1981 - 2009: Building COAR (literally), surviving through war, and the Incarnate Word Sisters
Casas DeMatel & San Patricio & San Antonio & San José & San Juan Bosco
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1981-1983: Events began to move swiftly for Fr. Ken and COAR in 1981. Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla visited the CLAM Team in January to discuss their future in the country. By then Fr. Ken had over 200 children and more arriving every day. It was also obvious that COAR was a mission outgrowing the CLAM Team’s focus on parish ministries.
The townspeople of Zaragoza opened their homes to especially fragile families or children even wetnursing infant orphans. The Archdiocese of San Salvador through CARITAS provided food. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) helped with construction. Donations from Germany-CARITAS, Cleveland and around the world were pouring in. Among the refugee women were enough hands and skills to run the communal kitchen and dining area but the need for health care, teachers, and other support grew with the population. And they needed more space.
Fr. Ken and the Archdiocese approached the owners of a coffee finca just outside the town, about a 5-minute walk from the parish. The Muyshondt family first donated 6.9 acres. Over the next few months they sold larger tracts to the Archdiocese including the large family farm-house (with seven bedrooms, kitchen, laundry, and dining), a few out-buildings, eventually totaling 83 acres by 1982. The farmhouse, dubbed “the casona” housed a group of 32 orphans and four housemothers. True to the land’s origins the staff and children began farming: beans, corn, cows, goats, chickens, rabbits, fruit trees and many other endeavors through the years. Fr. Ken also began building a clinic, school rooms, and the all-important houses for the orphans.
Fr. Ken saw that the children needed not only their physical needs met but their psychological, social and spiritual needs – in short, they needed families. Working from the example of family groupings of children pioneered in orphanages the Cleveland Diocese he planned small houses where children of mixed ages and sibling groups could live together with a housemother as a family.
Fr. Ken also needed more skilled help. A medical student volunteered, the first in series of trained medical help to risk roadblocks and threats to come to COAR. He put out the call to religious orders who supplied Brothers and Sisters who could teach, administer the logistics of feeding the growing crowd and building houses, roads, storage sheds, water, electric, and sewerage. Because of the war, many volunteers could only stay only a few weeks or months. The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, Texas, (also known by their Latin name’s initials: CCVI) came to investigate whether they would be able to help in 1981. By 1983 three members of the community committed to helping with the orphans, overseeing the houses and housemothers, and the clinic: Sr. Stanislaus Mackey, a surgical nurse by training, Sr. Audrey Walsh, and Sr. Mary Patricia Driscoll.
1985 – Transitions: The Incarnate Word Sisters took on the care of the orphans and the clinic. The Christian Brothers of LaSalle had charge of the school and vocational training. Fr. Ken began a new work to found an order of Salvadoran Missionary priests. He transferred his fundraising role to the newly formed COAR Peace Mission, headquartered in Cleveland, OH, authorized as a US charity under section 501c3 of the US tax code and as listed in the Official Catholic Directory in the Diocese of Cleveland, miscellaneous section.
1989 – Tragedies: On June 21st, while returning to COAR after running errands, sitting in the passenger seat of COAR’s pick-up truck, another truck pulled alongside and an unknown assailant shot Sr. Stan in the head. She recovered but remained blind in one eye and had permanent voice damage. She was only able to return to COAR once before she died on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2004. On August 24th one of the teenage boys accidentally mixed insecticide (instead of sugar) into his lemonade. He died very quickly. His death devastated the community which had been struggling daily throughout the war to keep children alive and healthy. They took it as an opportunity to teach the children that they were cherished even though life is full of unexpected sorrow. Shortly before midnight on November 15th, a special army detachment entered the Jesuit University of Central America. They massacred six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter.
1990-2 – War ends: This horrendous event is well-chronicled in many places. It brought about a cease fire in 1990. Peace accords between the government and FMLN opposition were facilitated by the United Nations and finalized on January 16th.
1991 – 2000 – Post-war Transitions: The Incarnate Word Sisters agreed to administer all of the activities of COAR: the resident homes for orphans, clinic, school, vocational training, large chapel and special programs. Soon after the Peace Accords were signed parents and family members began to arrive at COAR to reunite with the children they’d been separated from by the war. About half the children (150) remained at COAR as orphans. However, the new reality of post-war El Salvador changed COAR’s focus: the need was increasingly for residential foster care of children who had family but could not live with them due to abuse, neglect, violence, or extreme poverty. Children might arrive with siblings or the siblings in a family might arrive over time, as circumstances at their home worsened and ad hoc social services could identify and extract them. They might return to live with a family member, and even return to COAR a few times, as needed.
2000’s – Poverty and Gangs: There was hope after the war that El Salvador would re-enter the world economy. The CAFTA Treaty (Central American Free Trade Agreement) modelled after NAFTA opened the way for trade. However, world economic currents changed. Lightweight, low-skilled manufacturing jobs went to China. Without natural resources or other sources of competitive income the economy struggled. An entire generation had little stability, education, or job experience. Emigration soared. Emigrants who had joined criminal gangs in Los Angeles were deported back to El Salvador. Those international criminal gangs, feeding the appetite for drugs and human trafficking soon dominated everyday life. Small businesses are strangled by extortion. A bus ride is a risk. Schools are closed by threats to the teachers and students.
2009 – Another year of transitions: In 2009 a new government was elected. They implemented a new childcare law, LEPINA, which lead to the creation of a system for identifying children at risk and placing them in residential foster care. The newly installed Archbishop, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, sought to harmonize all Catholic residential care with the new law. And lastly, the Incarnate Word Sisters ended their administration of COAR. New staff vetted and employed by the Archdiocese, Vicariate of Human Development, took more direct responsibility for COAR’s daily foster care operations. The parish regained direct responsibility for the school, chapel, and other special programs.
TODAY: Through all these years it is the donors from North America and around the world who have been the vital partners of every priest, nun, brother, doctor, nurse, housemother, teacher, social worker, bookkeeper, driver, maintenance worker, builder, and administrator who have cared for the COAR children. You have supplied their homes. We look forward to working with you toward a future where all children are cared for in loving homes.