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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
Father Wally had come home.