"And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the 
least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me' " (Matthew 25:40)

Feb. 3, 1994

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Ripon man plants pipes in Panama
The Ripon Commonwealth Press, February 3, 1994
by Tim Lyke

(This is the third installment of a three-part series on Ripon native Father Wally Kasuboski and his mission to help people in the interior of Panama live longer, healthier lives).

    Salvadoran guerilla sympathizer, anti-nuclear activist, researcher for Karen Silkwood's family, Catholic missionary in a Moslem country, public-interest attorney and Panamanian pauper priest.
    What a long, strange trip it's been since Wally Kasuboski left his family's Ripon farm 29 years ago. And to think that he became a Catholic priest because he didn't watch out where he was going.
    While a Ripon High School junior in 1963 or '64, Kasuboski put an old lawn mower motor on his bike, rode it around his family's dairy farm southeast of Ripon and proceeded to smash it into his brother Joe's bike. An angle iron ripped into Kasuboski's kneecap, draining it of fluid necessary for him to bend it. "I remember asking the doctor if I'd ever get water back in my knee again," Kasuboski recalled. "I'm not so sure," the physician said.
    While laid up in the hospital for three days, Kasuboski was visited by Father Theodore Stanley (his mother is Arleene Buchholz of Ripon). Stanley left the boy a prayer card. "I read the prayer," Kasuboski said. "It was neat but long. Yet it touched something inside me. I memorized it."
    His first night at home Kasuboski tried to kneel down to pray, as his mother had taught him and each of his 13 brothers and sisters. "Gradually I came to bend my knee more and more over the next three to four months," Kasuboski said. 
    During that time, he started to have a revelation. "I decided to do something in my life for others rather than just buying a little farm and keeping to myself like a hermit." said Kasuboski, who turned 47 last Friday.
    After graduating from Ripon High School in 1965, Kasuboski attended Mt. Calvary for two years, spent a year at a novitiate in Huntington, IN., and then studied philosophy for two years at Saint Joseph's College in Rensselear, IN. He attended St. Francis School of Pastoral Ministry in Milwaukee for four years, receiving a degree in theology with a minor in philosophy.
    In January, 1974, he began more than two decades of missionary work in Latin America by working for a month with the Tzedel Indians in Chappa, Mexico.
    After his ordination that June, Kasuboski began a two-year missionary stint in Rama, Nicaragua, where he built a training center that was one of only four buildings to withstand the force of a hurricane that virtually leveled the city. He left Nicaragua in frustration. "The war was driving me crazy," he said "I was ready to pick up a gun after I saw my friends being tortured and killed. "But I figured I better think again before I do that."
    Returning to the states, Kasuboski moved to Colstrip, Mont., where he worked with the Crowe and Cheyenne Indians. While in Montana, he took a few construction jobs, building a high school in Colstrip and adding 100 rooms to a Holiday Inn in Billings.
    After returning to Ripon for his brother Peter's wedding in 1977, Kasuboski attended a one-week retreat that was to change his outlook on the world. Titled "Thy Will be Done: Prayer as a Subversive Activity," the meeting encouraged participants to do their own social and economic analysis of the world. "We learned to get to the heart of the matter," Kasuboski recalled, using a phrase he often employs to describe his approach to life.
    As a subversive, he learned, "You become a danger to those who look out only for their own self-interest." The subversive took off for Washington, D.C., working first with an office dealing with Latin American affairs and then with New Directions, a lobbying organization working for ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. While there, he met attorney Daniel Sheehan, who specialized in public interest law. "I discovered he didn't care about money," Kasuboski said. "I thought to myself, 'What kind of a lawyer is this?'"
    He was to find out, but not before leaving Washington to become vicar for six months to migrant farm workers in Bay City, MI. While there, he teamed up with housewife Mary Sinclair to organize against a nuclear power plant in Midland, MI., that was processing uranium and plutonium for military purposes.
    "I'm not against defense," Kasuboski said. "But when I saw the radioactive affluents in the air and water going to people and knowing that within a 50-mile radius of the plant leading to birth defects, I said, 'Wait a minute.'" Through their efforts, Sinclair and Kasuboski were able to shut down the plant. It remains closed today.
    Next stop, Oklahoma, where Kasuboski answered a call from his attorney friend Sheehan. Sheehan asked Kasuboski to be a researcher on his legal team, which was prosecuting the Kerr-McGee company for its role in the death of a woman named Karen Silkwood. Kerr-McGee lost the case as well as appeals to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and to the Supreme Court. It was forced to pay Silkwood's three children $10 million negligence damages and $505,000 in personal injury damages.
    Then it was back to Washington to serve as coordinator of a national network in solidarity with the Nicaraguan people. "Somoza was a mad man," Kasuboski said of the leader, whose regime fell in July 1980. 
    That fall, Kasuboski began his three-year stink at Antioch Law School. In between legal studies, he co-founded the Christic Institute, an organization formed to practice public-interest law. Through that group he became an expert witness on behalf of Salvadorans seeking refugee status in the United States. The 1980 Refugee Act required refugees to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution or risk being returned to their home country.
    Kasuboski heard first-person accounts of Salvadorans being tortured and killed, some at the hands of fellow countrymen trained by Green Berets and financed by the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act.
    After attending a conference in Mexico, Kasuboski traveled to El Salvador to view the situation first hand. Once in El Salvador, Kasuboski said he met with all the guerilla leaders, who were fighting the pro-government death squads.
    "I got behind the guerilla lines and asked, "Why are you doing this?'" he said. "'Don't you know it's wrong to kill people?'" The guerillas told tales of how the death squads would take photographs of participants in nonviolent demonstrations, take down their license numbers and later seek retribution. One guerilla leader told Kasuboski about how he attended a peaceful demonstration for democratic reform. The man had locked his door at home but forgot to close a window. A death squad member entered the home, grabbed the man's little brother and sister. He proceeded to remove the boy's fingernails, cut off his hands and kill him. He then did the same to the little girl, but not before raping her.
    "That's why I'm a guerilla," the man told Kasuboski. "The church teaches that you have a right to defend your life." Kasuboski said. In 10 days, Kasuboski became convinced that the U.S. government was backing the wrong side in the El Salvador conflict. "The United States has done a lot of great things, tremendous things in our history," Kasuboski said. "But what the United States did in El Salvador and Nicaragua was damnable. I'm not a blind loyalist."
    After spending the next six years in Washington, D.C., representing Latin American refugees, Kasuboski tired of being in a reactive posture. He moved to St. Paul, MN., to clerk there for a law firm. It wasn't a good fit. "All they cared about was making money," Kasuboski said. "What about what's true and just? Does that have to do with anything? Well that was secondary. OK boys, adios."
    Kasuboski was called to fill in for an injured priest at a log cabin parish in Berrega, located in Michigan's upper peninsula along Lake Superior. Upon his arrival he discovered the church was $30,000 in debt. Kasuboski told his parishioners he would accept no salary until church finances were in the black. "So take care of me or I'll die," he said. When Kasuboski left seven months later, the church was ahead $27,000 in the bank and had earlier pledged to adopt a foreign mission parish, committing 10 percent off the top of its weekly collections to aid a parish in Rosita, Nicaragua. "Sometimes you've got to make a leap of faith, especially when it hurts," Kasuboski said. "If you are generous, God will be even more generous. That's my philosophy."
    After Michigan, Kasuboski left for the Middle East, where he served as the only Catholic priest in a Moslem country. He covered three parishes, seven days a week. 
    He duty over, Kasuboski visited Israel and Egypt, "where I retraced the steps of Joseph, Mary and Jesus when they fled into Egypt." Next stop, Italy, where he visited Assisi to see where St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Order to which Kasuboski belongs, had lived. While there, he found a street sign that read "Marquis of Ripon." Then on to Yugoslavia, Austria and Spain.
    Returning to Ripon, Kasuboski got the request to move to rural Panama. "Thought about it for a month in a cabin near Marathon, WI, that had no electricity or water," Kasuboski said.
    Kasuboski moved to Wacuco in 1988 and has been there since, longer than anywhere else during his 20-year priesthood. "The thing that bothered me most when I got there was the water," Kasuboski said. "I visited an elderly couple and saw that their water as putrid and filthy. "Where'd you get that?' I asked." They pointed to a five-gallon jug. Kasuboski made it his mission to help the Panamanians help themselves to replace the disease-ridden water in their jugs with uncontaminated, life-giving liquid.
    "Without (clean) water there's not going to be any future here," he figures, "except a future with misery and sickness." 
    Father Wally had come home.

 

Last modified: June 18, 2013