minds,” Hazelton adds. “He’s probably glad I’m not back at the diocese in Helena. But he said I’m a gift to Guatemala, and I’m proud of that.
“He seems to think a lot of my efforts down here.”
Reporter Martin Kidston: 447-4086 or firstname.lastname@example.org