By Susan Klemond | Catholic News Service
ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — Fifty years ago, a priest from the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, walked more than 3,000 miles from St. Paul to Guatemala to help the poor through mission work in that Central American country.
The walk inspired a then-New Ulm teenager into helping the mission there in ways that continue into his adulthood as a member of Nativity of Our Lord Parish in St. Paul — and the walk more recently inspired a teen from Faribault, Minnesota.
This fall, Dan Herbeck, 66, and Mitchell Gibbs, 14, each biked a share of the 3,087-mile walk as a way to commemorate the 1972 trip made by then-Father Greg Schaffer and two Guatemalan companions.
They did not retrace the priest’s exact route because of road changes and safety risks south of the U.S. border. But the cyclists have raised money and awareness of the mission in San Lucas Tolimán in west-central Guatemala.
The priest, who was later named a monsignor, led the mission for decades. He died in 2012.
Starting in early September, Herbeck spent three weeks biking 1,788 miles from Minnesota to the U.S. border at Brownsville, Texas.
Since late September, Mitchell of Divine Mercy Parish in Faribault has been biking the remaining 1,299 miles on shorter rides around his home, rather than through potentially dangerous Mexico and Guatemala.
Their anniversary ride will culminate Jan. 29, with Mitchell finishing his miles as Herbeck visits the San Lucas mission and rides a symbolic, short distance to mark the 50th anniversary of the walk’s end.
When Mitchell read about Herbeck’s trip and how he planned to stop at the U.S. border, he and his mother, Andrea Gibbs, talked about “finishing” the trip with shorter rides in Minnesota — an idea he later shared with Herbeck on FaceTime as Herbeck reached the U.S.-Mexico border.
The two cyclists met for the first time Nov. 3 and biked 15 miles together on a trail near Faribault.
“Father Greg touched so many people, it was such an honor to be representing him among all these people who loved him and essentially caught his spirit for the need, and the help, that people needed in Guatemala,” said Herbeck, who hasn’t traveled to the mission but often collected donations for it with classmates while growing up.
Mitchell is biking to raise $12,000 to build a concrete block home at San Lucas Tolimán. His desire stems from learning about the needs in Guatemala during two of his family’s visits to the mission, including a monthlong immersion trip in 2018, when he was 10.
He said he now has an opportunity “to help them and change their lives. … It’s just the right thing to do.”
Msgr. Schaffer pastored the New Ulm Diocese’s mission parish of San Lucas Tolimán and spearheaded the mission’s work during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.
Today, the mission in San Lucas Tolimán assists more than 25,000 mostly Indigenous Mayans with housing, health care, education and more, said Bill Peterson, executive director of Friends of San Lucas, a nonprofit based in Eagan, Minnesota, that was started to support the mission after Msgr. Schaffer’s death.
Msgr. Schaffer and his companions raised about $75,000 on their walk for the mission.
Friends of San Lucas hopes to raise $1 million during anniversary commemorations of the walk, Peterson told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Donors can sponsor one or more of the walk’s 3,087 miles at sanlucasmission.org/walk.
Last spring, Herbeck and a friend who chairs the Friends of San Lucas board were looking for ways to honor Msgr. Schaffer and help the mission.
They considered biking the priest’s route, but after checking with the U.S. State Department, Herbeck decided that biking through Mexico wouldn’t be safe.
While he biked through the U.S., his family and friends took turns driving a donated SUV to support him, following Msgr. Schaffer’s route as much as possible. Herbeck rode from 30 to 110 miles daily, depending on scheduled speaking engagements.
Herbeck said he had mild symptoms after testing positive for COVID-19 in Iowa, and he lost his left mirror on a shoulder-less section of Route 66 in Oklahoma. But he didn’t encounter any major problems and he raised about $12,000 on his trip.
“One of the main highlights of the whole trip was just meeting all the people along the way who already had a relationship with the mission,” he said. “So, I sort of became a representative of the mission even though I’ve never even been to Guatemala.”
Mitchell rode 10 to 25 miles a day this fall on his grandfather’s silver Schwinn mountain bike — or on a stationary bike in inclement weather. By late November, he had logged more than 350 miles and raised about $2,000 toward his goal.
A homeschooled eighth grader and Boy Scout who volunteers regularly at a nursing home and food pantry, Mitchell is the youngest member of the pastoral care team at Divine Mercy in Faribault and an altar server at funeral Masses.
He also is contributing to his cause with earnings from a part-time job.
“Most days it’s not hard to get just an hour of biking in an afternoon once I have everything done,” he said. “Especially if I am doing it just on a stationary bike. I don’t’ have to get dropped off anywhere.”
At the mission, the teen has helped cook, serve the elderly and assisted with building projects. Seeing residents’ poor housing situations particularly made him want to help.
“Their houses are pretty primitive,” he said. “There are not many resources to make better houses.”
Andrea and Jeremy Gibbs have made many trips to the mission since they were students at Minnesota State University at Mankato. They said they are proud of their son’s initiative and effort.
“It isn’t even about” (him), Andrea said of Mitchell, the third of the couple’s five children. “It’s about the difference that it’s going to make for other people. They will accept that kindness and do something kind for other people, and just to be able to see a ripple effect, that is good.”
“We kind of have a saying in our home, ‘Do it right, or don’t do it at all,’ and he has surely taken this to the next level,” Jeremy said. “I see him taking off out of the driveway for 10-to-20-mile rides all over Rice County and am inspired by his grit and dedication to this very important and worthy cause.”
Funds raised during Friends of San Lucas’ anniversary activities will support programming run by the local population — something that was important to Msgr. Schaffer, Peterson said.
Msgr. Schaffer frequently said, “‘Together we can do it,'” noted Andrea, who got to know him during trips to the mission.
“So that’s what we’ve been telling Mitchell too — together we can do this,” she said. “You can do the biking piece and together we can help change a family’s life with access to a decent home.”