Clouds of incense hang in the air. Garifuna drumbeats animate an eager congregation. Marimba tickles the ears as an overflow capacity prepare to enter the Eucharistic celebration. On Sunday, September 11 Fr. Derek Vo, SJ, was installed as the new pastor of Saint Peter Claver Catholic Church in Punta Gorda, Belize. Parishioners gathered from all corners of the Toledo District to celebrate with the Most Reverend Christopher Glancy, Bishop of Belize City and Belmopan and Fr. Tony Vega, SJ, the Jesuit superior for the country of Belize. It was a celebration that will not be soon forgotten.
Highlighting the richness of tradition and peoples from the southern tip of this Caribbean nation, Bishop Glancey celebrated the diversity of the parish by welcoming the congregation at the start of mass in Garifuna, K'iche' (a Mayan dialect), Creole and Spanish.
With representatives from the town of Punta Gorda as well as the 34 villages consisting of K'iche' and Mopan Mayan communities, the celebration witnessed the universality of the Catholic Church. Saint Peter Claver Parish was founded in 1862 as the first Catholic Church among the Garifuna. Since that time the Society of Jesus have accompanied the people of Toledo District in their sacramental, pastoral and educational needs. Fr. Vo steps into a long line of pastors who have sought to proclaim the Good News and help build a community that reflects the Kingdom of God.
“[The installation mass] was special because our new pastor is young and dynamic, and he brings a lot of energy,” shared Mirtha Noralez, secretary for the parish. Fr. Vo’s energy will be put to good use as he organizes the sacramental and pastoral care for both the communities in Punta Gorda and in the villages.
It is a monumental task, but Fr. Vo is up to it. Having worked in Punta Gorda for the past two years as associate pastor under Fr. Lou McCabe, SJ, the previous pastor, Fr. Vo knows the communities that make up this sprawling parish. A tribute to his personal connection with the parishioners was seen clearly in the larger-than-expected crowd that came for the celebration.
“The turn out for the installation was spectacular. We did not expect such a large group,” reported Geraldo Baltazar, assistant principal at Saint Peter Claver RC School. “People know him and have been touched by Fr. Vo as he seeks to encourage full participation in the parish and at mass.”
A meal and entertainment of traditional dance were presented after Mass to the delight of the bishop and the parish community. Amy Cal from San Miguel village and a member of the parish staff shared that her favorite part was the rite of installation. “When the Bishop presented Fr. Vo to the congregation, and he accepted [the call to be pastor] – that was beautiful. He accepted to be our shepherd, to be our leader. It was beautiful to hear the congregation clap their acknowledgement.”
While there was much celebration and fanfare around Fr. Vo’s installation, he acknowledged the commitment and care that being pastor will demand of him. With ongoing financial challenges in the midst of ever-growing sacramental and pastoral needs, the parish that covers the Catholic presence for all the Toledo District has some difficult discernment to do in regards to how best to be church, both now and in the future. Fr. Vo’s response when asked about these challenges? Gratitude!
At the end of mass in offering a word of thanks, Fr. Vo humbly acknowledged what an honor it is to be called to lead a community he has gotten to know and love. He shared that “Pope Francis told priests to smell like their sheep and as your new pastor I ask you to allow me to be among you, to smell the many problems that you face in your life, especially in living out our Catholic faith in Toledo District.”
The excitement that filled the installation celebrations continues to flow into the work at hand as the parish moves forward. “I’m excited that our parish will draw more people to the Catholic Church to hear the Word of God and to participate in the mass,” states Ms. Noralez.
While the incense has settled and the Garifuna drumbeats and marimba have faded into memory, this contagious excitement – stirred in the installation mass – continues to build as Fr. Vo begins as pastor of Saint Peter Claver Catholic Church.
The country of Belize was hit by Hurricane Earl in August, causing significant damage in Belize City and at St. John's College. The parish in Punta Gorda suffered damage as power surges compromised the electrical systems of the parish church, hall and rectory. See St. John’s College hit by Hurricane Earl.
Photos by Taiga Guterres, Jesuit Volunteer