By Felix Carroll (Jan 29, 2011)
Nope, the Marian Fathers’ missionary in Rwanda wouldn’t have a clue what to do if you called him into a huddle and said, “Blue, weak-side slant, option left, on three.”
But who cares anyway?
Here’s a better suggestion: Call him into a huddle and say, “Here’s $100,000 toward feeding the poorest of the poor.” He’d smack his hands together, line up, and go deep — executing an immaculate reception in the name of the Immaculate Conception.
In short, Fr. Leszek Czelusniak, MIC, is pulling for the Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl on Feb. 6.
In a series of generous contributions to a series of merciful initiatives led by Fr. Leszek, the Green Bay Packers football team and head coach Mike McCarthy partnered in August to make a $100,000 donation to train Rwandans in bread baking and small-business skills, a project begun with the friendship of Fr. Leszek and Ron Schoenfeld, founder of the Seven Loaves Project, a non-profit organization in Wisconsin.
The initiative “is very inspiring, and its mission will help many people by providing enduring skills,” said the Super Bowl-bound coach Mr. McCarthy.
The flagship bakery will be built at CANA Marian Formation Center in Kibeho, Rwanda. The bakery will serve the duel purpose of providing bread as well as Communion hosts for the region.
‘The Will of God’
The bakery isn’t the only cause for celebration for the Marians’ Rwandan mission.
Five-hundred children — children who could have easily become lost in a land still slouching toward modernity, where securing the staples of survival often requires trodding crooked miles — can now call themselves full-time schoolchildren, the future hope for Rwanda where genocide in 1994 left 1 million dead and many more wounded and displaced.
Packers outside linebacker Brady Poppinga and his wife, Brooke, were the first from the Packers organization to make a donation. They donated the funds to build the bathroom for the school. Although the Poppingas are not Catholic, they generously support educational initiatives in developing nations around the world.
The children lined up outside their new brick building in the village of Kibeho on opening day last August. Looking on with a huge grin was Fr. Leszek, who spearheaded the school project and many other initiatives to bring basic necessities — bread, water, education, and faith — to the people of this central African nation.
One genocide survivor refers to him as “an angel sent to Kibeho,” but Fr. Leszek — equally bashful and resolute — steers all praise to God.
“We try to find the will of God,” he says. “That is our main work.”
‘Where the Needs are Greatest’
The abridged biography of Fr. Leszek (pronounced “lay-shek”) is this: He’s a Polish native who studied architecture. Because he follows the Marian maxim of serving “where the needs are greatest,” he’s a man who makes things happen in the places they need to happen. In addition to the primary school and the bakery, he’s also raising funds to bring potable water to Kibeho by connecting the village to a water main a mile away and building a dormitory for the new school’s teachers.
He’s also building the CANA Marian Formation Center, a project blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2004. The center has a chapel, residence, and a pilgrim guest house. Father Leszek is expanding the center for conferences and pilgrimages to Kibeho, site of the first Church-approved Marian apparitions in Africa.
At the urging of Bishop Augustin Misago, of Gikongoro, Rwanda, the Marians have built a presence in Kibeho to help insure the pilgrims there receive sound teachings about Mary to avoid any misinterpretation of the apparitions. The Marians have already helped many to understand Mary’s central message in Kibeho, which is one of prayer, penance, fasting, conversion, reconciliation, the importance of the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows, and preparation for the return of Jesus.
“There has been so much violence — this country has been so traumatized,” says Fr. Leszek. “We still see terrible wounds that affect people, especially the youth. But we also see a real hunger for God.”
The new school, which the Marians have turned over to the local diocese, is named for Blessed Stanislaus Papczynski, the 17th century Polish firebrand who founded the Marian Congregation. Providing education has been a main ministry since the Congregation’s earliest days.
“The school makes sense to people in Kibeho in every way. It is faith and love in action,” said Immaculee Ilibagiza, an author, speaker, and Rwandan genocide survivor. Father Leszek and Immaculee have traveled the United States and abroad to draw attention to needs in Rwanda and the spiritual significance of Kibeho, which they hope becomes the “Lourdes of Africa.”
Proving that God Listens
Despite its spiritual significance, Kibeho remains poverty-stricken.
“You know, when missionaries move to a poor place like that and you tell them to pray and yet their poverty remains and there is no change, it makes the people question the importance of faith,” Immaculee says. “They think, ‘Why pray to God, who doesn’t listen to our cries?’
“The school of Fr. Leszek came to rescue them, to ease their pain, as an answer to their prayers,” Immaculee says. “And through that, people of Kibeho see God who loves them. That school is a sign of hope, truly a great gift, a fruit of Our Lady’s visits to Kibeho.”
The school’s opening day was beautiful, Fr. Leszek says. “The children danced. The children sang. People came who have many different backgrounds — religious and political. This is a simple building, but it’s something really beautiful in a place where people have nothing.”
Father Leszek says the key to rebuilding Rwanda is prayer, first and foremost. And prayers have been plentiful, from people who seek to prove in Rwanda how evil can be overcome by good. Financial funding has come from Marian Helpers throughout the United States and Poland. Barnstorming throughout North America, Fr. Leszek and Immaculee have also inspired new benefactors who hitherto had no connection with the Marians or Rwanda.
“There have been so many wonderful stories of people supporting us,” Fr. Leszek says.
For instance, Kate Lesnar, a 15-year old from Worthington, Minn., held a golf fundraiser last summer and collected $10,000, which paid for the school’s water system. A high school in Green Bay raised funds to install the school’s sports fields. A 10-year-old boy in Minnesota spent two years saving his money to buy himself a $400 video game system. He gave his savings for the new school instead.
A Meal for Thousands, Food for Thought
The Green Bay Packers’ donation came about after the NFL organization learned of Mr. Schoenfeld’s humanitarian trip to Rwanda in 2009. During that trip, the restaurateur prepared a meal for 4,000 villagers and took a tour of the Marians’ CANA center where Fr. Leszek told him that villagers receive bread only about once a year, or not at all.
Mr. Schoenfeld formed the Seven Loaves Project vowing to create wood-fired bread ovens — in other words, ovens that wouldn’t require electricity — to produce naturally leavened products using local grains. The focus will include development of small-business and vocational skills for Rwandans.
“I think the bakery, the school, these things are really just the will of God,” Fr. Leszek says. “And through the prayer and gifts of good Christian people who help us, this is becoming a reality. But it’s really through the prayers.”
The Packers play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6.
Go Fr. Leszek, one of God’s most valuable players on the front line of mercy.