My Friend the Holy Father

When I lived in Rio Blanco, the Maya weren’t the only people of another culture I met.  While the country itself was a British colony, the entire educational system was run by American Jesuits from the Missouri Province in St. Louis.  Father John Paul Cull, the priest in Toledo District, was American—tall, lean, given to abrupt speech and movements, a man who seldom smiled.  He was also the only Roman Catholic priest I’ve ever made friends with.

The interior of the Catholic Church in San Antonio, Toledo District.  A church in St. Louis donated the stained glass.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

The interior of the Catholic Church in San Antonio, Toledo District. A church in St. Louis donated the stained glass. (Photo by Joan Fry)

He lived in the rectory next to the church in San Antonio, which was the Maya’s commercial center—smaller than Punta Gorda on the coast, but where all the villagers went shopping.  About half a dozen small stores were located there, selling everything from kerosene to Danish corn flakes to “lemonade,” a generic name for any bottled soft drink.  San Antonio also had a small, beautiful church that still stands, with statues of the saints and stained glass windows.

Fr. Cull hired me sight unseen as a teacher on the recommendation of my husband-to-be, even though neither of us was Catholic.  To accomplish this, Fr. Cull went straight to the top—the Bishop of British Honduras, another American from the Missouri Province, who gave his consent.  The bishop was a kind man, outgoing and generous.  I suspect his decision to hire me was influenced as much by Fr. Cull’s pragmatism (even though I was only a college sophomore, I was one of the best-educated people in the country) as by the fact that the man himself was so isolated.  There were almost no Americans in Toledo District in those days except for the occasional Peace Corps member.  Even to other Belizeans, Toledo District was a cross between a leper colony and that place on old maps where the known world ends.  Only outcasts and sea monsters lived there by choice.

If Fr. Cull ever told me how long he had been in the colony, I’ve forgotten.  I rarely had a one-on-one conversation with him.  As a result, I knew very little about him, and most of that I learned in letters we exchanged after my husband and I had come home—for instance, that he himself had Native American blood.  In addition to performing his priestly duties, he was an organizer who got schools built, found qualified people to teach in them, and worked with three different ethnic groups—the English, the Kriol, and the Garifuna—to educate the Maya.  But Fr. Cull never learned to speak a word of the language.  I don’t think he had the time.

According to a FAQ website sponsored by the Jesuits, “From the beginning [1540 AD] Jesuits have been missionaries, teachers, spiritual directors, [and] scholars . . . .”  Ferociously intelligent, Fr. Cull was all of those.  He had a degree in geology.  He believed fervently in education—a belief that brought him to the doorstep of our British friend, the AmericanIndian Development Officer Don Owen-Lewis.  Don is no intellectual slouch himself, and the two of them struck up a close friendship.  I know of no other white person Fr. Cull ever accepted a dinner invitation from.  When he made the rounds of the villages he stayed with a Maya family, even though conversation was probably limited—especially if his hosts didn’t speak English.  When he visited Rio Blanco, he always brought me copies of a Jesuit magazine, the closest he ever came in an attempt to convert me.  Or maybe he knew I was chronically in need of kindling to get the fire started, and that glossy magazine pages worked just fine.

Nowadays, thanks largely to the efforts of evangelicals, the Catholic Church’s influence in Belize has waned considerably.  In fact their last stand seems to be in Toledo District, which befits the district’s history.

The rectory has been unoccupied for years—once a month a visiting priest comes to hear confessions and say mass.  When I ran across the following on the internet—regarding the Church’s presence in Belize—I laughed out loud.  “In the 1970s, pastors like Frs. Jack Ruoff and Bill Messmer spent weeks at a time walking from village to village to celebrate marriages, baptize children and offer other sacraments in areas without easy access . . . . travel to distant villages [was] not for the faint-hearted or frail, especially when rain [washed] out the roads leading to them.”  In the 1960s, Fr. John Paul Cull also travelled those “roads”—in reality, little more than foot paths—except he was smart enough to ride a mule.  (http://www.jesuitsmissouri.org/act/cam_Belize_home.cfm)

Years after my anthropologist husband and I divorced and I had moved to California, Fr. Cull was re-assigned to a parish in Raton, New Mexico.  I went to visit him once, and he seemed genuinely happy to see me.  For the first time I wondered how old he was, since I was in my late twenties by then, but he looked exactly the same.  His hairline might have receded, but his hair was still black, and he still had a young man’s enthusiasm.  We had so much to talk about that our afternoon visit spilled over into evening, and he invited me to have dinner in the cafeteria with him.  His parishioners—mostly Native American and Hispanic, all poor—obviously adored him.  His cassock was clean—no more ragged, mud-spattered hems—and so were his glasses—his old ones had been cloudy from being soaked too often in hard water.  He seemed more relaxed—less driven.  We talked about people we knew.  We talked about obeah—I discovered that he had performed exorcisms on people an obeah man had marked for death.  We talked about my writing.  We still didn’t talk about him—except he said he was happy here.

After saying goodbye, I found a motel to spend the night in and left Raton the following morning.  It was the last time I saw him.

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