Ripon men build roof on Central American church
The Ripon Commonwealth Press, January 20, 1994
by Tim Lyke
(This is the first 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).
Dress in blue jeans, work boots and a holey,
white tank-top undershirt, the unshaven man gazes out from his 30-foot high
perch and takes a drag on his Marlboro.
He removes his cap, wipes the sweat from his brow with his
work-gloved hand and peers down at the dark-skinned man below.
"Necessitamos mas agua!" he yells, the cigarette
bouncing in his mouth as he tosses down a plastic canteen from his scaffolding.
The Panamanian runs the canteen over to a 5-gallon cooler, fills it and tosses
it underhand up to the man.
When Father Wally Kasuboski asks for more water, the
Panamanian people jump. They think he walks on the
"Padre Pablo," as the locals call him, moved to the
tiny village of Wacuco, Panama, in 1988. He has lived there longer than anywhere
else in his 46-year life, besides the city where he grew up, Ripon, WI.
His parish covers more than 2,500 square miles and serves
about 30,000 people in 40 villages, including two Indian communities, the Chocoe
and the Kuna.
Most of the people living in Wally's parish are poor. No
electricity. No mail service. A single gravel road so full of potholes that
average speed for those few who own vehicles is about 15 mph. "I feel
I've got one less year to be in purgatory every time I drive on this road,"
Before Wally's arrival, the people had dirty drinking water,
few schools or churches, no hospital and little hope that things would improve.
Five years later, they still have no electricity, their clothes remain old and
torn, and during the rainy season, alligators have been know to lie in the
So why is Wally revered?
He has given many Panamanians the resources, knowledge and
inspiration to improve their health, education and spiritual lives. Wally has
taught the men how to hold hammers, the women how to sew. He has laughed and
cried with them, baptized their babies and buried their dead.
But he is not wholly beneficent. Wally has little tolerance
and no time for those who aren't willing to help themselves. He has been
assisted in his work by his diocese, private individuals, grants, churches -
locally, Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Green Lake has been among his
biggest benefactors; Ripon's St. Peter's Episcopal, St. Wenceslaus and St.
Patrick churches have also helped - and Americans who visit Panama to share
their technical expertise with the local people. Engineering students from
Villanova University in Pennsylvania laid pipe for water projects in early
On Saturday, health professionals from Texas will tend to the
communities' medical needs. Between the Pennsylvanians' and Texans' visits came
a delegation from Wally's hometown.
An odd quartet - a home builder, funeral director,
semi-retired sod farmer and journalist - returned to Ripon Sunday from Panama.
In 100-degree heat, Peter Kasuboski, Jerry Marchant, Marty
Hammen and Tim Lyke helped Peter's brother Wally build a roof on a
10,000-square-foot Catholic church he has been constructing for the past year in
a village four miles east of Wacuco, named Torti.
The four joined Wally and about 10 residents of nearby
communities in adding trusses, chicken wire, insulation and zinc sheeting to the
precast-concrete building, set on a hill overlooking Torti to the west and
mountains, countryside and jungle in other directions.
Wally, who grew up on a dairy farm southeast of Ripon and
graduated from Ripon High School in 1965, has been a Capuchin priest of the
Franciscan order since his ordination June 1, 1974.
As a Capuchin, Wally has devoted his adult life to
"contemplative service to the poor" through social action. That
commitment has taken him to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Washington, D.C., eastern
Europe and to the Middle East.
Since moving to Wacuco five years ago, Wally has helped the Panamanian
people build schools, bridges, roads, water systems, a hospital and now, the
Geographically, Panama is a horizontal isthmus averaging 60
miles wide, with the Atlantic Ocean to the north, the Pacific to the south.
Panama City, the capital, sits on the Pacific coast a little more than halfway
between the country's eastern border with Costa Rica and western border with
Colombia, South America.
Wacuco is about 70 miles east of Panama City (a four-hour
drive during the dry season) and about 110 miles west of Colombia.
Wally says he is the community's largest employer. His work
crew of about a dozen, in fact, makes him the largest employer in the whole
eastern third of Panama. Most of his employees are construction workers, trained
by Wally to be stone masons, mechanics, welders, drivers and, as of two weeks
Materials to build the church largely were home grown.
Concrete was brought in from Panama City, mixed with sand from local river beds
and formed into blocks using a machine Wally built. The four trusses that framed
the roof were hand-constructed as well, enabling Wally to save thousands of
dollars he otherwise would have had to pay to order them from Panama City.
The Ripon men worked beside the Panamanians, neither
nationality knowing much of the other's language but easily able to communicate
through gesture or simple words such as agua (water), pequito mas (a little
more) and at the end of a 10-hour day working in triple-digit temperatures,
Many months will pass before the church in Torti is
completed. But Wally hopes that in 1995 the building will host its first Mass. A
ground-breaking Mass held last year in the building's foundation overflowed with
worshippers. When completed, the church will hold 500.
When their work was finished, the Ripon men took a bus up to
San Jose, Costa Rica, to relax for a day before returning home. But all agreed
that the trip's highlight was the time they spent in Panama, building a roof on
a church that will stand as testament to international cooperation for many
years to come.
Next week: How Father Wally Kasuboski is
helping Panamanians to live longer by living healthier.