When Butch Mueller was a child, his father kept Maryknoll magazines around the house not only to instill in his children a sense of mission, but also to remind them of those in need around the world.
“Whenever we complained about something, he’d pull out the magazines and show us the children in other parts of the world who were suffering. He instilled that in me, and I always had the desire to visit a mission,” said Mueller, a member of St. Louis Parish in Paynesville.
After high school, he worked on his family’s farm until he heard about the San Lucas Mission in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, at a talk given by Father Greg Schaffer, a priest of the New Ulm Diocese who served as pastor of the mission.
A few months later, in the spring of 1972, at age 22, Mueller traveled to the mission. After a few days there, he asked Father Schaffer, “How am I supposed to teach these people about God when I don’t even speak the language?”
Mueller recalled the priest saying, “It’s simple. You show them. You show them you love them and are willing to be with them and help them as best you can. Then give God a little credit.”
Mueller ended up staying at the mission for three years, except for a few months when he and Father Schaffer returned to Minnesota to raise awareness about the mission. Father Schaffer proposed a walk from St. Paul, Minnesota, to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala.
The two, along with a religious sister and two Guatemalan men, embarked on the 3,252-mile trek, stopping to share their message at parishes and schools along the way. The five of them left on foot Oct. 18, 1972, taking turns walking and driving the supply van, and arrived at the mission on January 29, 1973.
By 1975, Mueller had run out of funds to stay at the mission and returned to Minnesota. Later that year, he met his wife, Beverly, and spent the next 30-plus years raising their two sons and owning and operating a cabinet-making business. About eight years ago, he felt the urge to return to Guatemala and now spends three months there at the beginning of each year building stoves.
“The mission was such a big part of my life. The timing was right to go back,” he said.
“When I looked around, I could see smoke coming from underneath people’s roofs. That means there’s no chimney. The ceiling and the sidewalls are black from soot that turns into tar. It coats the walls and even drips down [them],” Mueller said. “They say that these children by age 5 already have the lungs of a lifetime smoker.”
The stoves that Mueller installs use half the wood of an open fire, which are what most people there use to cook.
“The money they save on wood is enough to send one child to school. I didn’t realize that when I started,” Mueller said. “The church’s social doctrine teaches that everyone should get food when they need it, have a right to education, to health care and a right to work. All these things we work together to provide so they can feel like human beings and know they are loved by God.”
During three of the years in Guatemala, he was accompanied by his friend, Dale Welle, who died last April. Mueller estimates over 200 stoves have been installed through their efforts.
“He encouraged me to stay down there longer,” Mueller said.
When he comes home to Paynesville, his stories from Guatemala quickly spread. He started to receive donations from people who wanted to donate the cost of a stove, about $150. For each stove he builds, he takes a photo with the stove and a sign with the donors’ names on it in the home of a Guatemalan family. He then posts them on Facebook.
“It spread like wild fire,” Mueller said. “So many people wanted to help.”
He began accepting donations through the parish office at St. Louis Church and last year secured $27,000 in donations — some designated specifically for stoves and others to be left to Mueller’s discretion.
Often when he’s installing a stove, he notices other needs a family may have, like a lack of beds. Sometimes it’s as simple as building a bunk bed; sometimes it’s as extensive as installing a septic system.
Education is key
“They are so talented yet they are so poor,” Mueller said. “Just like me, they want their children to have a better life than we did. If they don’t get their children educated, the next generation will be even worse off.”
Mueller often has visitors from the states when he is in Guatemala. Rosie Lieser, also of Paynesville, visited Mueller in San Lucas in 2009.
Arriving in the hot humid town in the back seat of a taxi, she remembered people in the street chanting, “Boootch! Boootch!” cheering for Mueller. “That’s when I first realized the impact he had there,” Lieser said.
She also recalled sitting on the rooftop of the home where they were staying noticing smoke rising from the chimneys — many built or inspired by Mueller.
“Butch said to me as he was looking out across the city, ‘Isn’t this just like heaven?’ And for him, it really was. He has helped so many people there and encouraged so many others to get involved,” she said.
Lieser said she went to Guatemala with “no intentions of getting involved.” But after meeting the three boys whose family Mueller often stays with while in Guatemala, she found herself drawn in. She connected with Unbound, a nonprofit personalized sponsorship program, and she now provides the educational costs of their education.
“With Unbound, I know that my donation is going to educate these three boys,” Lieser said. She gets updates and photos of them regularly. “Seeing it for myself, it is part of what God’s calling us to do, to help those in need.”
When Mueller arrives in Guatemala, he goes into town and locates people in need of work, then hires them to assist with the stoves and other projects. He also buys the materials locally which helps small businesses there.
“I help 13 families each day I’m down there. My whole thing is not just building a stove. I’m trying to teach, to give, to improve. They take the skills they’ve learned and they pass it along. I also tell them, ‘Never be totally satisfied with what you build. Think of ways you can do it better.’ And they do. It’s changing lives one by one,” he said.
The town, which has grown to about 20,000 people with 20,000 more in surrounding villages, has a strong Catholic presence, though Mueller doesn’t differentiate those in need.
“I work with everyone,” he said. “I don’t know if they are Catholic, if they go to church, if they even believe in God. But when I’m with them, I tell them this work that I am doing is from God. It’s him telling me to do this.”