amazon_logo Our Diocesan Relationship with Brazil

The Diocese of St. Cloud is connected to the Amazon region of Brazil through the Franciscans of the Amazon. The relationship stems from a Freeport-Melrose area native of our diocese, Father John Schwieters, OFM. Through Fr. John and the ministry of his Franciscan community, people of the St. Cloud Diocese have been able to hear about, read about, witness and experience first-hand the people, culture, faith, struggles of the Amazon.


An Amazonian Adventure: What a way to start the new year!

The following article was written by Father Jeff Ethen, and was originally published in the February 23rd 2006 Issue of The St. Cloud Visitor

The Amazon region of Brazil is a land of stark contrasts. Rich and poor intermingle. Resource wealthy but cash poor, cashiers make change with gum. Everybody from subsistent farmers to multinational corporations fight to keep landholdings, though few have legal title. Political violence and corruption blends with benevolence. A village without electricity sits on one bank of the river facing the lights of a city across the other side. A donkey cart rambles past a gas station. European white settlers and black African slaves share their ancestors’ struggle to survive and thrive in the Amazon.

brazil_group2006An eight-member mission delegation from the St. Cloud Diocese spent two weeks in January in the Amazon as guests of veteran missionary Father John Schwieters, OFM, a Melrose native. “Amazonia should stand by itself as a territory. It’s really more than just Brazil,” said Schwieters, who has spent 37 years as a Franciscan friar along its rivers and tributaries. Springing from the Peruvian Andes in the west it widens to 300 miles across at the Atlantic delta.

The delegation gained a sense of the 3,000 mile length of the river by traveling 14 hours in a high speed boat from Manaus, where the delegation had entered Brazil, to Santarem 500 miles to the east. The delegation included three Melrose residents and St. Mary’s parishioners, Deacon Ernie Kociemba, and Kevin and Ann Viere; neighboring parishioners Jim Schultzetenberg, of St. Andrew’s Parish, Greenwald, and son Thomas, a seminarian for the St. Cloud Diocese. Lowell and Kay Anderson, St. Ann’s Parish, Brandon, and Father Jeff Ethen, pastor at Belgrade, Brooten and Elrosa rounded out the team.

Father Schwieters, then prior, was eager to show the delegation his territory which includes the expansive Santarem Diocese. Carved from the historic Prelacy of Santarem (the first such territory in the world), the diocese covers 172 square kilometers and 756 communities. Most are isolated villages strung along rivers. Indigenous villagers are helped by the church in their legal battles to obtain land deeds promised them. In 2005, 38 land rights advocates, including Notre Dame de Namur Sister Dorothy Stang, were murdered defending indigenous rights against loggers.

In a country with bountiful game, fish, and fruit, the abundance runs short when it comes to clergy. Just 45 priests serve the far-flung parishes. One mission stop requires a 40-hour boat ride. Some priests live on boats however, the average age is young and there are currently 36 native seminarians.

vieres_brazilAuxiliary Bishop Severino de Franca, OFM met with the group and was excited about the mission possibilities between St. Cloud diocesan and Santarem parishes. He is well-versed in the new sense of mission. No longer one way, with the rich nations giving handouts to the poor nations, there is he said, “the recollection that the entire church is missionary. We are together.” Everybody has some gift to contribute to the Gospel mandate to be a missionary people.

Brazil’s gift to the church, Bishop de Franca reminded the delegates, was and is, Liberation Theology. Far from dead or dismissed, liberation theology is Latin America’s response to the openness of Vatican II. Misunderstood and disparaged outside Latin America, it is a daily force empowering small, basic Christian communities (CEB) seeded in many parishes. Lay led, with catechetical training provided by the diocese, CEB’s strengthen the social, liturgical, and justice mandate of the church.

Delegation members separated to spend two overnights with CEB leaders’ families and attend their meetings. While language was a barrier to overcome, the passion of the meetings and the hospitality bridged the gap and helped the delegates experience something more earnest than most parish council meetings, Deacon Ernie Kociemba, owner of Ernie’s Family Foods in Melrose, was impressed. “It was an experience to observe and walk with people of other cultures. It was my goal to learn from the faith of a people who were, and are, oppressed.”

Deacon Kociemba also evangelized Father Schwieters about the permanent diaconate and how it could help spread the Gospel throughout the Amazon. While not an immediate solution to the clergy shortage, it was this type of exchange that excited both Father Schwieters and Bishop de Franca.

For Jim Schultzetenberg, a veteran of 11 mission trips mostly to Guatemala, Brazil offered more similarities than contrasts. “I wasn’t certain what to expect,” he admitted, but wasn’t surprised by the poverty and injustice.” But there was a delightful joyfulness in the Brazilian hospitality present at every Mass. “The greetings were warm, people participated in the liturgy and the music was lively,” he said.

The Mass was easy to follow, even in Portuguese, though there were twists. The Gospel was applauded after the priest read it. No ushers collected the offertory. A box in front of the altar received the collection as individuals came forward to contribute.

Kay Anderson, Brandon, was impressed with their faith. “They have a commitment to live out their faith,” she said. “And, if there is one thing I’d like to bring home it’s the richness of their liturgies.”

The hospitality extended throughout the villages the delegation visited. Snakes were cleared from one grassy boat landing with sticks and enthusiasm. At an indigenous village, the children lined the beach with tattooed faces and bows and arrows. (Ceremonial, it turned out). “I felt like Columbus,” Schultzetenberg joked. The delegates left with a hearty fish soup meal and gifts of baked clay bowls.

schwieters_singingFather Schwieters arranged for the delegation to meet with the powerful and the humble. Politicians, student activists, journalists, lawyers, conservationists, artists, and multinational corporation executives shared their aspirations and frustrations openly with the Minnesota eight.

While the multinationals and loggers tear the Amazon apart (one estimate is nine football fields per second) the Amazon ecosystem is being stripped and polluted. Crushed under the weight of corruption, the villagers flee deeper into the forest as land is taken from them.

The delegation wasn’t going to save the rainforest, but the understanding of how western consumerism contributes to the destruction of the Amazon was the message to take home. Lowell Anderson, retired government official with UNESCO and USAID education departments, had worked extensively in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, was less interested in sorting out the land reform issues, than in concentrating on the mission development between St. Cloud and Santarem.

“There is enthusiasm within the Franciscan Community and the Santarem Diocese for more exchanges,” Anderson said. “This is a new mission vision,” he added, which isn’t focused yet. He and his wife, Kay, are members of the sister parish relationship between St. Ann’s Parish, Brandon and Barbacoa, Venezuela.

Melrose farmers Kevin and Ann Viere were on their first mission trip. Neither knew what to expect and the orientation dind’t offer many clues because it was so new. “But this was something I really wanted to try,” he said. His weife, Ann, wasn’t about to let him go alone, though. “This was something we had to do together,” she said, then explained, “If he went alone for two weeks, there would be no way we could share the experience as a couple.”

The joint experience went beyond their expectations. “It was like a retreat with surprises every day,” she said. Language frustrations and the uneasiness of the home stays were offset by the common thread of the Eucharist and whatever caught one’s eye. For Kevin, it was noticing the details and differences of the low key farming methods. “It would be great to communicate our experience throughout our schools,” he said, spoken like a true missioner.

It was evident that faith life in Brazil was a potent mixture of liturgy and injustice. There was the piety and the political. The Gospel cried out on the behalf of dignity and the liturgy soared joyfully from the cathedral and the chapel. Mass was not burdened with obligation. Young people flocked to the weekly Eucharistic adorations and filled their lungs with songs in praise of creation and courage.

tom_woodcarvingTom Schulzetenberg, recent St. Thomas University and St. John Vianney College Seminary graduate, was in constant contact with young Brazilians eager to practice their English and learn about snowy Minnesota. Schulzetenberg, who made mission trips to Guatemala and will spend February in the diocesan mission in Maracay, Venezuela, said Brazil was different.

“I was expecting more jungle but the experience was mostly urban,” he noted. His first impression was how dependent the villages and cities were to the rivers of the Amazon for food, transportation and drinking water.

The Brazilian church is young and vibrant. “The church is much more community minded and related to daily life,” he observed. The youth are also politically aware of international events and the Amazon’s importance to the world. The young Catholics take their stewardship of the region’s resources seriously. Schultzetenberg connected with them, though Portuguese was a barrier to communication. “Spanish was our common link,” he said.

The delegation returned to the St. Cloud Diocese enthusiastic about continuing a relationship with Amazonia. Some members felt bad that it took 37 years to connect. “Not a problem at all,” Father Schwieters assured them. “The time wasn’t right until now. This is where the Spirit is leading us today.”

schweitersWhich returned the delegation to the contrast of the mission call shared by all Catholics. “It was very important that I have this experience to learn about others,” Deacon Kociemba reflected. “I need to learn, digest, then act. If I act first, then I’m no more than a busybody without a goal. At the same time, the Gospel calls for action.”


Read more about the Franciscans in the Amazon in past newsletters (contact the Mission Office for these editions):

  1. Winter 2011
  2. Summer 2009

 kids_brazil_wayofcrossAlso, check with the Visitor, our diocesan newspaper, for stories and photos shared by the ten delegates who traveled to Brazil to witness Fr. John and his community’s ministry in August of 2011, through the collaborative efforts of the Mission Office and CEM.