The parish of El Calvario in Cobàn is under the care of three priests belonging to the congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Although the parish church is close to the city centre, the parish itself covers a vast and mountainous area of 2,000 square kilometres, with 117 outlying communities to care for. The challenges are considerable, and the distances considerable, and often on poor roads. The northern part of the region ‚s unsafe on account of the drug traffickers and organised crime, and three quarters of the population live in poverty, often extreme poverty. Most of the population belong to the indigenous Kekchi (or Q’eqchi) tribe. The first roads into the region were only built in the 1960s and 1970s, and to this day the Kekchi still live on the margins of society.
During the civil war that lasted from 1968 until 1996 many people were abducted and tortured or lost close family members, and many children were orphaned. „The wounds from this time have still not healed“, says Father Charitable Derisseau, who in fact comes from Haiti himself. „The widows, orphans and other survivors of this conflict are still living here in our parish“, he adds. Father Derisseau has left his own country, the poorest in the Western hemisphere, to devote his life to the poor in Guatemala. So it is that the poor are helping the poor within the Church, in a most moving manner.
The Catholic Church here is devoting itself particularly to the Kakchi people. „They are the majority in our parish, and they are particularly poor and marginalised“, their parish priest tells us. Many of their villages can only be reached on foot, which means that the priests sometimes have to wade through the mud to get to their destination. „Generally, we aim to visit 10 communities in five days. Sometimes we have to walk for hours to get from one village to another. But although walking through the mud is extremely hard work and makes us sweat and struggle, we are welcomed with such warmth and celebration“, he tells us. The Catholic faithful are overjoyed when the priest comes, bringing them the Sacraments and helping them with wise spiritual and practical counsel. Many of the villages can, however, be reached along very poor, muddy and deeply potholed tracks – but these can only be managed in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.