Going the distance to help

HOUGHTON – The Rev. Paul Manderfield, 81, is somewhere in Central America today, probably on the Pan-American Highway. If all has gone well since the Roman Catholic priest last checked in with the Mining Gazette from Brownsville, Texas, he’s only a day away from his scheduled arrival in Managua, Nicaragua. The scheduled eight-day road trip to Central America began in Houghton last week.

Houghton native Manderfield, traveling with a Marquette Diocese parishioner along to share driving duties, is making the trip to bring a truck donated by the Diocese of Marquette – fully loaded with religious articles, supplies and carpentry shop equipment, also donated – to the Nuestra Senora del Pilar parish in Managua, where Manderfield has served as a missionary since his official retirement 10 years ago.

“You can’t get a vehicle of that value there,” Manderfield said to explain why he was making the 4,200-mile road trip rather than flying to what’s become his home. “They have the highest customs anywhere.”

Manderfield, who grew up outside of Houghton, said during a break from loading the truck in Houghton last week that it’s his sixth trip driving from the U.P. to Central America, with nearly as many over-the-road journeys in the opposite direction.

The Rev. Larry Van Damme, a Marquette priest and longtime friend of Manderfield’s who rode along on a drive from Managua to the U.P. last year, said Manderfield handled the rigors of the journey without complaint.

“He travels like a teenager,” Van Damme said. “I thought he would need more time to rest and stretch.”

Despite traveling through regions rocked by war and drug cartel-related unrest, Manderfield said he generally had greater difficulties with poor roads off the highway than with the people he’s encountered along the way, with locals usually happy to direct foreign drivers away from dangerous areas.

Despite Mexico’s cartel violence of recent years, he said the trip is now much safer than during the 1970s and ’80s, when wars ravaged much of Central America.

Decades ago, during the “Soccer War” between Honduras and El Salvador, he damaged a wheel when he drove into a shell hole, and just once in his 30 years, he said, someone fired a bullet through the car he was driving.

But usually the greatest difficulties were with soldiers stopping his vehicle and expecting bribes – a pair of boots or another simple gift would often suffice – and going through borders, where vehicles often need to be completely unpacked for customs agents.

“Coming this way (north) is the worst,” he said. “Once, they took the panels off the doors.”

But usually, he sees the better side of people.

“Most people are friendly and want to be helpful,” he said. “They’ll go out of their way to help you find your way.”

Manderfield seemed to take the challenges of his journeys in stride, but Father Ben Hasse of St. Albert the Great Parish in Houghton said continuing the road trips shows a great deal of courage.

“I think it’s emblematic of his mission, his love for the people, and his desire to serve as effectively and generously as he can,” Hasse said.

Manderfield said he spent most of his early religious career as a missionary in Panama before moving on to El Salvador and then coming back to the U.P. to serve in Houghton, Calumet and elsewhere in the Marquette diocese.

After his retirement – official retirement, at least – he said he felt called back to his work in Managua.

“I’ve worked there so long, and the language is second nature after all these years,” he said. “And you make friends you know, they keep coaxing me to come back.”

His friends in the U.P. are also crucial to his mission, he noted, providing the donations and support that help him to build up communities in Managua.

“I appreciate all the help, and the people who have given things – machines, tools, toys, clothes and the truck given by the Diocese of Marquette,” he said.