Saint David’s June 2004 Workcamp
Working in the Garden of Saint Anne
In a corner of the Temple, a gray-haired woman is praying. She is asking God for the impossible, to have a child in her old age. She promises to raise up the child in the way of the Law. No answer. She promises to teach the child about the great love that God has for His people. No answer. Finally, she promises to give the child back to God when the child is weaned. Voices call to her, it is time to go. No, she is going to continue to pray and to wait on the Lord. Then, she hears a strange voice, a child’s voice teasing her, “Woman, how does this concern of yours involve me?” She is puzzled, but then continues to pursue God to give life to her barren womb. After a time, she hears a more mature voice, “I am going to settle in her favor or she will end by doing me violence!” The voices outside call to her louder, but no, she will not leave now, she has clutched the outer garment of the Lord and will not be denied. Her request is answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your wish will come to pass.” The words that she has heard will be told again by her grandson in half a century. Our beloved Anne, Saint Anne, Grandma Anne, has gotten her wish. God has heard the cry of the poor.
In another part of the world, at a time in the future, God heard voices crying to Him for peace, for a decent livelihood, and the voices of little children who needed a school in their village. In June 2004, Saint David’s Relief Foundation answered a call from children in central Bosnia. The war had destroyed their school and they wanted it back. I was fortunate to be one of the volunteers of St. David’s Relief for its sixth summer workcamp. This trip, we have Father Glenn Sudano of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. He comes with four of his merry band of friars. After working in the Bronx, coming to war-ravaged Bosnia must be like coming to the French Riviera for the friars. We arrive at the village late Sunday night. None of us have been to Sunday Mass yet for we have been traveling for twenty-four hours. So, we unload our bags from the bus, put them into a barn and head on down to the worksite. We are losing light fast. There is an overcast and a threat of showers for the morning. We have Mass in a tent that the Dutch army provided. It is enough to cover the 27 volunteers and about 10 of the people of the village. The local Franciscan priest gets the altar ready for Father and amid candlelight and one light bulb we celebrate the Sacred Mystery. There is no church in the village. For this week, this tent will become Church and Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament must fire us up to do our work. We are willing but after modern air travel, the flesh is weak. After Mass, we walk back to the village. The distance is about three fourths of a mile. We have dinner in a converted home. There is a bathroom around the side of the building with running cold water. There is no water system in the village. This water is delivered by tank truck and pumped into a well. From the well, an electric pump raises it up to a storage tank. Electricity in the village has been recently installed about a year ago. For that, we are very grateful. We eat our first meal as a group. I recognize many of the old faces and we have some new ones. I always talk to the new faces and find out how they got the “call” to make this trip. The answers always are varied, this one, his wife was looking on the Internet for an adventure for him. That one, found out about the trip from a friend of a friend. Over the years, I have become convinced that Our Lady calls them; she has a certain quiet style about her that gets the job done, even if it means pulling along rascals like myself. We finish dinner and Mr. Jeff Reed, Executive Director of St. David’s, informs us that there will be three tasks at hand. The most important task is the building of the grammar school. Second to that, will be a fence for the school, and third, there will be constructed a shrine to Saint Anne for she is the protector of the village. The last one hits me personally very hard as Saint Anne has had a hand on my life and has saved my bacon innumerable times.
After dinner, we are split up among the villagers by the mayor. How they work this “lottery” is unknown to me, but Bill House and I end up in a small house about a mile from the center of the village. The woman of the house is a red-headed lady named Manda. She and her teenage son Ivan show us our sleeping room and also indicate to us where the bathroom is. They have all the fixtures, but there is no running water yet, so they show us their system. Drinking water is kept in the blue plastic jug. Water for washing is kept in the clear plastic jug. And use whatever is necessary to flush the commode. We all laugh and turn in for the night. As I lay down on a nice soft cot, I put the memory of the plane ride with its “comfortable seating” behind me. I dream of my nice hot shower at home. Never will I take pressurized water for granted again!
Our workweek begins. Our room faces the southeast and we have light by 4:30am. Our windup clocks go off by 6:00am and we do our best with the facilities, juggling the plastic containers, shaving, brushing teeth, etc. Mass will be at 8:00am in the same tent, so we must hustle a bit for the two mile walk. After Mass, we have breakfast and then go back to the jobsite. There will be Eucharistic Adoration each day through out the week in the tent after Mass until 7:00 PM and all are encouraged to sign up for an hour with Our Lord. The day starts out cloudy with a little bit of rain. On the jobsite, the slab has been poured and cured. Today, we begin building the walls with red brick. There is a local construction company working also on the site. We will work with them. First, we begin with prayer that God will bless us and help us do our work and keep the injuries to a minimal.
We begin with getting the bricks off the pallets and as close as possible to the walls. Our friars work one of the mixers and begin making mortar for the bricks. Some volunteers work on sweeping the rain off the slab while others engage the wheelbarrows and begin delivering mortar. There are several walls going up at once. We are to get the walls 11 bricks high and that will be the first floor. The construction men begin working on the walls with us. We are the “new help”. Although there is a language barrier, we communicate by sign language, pick up a few words of Croatian and we keep the work moving. This is the universal language of construction. Bòzo is our construction chief and he delegates out the work so that we and the construction crew work as a team. The construction crew has the technical skill and we are able to fill in the cracks, just like mortar in a brick wall. By the end of the first day, most of the walls are up.
As the week progresses, God blesses us and holds back the rain. In His wisdom, He dumps it all on my lawn in Texas so that I have a “fine harvest” on my return! There are children everywhere. I know that the village gets snowbound during the winter and I am tempted to ask these children if they all have August and September birth dates, but good sense prevails! When some of the children come on the jobsite, Bòzo does not yell at them. Instead, he gives them orders and they snap to and begin working, carrying light things, and sweeping up. In fact, one of the little guys got after me when I was too slow with a broom! The village is isolated and about 4,700 feet above sea level. There is a beautiful range of mountains covered with trees that serves as a backdrop to the village. For the kids, this is paradise as they are able to play from dawn to dusk without the worries we have in our “modern day” society. If a stranger comes into the village by its one road, the villagers would be upon him in short order in their friendly but persuasive manner to find out his business. This is one place where the village will help raise the children to respect God and their parents.
The shrine to Saint Anne begins construction at the entrance to the village. I help out a little bit with mortar delivery but the lion’s share of the work is done by Bòzo and Adam, one of our new volunteers. Seeing Bòzo’s intensity with getting the shrine just right, I imagine that Saint Anne saved his bacon also.
In mid-week, we have a bonfire at night. Wreckage from the old school that could not be salvaged is thrown into the pile. The local well that will service the school with drinking water is also cleaned out and unidentifiable objects from the well are heaped into the pile. That night, we set the wreckage ablaze in a safe area. The children watch intently. It is the end of one chapter in their lives and the beginning of another.
On Thursday, we are busy building steel reinforcements. These will be used in several places. First, they will be used inside the columns that will reach up from the first floor to the second. Also, they will be used in the fabrication of the second floor. That night, after building these things all day, I settle down for a nice dinner and relax. My back is killing me. As the meal ends, my stalwart companion Bill House and another volunteer, Eugene Siani, decide to go back to the jobsite while it is still light and finish off the last reinforcement that we were working on. I would rather stay in the village, joke around and drink a cold beer, but duty calls and I join my comrades in their mad quest back at the jobsite. When we return about thirty minutes later, everyone is gone! My first impression is they are all gone in “The Rapture” and the Protestants had it right all along; we are “Left Behind”! Then, someone informs me that they have gone to see a wild bear in the next village in the Republik Srpska about 7 kilometers away. You see, when you don’t have cable TV, you are reduced to chasing wild bears for kicks! Anyhow, I settle down with the local villagers to watch some European football on TV. Croatia is playing France in the Euro 2004 contest. I know a little about the game and the young men in the village are quick to increase my knowledge about the game, about the players, about the coaches, etc…. My Croatian is not that good, but I think I understand the “spirit” of the comments of the young men, when their team did well and… when some of the players did not do so well. The Croatian language can be very colorful, almost as colorful as the beautiful Bosnian countryside. The game ends in a tie, so Croatia still gets a point in the tournament. A win would be nice, but a tie is okay and hey, as long as I am not chasing a wild bear, I’m happy.
Saturday arrives; we are at the climax of our workweek. Today will be special. The construction crew has put fresh timbers on the first floor to support the ceiling we are going to pour. A ramp has been built. We are going to have three concrete mixers going at the same time and numerous wheel barrow teams. We are going to mix concrete, dump it into the wheel barrows, run the wheel barrows up to the second floor via the ramp and begin filling the top of the building. This will solidify the ceiling of the first floor and create the base for the second floor. To help get the wheelbarrows up the ramp, there are steel hooks like long S’s to be used to pull the wheel barrow up. One man pushes and the second man pulls. Hey, it looks like a system to me! So we start. I get lucky in the beginning rotation of three men on a concrete mixer. The 1st man takes a full load, the 2nd man takes a full load, and to empty out the mixer, my load is one-half. I don’t let on to the young guys that I have a light load and instead I charge up the ramp by myself “to show them how it’s done”. When I get to the top to the area where I am to pour, the supervisor yells “Malo!” which means a small amount. We laugh, and I head back again. Lucky for me, this happens about three or four times in a row where I get the “shakings of the bag” and it becomes a joke with the supervisor when he sees me. Meanwhile, honest, hardworking volunteers are working as teams to haul up the concrete as quickly as possible. Some of the native men are in such great shape that they carry full loads up by themselves. One of our volunteers, Brian, can’t get over how great a shape these guys are in. When he sees them later doing their solo run with a lit cigarette hanging from their mouth, it blows his mind. We run the concrete all day. My legs give out. I turn the wheel barrow job over to someone else and decide to mix concrete for awhile. We follow a simple formula. First, two buckets of water (provided by our lady volunteers) are thrown into the mixer. Then, two shovelfuls of cement are followed by as much gravel mix as the machine can stand. It is a simple system and effective. We run the mix for about two to three minutes and then it is ready to pour into the wheelbarrow. I continue to do this until my arms give out. Then, Bill House asks me if I want relief. I want someone to shoot me and put me out of my misery, but this is a Catholic group so that is out of the question. So, I turn over my shovel to Bill and try to get my second wind. It is 5:00 pm and my second wind never comes. Thankfully, the volunteers quit at 7:00pm and walk back to the village for dinner. The construction crew stays at it and finishes the concrete floor under electric lights. The volunteers gave it all they had. Working with the construction crew, the job for this week was completed.
It is Sunday morning. Bill and I are up early and have our things packed. We share a little bit of strong coffee with our host, Manda. She has been great to us during the week. This Sunday morning before Mass, we have a little bit of “refreshment”, a clear liqueur so that we can hear and understand Father Glenn’s sermon better. It helps the coffee go down. We tidy up our room and bring our bags down to the village to the same barn that we had first used the previous Sunday night. The week has gone by fast.
We hustle down to the village. There is going to be Mass outside of the tent for everyone. The volunteers and the people of the village have become one family. The children sit together on some makeshift benches while Father Glenn gives his sermon. Our translator Milenka interprets for the locals. The villagers listen intently. For them to have Mass in their village is a rarity. They normally must travel a distance for Sunday Mass. These people know that their help is from the Lord. We fortunate few have been His instruments this week. After Mass, a procession begins. First, the school building is blessed by Father. Then the procession makes it way through the village and toward the shrine. The children lead with a cross on which they have placed flowers. Behind them, Bòzo our construction boss carries the statute of Saint Anne with her daughter, our own Blessed Mary. The statue was once the property of a priest who lived in the village. He has passed away, but his memory lives on, and his family has donated the statue for the shrine. Father Glenn with his friars comes now in the procession. And we, the people of the village and the volunteers, bring up the rearguard. We walk the mile through the town and then up to the road to the entrance of the village. There, in the shrine built this week, the statute of Saint Anne is placed with loving care. Father Glenn blesses the statue. The village once again has Saint Anne in her proper place. Everyone coming into the village must pass by her, the mother of the village. And Saint Anne blesses us, we, her grandchildren, who came from a faraway land in answer to her call.
We have a quick breakfast. The bus is here to take us to Medjugorje. The mayor comes in and speaks a few words to us. He is a very strong man and he speaks from the heart. He thanks us for coming to help his people. They were driven out of the village during the war. They are returning now and are refugees no longer. He tells us that the people of the village will not forget us and will keep us in their prayers when they speak to God. And he also mentions that he hopes to have a water system in his village in the near future. I am all for that even if it means taking cold showers! Heck, give me a shovel, and I will start digging the line trenches now!
After breakfast, we are all outside. Leaving is always the hard part. I tease Ivan. He is the teenager with whom I stayed. I sneak up on him and take his hat, putting it on my head. When his mother motions for me to keep the hat as a gift, I pantomime that if I take the hat, I will have to look after Ivan’s sheep as well. She breaks up laughing and I return the hat to Ivan. I know how teenagers are about their things and the hat means a lot to him. And I don’t know a thing about sheep!
We say our goodbyes and begin to board the bus.
One of the villagers tells us that we are now the refugees instead of them.
It is Croatian humor at its best. And like them, we may return to
the village if God so wills it. The bus begins to pull out. We wave goodbye
to villagers. Perhaps, it is goodbye or maybe, it is just “See you later”.
God alone knows the answer to whether we will be back again. God
alone knows and of course, His wise daughter, Saint Anne.
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