May 2003 Print

Jungle Priest and Fighter for the Faith

John Sharpe, Sr.

"Go ye therefore...teach all nations...," even into the jungle of Guatemala and Honduras. Here Fr. Procopio tells his own story. Now, at 83 years of age, he tells his bishop he's back to celebrating only the Latin Mass.

When Clement Procopio was seven years old, he wanted to be a cowboy. But not even in his wildest boyish fantasies did he ever imagine that God did indeed intend for him to spend many years of his adult life on horseback. Not as a cowboy, but as a Franciscan priest, dedicated to bringing the holy Gospel to remote villages deep in the jungles of Central America. And it was there he would also become engaged in a literal life-and-death struggle against godless Communism.

Fr. Procopio

Fr. Procopio was born on June 14, 1919, in Rumford, Maine, and was educated in Massachusetts and New York during the height of World War II. Along with his classmates, he was ordained a "simplex" priest in the Franciscan order on June 8, 1944, so he could help with Masses in areas near the seminary. Soon thereafter, pursing his heart's desire, Fr. Procopio volunteered for foreign mission work and looked forward eagerly to an assignment following completion of his last year of theology six months hence.

But immediately on volunteering he found himself in a flurry of activity that suddenly landed him in Tegulcigapa, Honduras. It was January, 1945, and the neophyte priest was in the heart of Central America–at the start of a faith journey that continues to this day.

The Olancho Years

The first stop on that journey was the Honduran state of Olancho–and culture shock. Olancho had no roads, no electricity, and no running water. Heading inland to his first assignment, Father traveled for several days through small towns and villages, painfully realizing at least part of his boyhood wish since the only mode of transportation in the area at that time was by horse or mule. Finally, saddle sore and weary, he and a companion, a Fr. Gerard Caruso, arrived at their destination: the village of San Francisco de la Paz, where goats, chickens, roosters, donkeys, and pigs roamed at will in the plaza and among the poor adobe homes surrounding it.

After the two priests secured living quarters, Fr. Caruso left for a visit to the town of San Esteban, headquarters of the Franciscan Province of the Immaculate Conception, leaving Fr. Procopio on his own. Which would have been all right except that because of his hasty departure from the US, there had been no time for him to learn Spanish.

Although being what today would be called "linguistically challenged," Fr. Procopio nevertheless wasted no time instituting frequent visits to the surrounding villages: giving religious instruction, initiating devotions, and saying Mass. Within a year, with the help of his altar boys, he could speak adequate if not exactly fluent Spanish. Plus he now had his own "little white horse," which he claimed "had an easy and comfortable gait."

Typical mode of transportation
for priests and laity alike among
the Central American missions.

His life was now set against a background so primitive as to be hard for most Americans to imagine today. Each night he shared his meager bedroom with bats that made their entrance through the open eaves of the roof. Light was from candles or lanterns; drinking water was carried in pots from nearby springs; sanitary facilities were virtually unknown. Insects like roaches, scorpions, and centipedes were everywhere, and came in only one size–gigantic. And there were spiders, some as big as an adult's hand, which could actually debilitate a horse–not to mention a man–with their toxic urine. So the young priest soon acquired the habit of sleeping with a flashlight at his bedside, and shaking out his shoes or sandals before putting them on in the morning.

At the other end of the insect chain were the mites, fleas, and ticks that, in Father's words, "would bury their heads in any body area to drink blood, with no regard for the more sensitive parts." An early Spanish priest in the area was known to have died due to infection from such a bite. Fortunately for Fr. Procopio, his altar boys not only dutifully corrected his Spanish, but also removed ticks and other burrowing insects from his skin on an almost daily basis.


It Was Not an Easy Life

As time passed, Father continued to minister to his far-flung flock. Through good weather and bad, peasants along the trails or outside their meager homes would greet him as he passed on horseback on his way to administer the Sacraments. Some would send their children out to receive his blessing. And in remote villages the faithful showed their gratitude for Mass or religious instruction in the only way most of them could afford. Father would often find his saddlebags laden with fruits and vegetables–and even an occasional chicken.

Fr. Caruso returned to help with the priestly chores, but some time later was made pastor of the church in a small town near Tegucigalpa. By then Fr. Procopio had become pastor of Manto, a diocese that included his home village of San Francisco de la Paz. It was during this period that he developed painful, ulcerous lesions on his legs, an affliction that seemed rather common locally. It became necessary for him to travel the painful miles to the nearest doctor where he learned that the lesions were caused by streptococcus bacteria in the river water used for washing his clothes. Armed with this knowledge, he eventually effected a cure for his legs; but the siege of illness didn't end there. Most of the early friars in the area fell victim to malaria; Father was no exception. In the priest's words, "Everybody in Olancho was infected with something."

Fr. Procopio learned early on that insects and disease weren't Olancho's only risks to life and limb. The area had a true "Wild West" atmosphere beyond any boy's youthful "cowboy" dreams. But this was no Saturday matinee six-gun fantasy; this was lethal reality. Despite the village name, it was not uncommon for armed men, drunk on agua adiente–a potent tequila-like drink–to ride into San Francisco de la Paz and "shoot up the place." On many occasions Father had to fall to the floor of his home while bullets flew through the air. Murders were common. And even on Sundays it was not unusual to see shoot-outs in the street; or, for variety, group machete fights.

The young priest finally had his fill of the riotous activity and insisted that the mayor do something about it, but to no avail. Then, disgusted with the goings-on, Father, on one occasion, confronted a drunken, gun-brandishing reveler and demanded that he leave town or face arrest by the comandante, a sort of district sheriff. The man sobered, and left immediately. A few days later, as Father was on his way to celebrate Mass in a nearby village, a quiet man greeted him respectfully, offered to take his horse, and volunteered to summon the villagers to Mass. It was the pistolero Father had "run out of town."

Thus went the life of the young missionary for nearly three years. Then he was returned to the US for a well-earned month's vacation before setting out on the next leg of his priestly odyssey. But he was soon back in Central America, this time in a location where the struggle would not be just for the salvation of souls, but against some of God's fiercest enemies.


The Guatemala Years

In July of 1947, Fr. Procopio found himself in the Guatemalan city of Jutiapa, seat of San Cristobal parish. The city, with a population of some 40,000 people, was located about 30 miles from the border of El Salvador, in a state about the size of Massachusetts. In addition to Jutiapa, it comprised 19 other small towns and over 200 remote villages; all of which were served by only a main dirt "highway," a few dry-season roads, and a labyrinth of horse trails. And he admits that "his heart sank" when he realized that he would have the help of just one other priest, a Fr. Cyril Morisco, to serve the entire San Cristobal parish.

map of Guatemala and Honduras

In many ways the new mission assignment seemed to the 28-year-old priest like a replay of the Olancho experience, only with more people to minister to and more territory to cover. He and Fr. Morisco found an apartment in an adobe building seven blocks from the church. It was small, with a dirt floor–but at least it didn't have bats. Then, as he began his missionary work, Fr. Procopio found that the mountains in the coastal area of the parish were accessible only by horseback. And though the Province sent an old, used World War II Jeep for the Friars' use, Father found it of little help during the rainy season when the inland swamps were virtually impassable except by horse or mule; not to mention that they were infested with swarms of voracious mosquitoes.

It soon became clear that Father could visit the more remote villages in his parish only once a year, usually on the occasion of a local religious festival in the area. To his dismay, he found that on many of these occasions, as had been the case in Olancho, the men felt some kind of a compulsion to drink, fight, gamble–anything but attend Mass. It seemed that they regarded Mass as something for women only. Father would have to work on that problem.

People of some of the larger towns of the parish, particularly Jutiapa, were at best indifferent to the Faith. As a result, Fr. Procopio performed the vast majority of weddings and baptisms out in the nearby villages, where the peasants were more open to, if not always eager for, the Word of God. In the first year alone, he and his companion priest performed 5000 baptisms and 780 weddings, mostly blessings of common-law unions. One town had 57 weddings in three days, with hundreds of peasants from miles around attending.

Every First Friday Father took Communion to the sick of the neighboring villages. Then he instituted First Friday devotions, so now he had to make sure to be back at the parish center by late afternoon. About 5:00pm peasants would begin streaming into the church for Confession, many arriving after having walked for hours. It was not unusual for Confessions to last from five in the afternoon until midnight, while the waiting throngs filled the church with the sound of beautiful hymns.

A routine week might find Fr. Procopio saying Mass in a prison, a hospital, a military barracks, or even, as was the custom in Guatemala, in the local public schools at graduation time. In order to help spread the workload, Father reorganized an existing group of male catechists. With the bishop's blessing these men traveled the far-flung reaches of the parish preaching and teaching the Gospel. It was they who instructed the faithful and helped prepare the villagers for baptisms, weddings, first Communions, and other Sacraments.

Third Order of St. Francis procession

Hundreds of villagers participate in the Third Order of St. Francis procession
in the village of Jutiapa, Guatemala.

The priest helped organize numerous Church societies. Groups such as the Third Order of St. Francis, the Sacred Heart League, and the Confraternity of the Perpetual Rosary spread through the villages and towns in the parish. The same was true of the Legion of Mary organized by Father. The men and women of these organizations were, in Fr. Procopio's words, "the backbone of the Catholic Faith."

Years passed and changes came. The parish church was renovated; a brick rectory was built next door (at a penny a brick); a building was acquired for use as a convent by native Franciscan Sisters who were soon to arrive at the parish center; and, with government cooperation, a school was opened. Then, in 1950, a restructuring of the local Archdiocese brought the State of Jutiapa under the jurisdiction of newly installed Bishop Miguel Garcia Arauz, a Guatemalan native who would serve at this post for the next 38 years.

Father accompanied the bishop to areas of his parish that rarely, if ever, saw such an exalted Church official. On one occasion–a visit to the hot, humid, coastal town of Pasaco–there were 1200 faithful waiting to be confirmed. When the press of the crowd became overwhelming, Fr. Procopio was forced to use a long pole to push the people back lest they crush the bishop. And though the priest found it "the most tense and tiring experience" of his life, it was, nevertheless, a marvelous example of the fervor of the faithful in the Guatemala of the early 1950's.

But a serious, potentially deadly, challenge to those faithful and to their priest, was about to be unleashed.


The Communist Scourge

The Guatemalan government's early 1950's attempt at land reform was a failure, mostly due to the iron-fisted methods of implementation. There were civil disorders across the country; there were murders; people disappeared, never to be seen again. And with an influx of Russian and Czech nationals preaching reform, a Communist regime took over the country. The Church's work in the area was misrepresented and maligned in the newspapers. When, at the risk of his life, the Archbishop of Guatemala City openly defied the Communists, the national Catholic radio station was shut down.

Gullible peasants were told the land belonged to them now; and many were killed trying to occupy property that wasn't theirs. Moreover, land that was confiscated by the government didn't go to the peasants, but remained in the hands of the Communists; and though a few poor farmers received money to use for cultivating, they spent it on other things. And so went Guatemalan land reform.

As the months passed, "Yankee Go Home" banners began appearing in the plaza facing Fr. Procopio's rectory. And since he was the only American there, it was clear whom the message was aimed at. The local mayor fell under the Communists' influence and began making trips into the nearby villages, condemning the parish priests and the Catholic religion in general. Fortunately, Father's normal rounds took him to those same villages, giving him the opportunity to refute the mayor's untruths and to reinforce the faith of his parishioners. In a show of force, the governor of the state ordered Fr. Procopio to disband all his church committees and societies because they were "disturbing the peace." He refused. But he became aware he was being watched and followed daily. Father confronted his "shadow" and told him he was wasting his time because everybody already knew he was a staunch anti-Communist.


Poverty and sickness were common sights greeting missionaries in villages like Las Canadas (shown here) in the parish of Moyuta, Guatemala.

The surveillance stopped. But arrests became more frequent and rumors of brutal torture among anti-government prisoners became more persistent. One of Father's catechists appeared at the rectory door one day, bloodied and cut so as to be almost unrecognizable. The police had beaten him in an attempt to make him "confess" that the priests were all spies. He refused, and prayed the Rosary instead, and invited his tormentors to do the same. This infuriated them and they beat him all the more and left him in the street for dead.

Father was determined to take action, but the prisoners' wives pleaded with him not to interfere, fearing it would only make matters worse. And now the government declared martial law. Cars were confiscated, including Father's Jeep. Cut off from virtually all communication, and with even the use of lights prohibited, Fr. Procopio watched in agony as truckloads of men were hauled to prison in the dark of night. Feeling helpless and frustrated, he intensified his prayers. An answer soon appeared in the person of the leader of one of the church societies–a man named Hector. He, too, showed up at the rectory badly beaten. His entire back was a solid mass of bruises. The police had asked him only one question: "Are you Catholic"? When he answered yes, they pummeled him with rubber hoses. Hector remembered counting 70 strokes before passing out.

And he remembered something else. He told of hearing the sadistic police chief make disparaging remarks about the local Zone Commander, a serious breech of Communist party discipline. Emboldened with this information, Father wasted no time in protesting the arrests and the beatings, at the same time making sure the Commander heard about the mostly unprintable things the police chief had called him. The Commander thanked Father for the information and shortly thereafter the police chief was fired. He was immediately replaced by a new "prison warden," an appointment that would prove divinely providential.

The next evening, the warden, in reality a compassionate man, burst into the rectory with a telegram he had just received. It was an order to shoot all the political prisoners–immediately. Father insisted that it must not be done, and the warden agreed, vowing instead that he would just open the prison gates and lose himself among the fleeing prisoners.

But the matter was taken out of his hands. About midnight the Communist government fell; the nightmare was over. Church bells rang and people rejoiced, and eagerly attended Masses of thanksgiving all across the land. Yet it soon became obvious that the Communists had devastated the country before they had fled. Horror stories of torture and atrocities were rampant. Among the most vile were newspaper accounts and shocking photos of pails of human tongues that had been found in one of the more notorious prisons. Tons of Communist propaganda literature from Russia and elsewhere, unearthed by the incoming government, were put on display at the National Palace in Guatemala City.

It was 1954, a time that had been preceded by years of great suffering. Yet for Fr. Procopio, it had been a time of affirmation of the Faith. His own words say it best: "It was a time in which I had never felt closer to our Blessed Lord, consoled by the fact that the sorely tried Faith of that people withstood the test and became stronger than ever during those years."

In spite of increasing exhaustion and sporadic illness, including recurring bouts of malaria, Fr. Procopio continued to serve the people of Guatemala faithfully throughout most of the rest of the 1950's. At the same time he was a grateful witness to unprecedented growth among the Franciscan missions and the opening of many new parishes. But by 1958, the strain of 13 years of ceaseless work in the jungle had exacted its toll. Suffering the effects of severe fatigue, he was granted a return to the States for a much-needed rest.

For the next year, Father performed more or less routine parish duties at Our Lady of Peace Church in Brooklyn, NY. But, after so many years in the missions, he found it difficult adjusting to "normal" parish work–not to mention that he had his gall bladder removed. The simple fact was that he missed the missionary life and was soon itching to return to it. So, as he had done in 1944, he again volunteered. By mid-1959, much to his joy, Fr. Procopio was back in Guatemala, assigned to the town of Moyuta.

He soon found that little had changed in the region during his absence. There was much to be done and few resources with which to do it. Building a new church to replace the one that had been destroyed in a 1917 earthquake was high on his list. The building committee had been meeting for ten years, but there was only $57 in the building fund treasury. Father desperately needed finances; then Divine Providence intervened. Wasn't he in the heart of the world's greatest coffee growing area? Before long he was in the coffee business, and was a member of the Coffee Association of Guatemala, no less. As kind of a temporary "coffee tycoon," he made enough profit to finance a church, then got out of the business. But later he helped organize a coffee cooperative to assist the poor of the parish. According to Father, "There's a lot to getting a good cup of coffee."

For the next six years, under his leadership and spiritual guidance, the parish grew. In addition to the church, he helped build schools; church societies flourished and prospered. Yet though the state made improvements to some local roads, travel during the rainy season, and into remote areas, could still only be accomplished by horse or mule, and life, by any standard, remained difficult. Then, in 1965, again plagued by poor health, Fr. Procopio reluctantly returned to the United States.

Thus began his "second career" in the priesthood. Assigned to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Father served as Chaplain at the Orange County Medical Center in Orange, California. Though ministering to the sick was new to him, he found it immensely rewarding and augmented the practical skills he was acquiring with appropriate academic studies at nearby Chapman College. Then, after serving in this capacity for five years, Father's varied "career" took another turn.

In 1972, under the auspices of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Phoenix, Fr. Procopio was transferred to Flagstaff, Arizona. He was made Director of Catholic Services for nearly all of northern Arizona, and spent many of the following years providing and supervising adoption and counseling services throughout the area. Moreover, under his leadership, services were expanded to provide day centers, a home for unwed mothers, and food banks and emergency aid services. These efforts were made in cooperation with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, for whom Father served as Chaplain.

But the lure of missionary work still burned deep in his soul. So after nearly 12 years of social service, he retired from the diocese of Phoenix, and he received permission to return to the missions of Central America. It was 1984, and he was 65 years old.

In October of that year Father arrived again in Jutiapa, the city where he had begun his Guatemalan missionary work some 37 years before. Things had changed. There were more people, more Masses were being said on a regular basis, a second church had been built on the other side of town, and the numbers of church societies had grown dramatically. Father noted with pleasure that the current missionary friars were young and energetic, and that the work of their predecessors had not been in vain.

There was still much work to be done, many remote villages to be visited, and soon Father realized that with advancing age he could no longer keep up the pace. As a result he was moved to the town of Quesada, and a small, more manageable parish. It was here in 1986 that telephone service first came to the area. The whole town was on hand for the installation; politicians made speeches; and Father was asked to perform the blessing.

But even this small parish became increasingly demanding for the nearly 70-year-old priest. Sporadic illness plagued him. He now found it difficult to keep his balance on a mule, a mode of transportation that remained vital in some locations. Finally, in 1992, attacks of fatigue were compounded by bouts of "pins and needles" all over his body, and Father decided once again to leave Central America. He had spent more than 28 years in the service of his beloved missions. He was 73 years old; it was time to go. But he was unaware that his most difficult fight on behalf of the True Faith lay just over the horizon.

A Final Fight for the True Faith

It was time for a long rest. Fr. Procopio retired to a small town in north central Arizona, where he was determined to regain his health. In addition to recuperating he spent much of the next few years reading and studying, revisiting his Faith. He had long been uncomfortable with the changes in the Church following Vatican II, but like many other dedicated priests immersed in service to the faithful, he never had time for a close examination of the abuses in the "New Church." So with customary charity, and to help lighten the load of the priests in some of the local parishes, he volunteered to hear confessions and occasionally say a Novus Ordo Mass. Yet all the while he remained fiercely loyal to Tradition, celebrating the old rite exclusively in the privacy of his home.

But the more he read over the years the more Fr. Procopio became convinced that in good conscience he could no longer participate in the new rite–even occasionally. Thus in 1999 he vowed to himself that henceforth he would celebrate only the old Mass. By now, word had spread through the small town of a retired priest who celebrated the Latin rite in his home; and the pressure began. Concerned primarily, as he always had been, with the salvation of souls, Fr. Procopio began to offer a weekly Tridentine Mass for a small number of Catholics. And as he learned more and more about the priestly Society of Saint Pius X through his reading, Father began to feel the need to help them in some way; plus he was no longer content with just saying Mass in his home. But his concern was over the issue of jurisdiction. So, following the advice of a friend, he contacted Fr. Peter Scott–then District Superior of the Society of Saint Pius X for the United States–and Fr. Procopio's jurisdictional concerns were alleviated. Within days he was officially "helping out" the Society by saying Sunday Mass at their mission church in Prescott.

About this time, the 87-year-old priest at the only Catholic church in the nearby town of Clarkdale retired. The Phoenix diocese provided an interim priest from another parish who was only available to say Mass on Saturdays. This arrangement proved to be short-lived and the diocese simply closed the Clarkdale church.

With his still-strong missionary zeal, Father stepped into the breach. He was forbidden to use the existing church, but he offered the townspeople the Latin Mass in a hall on Saturdays. Now more than 40 people are in regular attendance. Looking back, Father's affection for the Society seemed providential when he emphatically admonished his audience during a 2001 speech in Phoenix to "support the Society of Saint Pius X–only they are walking the straight line."

However, Father's actions did not go unnoticed by the local hierarchy. The Bishop of Phoenix insisted that he stop celebrating the traditional Mass [see letter on p. 15]. When the feisty Friar refused, His Excellency informed him that he could "no longer function as a priest in the Diocese of Phoenix," and that he "would consider any future public celebration of the Tridentine Mass...analogous to a schismatic act." He further accused Father of "leading the faithful astray." This, to a man who had spent a lifetime bringing the word of God to countless thousands of otherwise denied souls in some of the most frightful jungles in the world!

After a life of obedience, this faithful priest was now in a quandary. He needed legitimacy. Fr. Procopio, now recognized as a "priest-friend" of the Society, obtained permission from his Provincial to be a "helper" to the Society while maintaining his membership in the Franciscan order.

Today, Fr. Procopio continues to minister to the faithful in Clarkdale and Prescott, Arizona. Though Arizona may be a long way from his beloved jungle missions, this fighter for the Faith still works tirelessly in the service of the Lord.

Mr. John Sharpe, Sr., is the vice-president of the "In the Spirit of Chartres," Committee, which produced the video What We Have Lost. He lives in Virginia to be near his grandchildren, and assists at the Latin Mass there.