July 18, 2008

‘Lord, I come to do your will’: Teacher’s efforts connect Indianapolis parish and mountain community in El Salvador

Alice Mattingly, left, and Blanqui, a resident of Portillo, El Salvador, smile for the camera during one of Mattingly’s mission trips to Portillo. A third-grade teacher at St. Pius X School in Indianapolis, Mattingly has made about 15 trips to the remote village in the El Salvadoran mountains and helped get her North Deanery parish and school involved in outreach efforts to the Central American country. (Submitted photo)

Alice Mattingly, left, and Blanqui, a resident of Portillo, El Salvador, smile for the camera during one of Mattingly’s mission trips to Portillo. A third-grade teacher at St. Pius X School in Indianapolis, Mattingly has made about 15 trips to the remote village in the El Salvadoran mountains and helped get her North Deanery parish and school involved in outreach efforts to the Central American country. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: “Stewards Abroad” is an occasional series that reports on the missionary efforts of Catholics from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis throughout the world.)

By John Shaughnessy

The truck rumbles up the twisting, narrow, dirt road, heading toward the top of the mountain and the small village of Portillo, El Salvador, that Alice Mattingly of Indianapolis views as her second home.

Since 1997, the third-grade teacher at St. Pius X School in Indianapolis has made about 15 trips to this remote village, including this journey.

Each time, she brings books, toys, school supplies and money from her parish that helps pay for students’ scholarships and teachers’ salaries in this community.

She also brings something equally valuable to the residents of Portillo—a genuine concern and love that connects with the people so deeply that they consider her return visits as a homecoming of one of their own.

So when the truck driver—a local resident—nears the top of the mountain, he honks the truck’s horn repeatedly, letting the people know that Mattingly and the others in the St. Pius group have arrived.

School children suddenly appear, carrying a banner that reads, “Welcome, St. Pius.” Adults rush toward the group, too, joining the children who are smiling and serenading the Americans with songs. All the visitors bask in the warmth of the greeting, but the local children and adults especially flock toward Mattingly.

“When she arrives, it’s like Mother Teresa has arrived,” says Lisa Fohl, a member of St. Pius X Parish who has accompanied Mattingly on several trips to Portillo. “They all surround her and hug her. The most amazing thing is that she hardly speaks a word of Spanish, but she communicates as well as anyone when she goes there. She does it through love and caring.”

A special e-mail and a call from God

Similar to other parishes in the archdiocese that reach out to economically struggling communities in impoverished countries, St. Pius X has a long list of people who have made a commitment to Portillo. Still, there’s only one person who would downplay the amazing difference that Mattingly has made to that vilage: Mattingly herself.

She gives the credit to others and God. Consider her response when she’s asked why she has returned so many times to El Salvador, and why she keeps returning.

“I know I kept saying, ‘It’s the people’—which it is—but I also know it’s a calling,” says Mattingly, who is 50.

“In the early years, I remember debating whether to go much more. One year, the deadline to sign up was approaching—the next day, I believe—and I really couldn’t justify spending the money to go. I didn’t tell anyone, but that afternoon I received an e-mail from Clara Pile, who was organizing the trip. She said an anonymous donor had decided to pay for my trip. I knew God wanted me to go. Ever since, all obstacles work themselves out with God’s help.”

The obstacles seemed especially overwhelming during Mattingly’s first visit to Portillo in 1997.

It was five years after the end of a brutal civil war in El Salvador that killed an estimated 75,000 people. That number included fathers, husbands, sons and brothers from Portillo. In the village, water had to be carried from a stream to the simple homes. School was held outside, under a tree, during the previous year. In 1997, any effort for education seemed to be disappearing because there wasn’t enough money to pay the teachers.

“We had just enough money, and the teachers agreed to teach,” Mattingly recalls as she sits in her classroom at St. Pius School. “We’ve continued ever since.”

Eleven years later, there’s a school for children from kindergarten through the ninth grade. There are scholarships for students who want to continue their education in high school and college. There’s a medical clinic and running water just outside the doors of most of the homes.

The St. Pius school and parish community has been at the heart of many of those efforts.

Building a bridge of stories

“People ask, ‘What do you build there?’ ” Fohl says. “We tell people, ‘We build community.’ We’re just trying to let people know we care about them.”

“They are so thrilled to have visitors,” Mattingly says. “They are at the top of this mountain. They once said their government had forgotten about them, but the people of Indianapolis always remember them. It tugs at your heart. They’re my friends now. They’re actually more like family now.”

Even more important, she has built a bridge between her family in Portillo and her family at St. Pius. She has created the connection by sharing stories between both communities.

“We were there over spring break this year,” she says. “The [young man] driving us was about 10 when we first met him years ago. He’s now studying agricultural engineering in college. A couple of the young women are studying computer science at the university level. It’s exciting.

“One time, we brought nail polish and lotions with us. We did manicures and pedicures with the women. We were all laughing. It was a fun, frivolous thing to do. We’ve tried to make traditional El Salvadoran food. It was a lot of fun. They love people to come and they love to give you things. Portillo students have written letters or drawn pictures for our students. Many pictures had two schools, one with a Salvadoran flag and the other with a United States flag.”

She carries the gifts and the stories back to Indianapolis, where she has “coin challenges” among the St. Pius students, asking them to bring their pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters to help the people of Portillo.

She asks her students to bring in used running shoes and soccer shoes. She also helps to plan “coffee houses”—nights where parishioners share their musical talents in a setting that encourages others to give.

“Last weekend at the Dairy Queen, I ran into a girl I used to teach who’s now in high school,” Mattingly says. “She told me she got to go to El Salvador last summer. She said she had been wanting to go since third grade. Debbie Sahm [another member of St. Pius Parish] has taken quite a number of people down there through the years. For a lot of kids, it’s their first time out of the country. Many of them make numerous trips or they come back and get very involved.”

Mattingly has taught her students to care about the world, says Ted Caron, the principal of St. Pius X School.

“It does a lot for our students,” Caron says. “Every year when we present the coin challenge, she and another teacher give the students a firsthand account of the school in El Salvador and the students there. It’s very

eye-opening for our students and even parents. There’s a sense of ownership in helping the students and teachers there. It’s a commitment.”

‘Lord, I come to do your will’

That commitment to the people in Portillo has changed Mattingly’s life.

“Even through all their hardships, God has been a big part of their lives,” Mattingly says. “To see people who have gone through so much and suffered so much and still have that faith that’s so strong, it reminds me how I can rely on God and how that helps things.”

She recalls a prayer service she attended during one of her visits, a service shared by parishioners of St. Pius and the people of Portillo.

“Women, children and teens sitting on benches and men standing around the perimeter, all listening to the word of God in their own language, were part of the special memory,” she recalls. “The fact that the first reading was God calling to Samuel during the night [1Sm 3:2-6] and Samuel finally answering, ‘Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will,’ made it that much more special.”

Mattingly believes both communities are working to do the Lord’s will.

“The people in Portillo are willing to open their homes to us,” she says. “They spend a great deal of time preparing meals for all of us and they are patient to try to answer all of our questions—even when our Spanish is lacking. [One] summer while I was there, I found out the students had collected some money and supplies for a blind woman in a nearby town. These children were learning how to serve the Lord just as our own children are doing.”

She pauses and smiles.

“It’s God’s work. It’s way beyond all of us.” †

Local site Links: