By SHEILA OJENDYK
GREENWOOD — How Our Lady of Lourdes adopted Queen of Peace Parish in the Marshall Islands is a story within a story that might have never happened if Michael Paulin didn’t dislike cold weather.
Michael and his wife, Sarah, had previously adopted two children from Siberia and were anxious to add to their family — but he found the idea of returning to Siberia too cold for his liking. Sarah began researching the Internet to find children available for adoption and discovered the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
The Paulins began researching the Marshall Islands and learned that things are pretty tough for the people of this Pacific Ocean island republic. Living conditions are crowded, unemployment is high and opportunities are few. Fishing used to be a major industry, but the islands’ waters have been heavily fished by other countries. The only cash crop is copra, a coconut product without much of an international market. The most reliable income producer is an American military base, for which the United States pays rent and maintains a Compact of Free Association. The Paulins contacted Father Hayden Vaverek, their pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes.
The Paulins and Father Vaverek began corresponding with Msgr. James Gould, the Apostolic Prefect of the Marshall Islands, before they flew over last May. Father Vaverek was looking for a parish missionary connection and wanted to make a pastoral assessment of the Marshallese Catholic community. Michael, a certified public accountant with expertise in economic development, planned to offer his expertise to administrators of the island hospital. Sarah, who was formerly on the faculty at Dartmouth College, wanted to work with the schools, as well as add to their family.
The three obtained a wish list of items to bring with them and arrived at Ebeye, the most densely populated island, with 700 pounds of food, toys for the children, over-the-counter medicines for the local hospital and school supplies for the Catholic grade school and high school.
Father Vaverek describes feeling like Santa Claus, because the school staff was so grateful that they brought 15 pencil sharpeners. The grade school and high school had been sharing one pencil sharpener between them.
Our Lady of Lourdes adopted Queen of Peace on that May visit with a focus of “teaching a man how to fish” rather than sending money and buying things. Sarah explained, “Our parish has wrapped its heart around this … It’s been one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.”
Many Marshallese public schools have closed due to lack of funding. The most viable schools are either Catholic or Protestant and charge in the $300 to $900 range. Because these tuitions are expensive by Marshallese standards, Our Lady of Lourdes is looking at ways to assist.
Sarah reports that it is difficult for the Marshallese schools to secure teachers. Several teachers are nuns, some are missionary volunteers, and some are Marshallese. None of the native teachers have teaching degrees. One of the long-term goals of the sister-parish relationship is to help fund college education for the Marshallese teachers.
Sarah found a way to help the schools find teachers. She contacted her former colleagues at Dartmouth and set up a formal program to send Dartmouth education graduate students on two-year practicums to the Marshall Islands. Five Dartmouth graduates are teaching there already.
The school requested a new bus, because theirs had to be taken out of service. Because Our Lady of Lourdes cannot afford to buy a new school bus and because the focus is helping the Marshallese help themselves, Our Lady of Lourdes will instead send a volunteer parishioner skilled in mechanics to repair the existing bus. Other parish volunteers are going in May to deliver supplies and build two houses.
The Paulins were also successful in adding to their family. They brought 13-year-old Arianna and 1-year-old Aidan back with them last July. They returned to the Marshall Islands in January of 1999 to bring Arianna and Aidan back to see their birth parents and brought 12-year-old Daniel back home with them. They are in the process of adopting a fourth Marshallese child, Ariel Mina, and hope to bring her home in the near future.
Father Vaverek and his parishioners and staff at Our Lady of Lourdes are very excited and enthusiastic about their sister relationship with Queen of Peace Parish. They are eager to talk about it and are grateful for any financial assistance.