Sunday, September 11, 2011

Leech Lake area priest leads effort to build school in Kenya

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The pastor of not one but two parishes in the Leech Lake area of the Duluth diocese is building an elementary school in Africa in what little spare time he has. And, he is doing it in less than one year with committees of volunteers both in Minnesota and in his native Kenya.


Submitted photo

During his recent visit home to Kenya, Father Kabiru stopped by the only elementary school in the Moto region to explain his school project to children who would benefit most from having a less crowded school located much closer to their home village.
Father Francis Kabiru, pastor of St. Agnes in Walker and Sacred Heart in Hackensack since last April, has both parish communities enthused and involved in the school project. He has established a Minnesota nonprofit organization, Moto Hope Mission, Inc., to oversee the project and a Project Steering Committee to raise funds.

During a trip back to his homeland in Kenya earlier this year, Father Kabiru formed committees to manage construction and staffing. He also bought three acres of land for the school in the rural village of Moto, near where he grew up as the eighth of 12 children.

“‘Moto’ is a Swahili word that means ‘fire,’ and we believe each one of us has that ‘moto’ — that fire — within us to make a difference for those who have little or no access to a good education,” Father Kabiru said. He noted the Moto Hope Mission, Inc., logo is a flame.

“Our goal is to reach out to the underprivileged children of Moto, Kenya, and help empower them through education,” said the 37-yearold priest.

Bishop Paul Sirba was impressed when Father Kabiru and several volunteer leaders briefed him on the project in May. In a June 2 letter to the Moto Hope Mission board, Bishop Sirba said: “Projects such as this can have lifechanging experiences to those who get involved. I think with Father Francis, your pastor, being from the area, you have a unique opportunity for solidarity between our two countries.” The bishop commended both parishes for embracing the project, adding, “I support and encourage faith communities to engage in efforts like this and wish you great success on this project.”

The Moto Hope Elementary School will be located very near where Father Kabiru was born and raised, about 150 miles northwest of Nairobi. It will be built in four phases, starting as a day school with five classrooms but upgraded later with more classrooms and boarding facilities.

“Phase One is the five classrooms we hope to construct this fall for $65,000, with the goal of opening the school to students in early 2012. This will be followed as quickly as possible with funding for Phase Two — five more classrooms. Phase Three includes an administrative office, computer lab and library, hopefully in 2012. Dormitories will be Phase Four,” Father Kabiru said.

“Access to education is a critical need in this remote area,” he said. “Many youngsters walk over four miles each way to attend an overcrowded Moto central school. Some never try, and most give up after a year or two. This project is in response to a need the Kenyan government is unable to meet because of the vast rural area the school will serve. Once our school is up and running, however, it will then qualify for limited but vital government support, much like the charter school concept here in Minnesota.”

The Moto Hope Elementary School will be open to all, regardless of religion or income, which, for a majority of Moto families, is under $2 per day. And although the school won’t be Catholic, it will work closely with Catholic education resources in Kenya in the areas of teacher recruitment and training and curriculum development. “Spiritual nourishment of children is very important to the Kenyan people,” Father Kabiru said.

He credits those “Catholic education resources” as well as his parents for encouraging his own education in Kenya. He graduated from high school, then went on to college, where he received a degree in philosophy. In 2002, Father Kabiru graduated from Christ the King Major Seminary with a degree in theology and religious studies. He taught history and religion in a Catholic high school while continuing to discern a possible vocation to the priesthood.

In January 2004, Father Kabiru flew to the United States to visit his brother in Massachusetts and a friend in Virginia, Minn. He was introduced to Bishop Dennis Schnurr during his Minnesota visit, and the bishop asked him to consider becoming a priest under the auspices of the Diocese of Duluth. After prayerful consideration, Father Kabiru accepted the invitation and earned a master’s degree in theology from the St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 2006. He was ordained a deacon at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis in May 2006 and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Duluth in June 2007.

Following his ordination, Father Kabiru was assigned to Blessed Sacrament in Hibbing and then, in July 2009, to St. Joseph in Grand Rapids. Less than a year later, he received a letter from the diocese’s new bishop assigning him to serve as pastor of the two parishes in Walker and Hackensack in April 2010.

Parishioners at St. Agnes and Sacred Heart enjoy Father Kabiru’s stories about growing up in Kenya, and they have learned much about Kenya and its people in the short time he has been their pastor. “The call for volunteers to assist with the school project was met with an overwhelming response,” said Mike Bergmann, a St. Agnes parishioner and chair of the project’s steering committee.

“Shortly after we announced the project, informational dinners were held in early June at both parishes and authentic Kenyan food was served up to capacity crowds in African decorated social halls right here in Walker and Hackensack, Minn.,” said Bergmann. Guests at both dinners viewed PowerPoint presentations on Kenya and the project, and were told details of plans to raise $65,000 to fund Phase One of the project, the first five classrooms.

“There was tremendous interest in the project at the dinners, and that has carried over to our summer visitors, as well,” said Bergmann, who explained that both parishes have a big influx of seasonal parishioners and people on vacation this time of year, especially during long holiday weekends. It was decided to conduct second collections on the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends for the school. “We couldn’t believe the response to the Fourth of July weekend second collections at both Sacred Heart and St. Agnes. A total of over $10,000 was collected between the two parishes. We are amazed and very pleased at how much the Moto Hope school project has touched people,” Bergmann said.

Bergmann also said a major fundraising dinner has been scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Northern Lights Casino Event Center in Walker. Letters of invitation will be going out in August to all parishioners as well as friends and acquaintances of Father Kabiru. The program includes three Minnesotans who have led mission trips to Kenya and will share their experiences in working with schools and children as an important part of their faith journey. The dinner is complimentary, but guests will be asked to make a contribution. For reservations, call (218) 547-2865.

Father Kabiru said that, to date, more than $30,000 has been raised toward the $65,000 goal to complete Phase One of the project. “I am hoping that by the time we have our fundraising banquet in September, we will have Phase One all but paid for and be starting on Phase Two,” he said. He noted that the Moto board approved start of construction, based on the success of fundraising so far, at its July 12 meeting in Walker.

“If we remain on schedule, our first classes at the Moto Hope Elementary School will begin in early 2012. I think everyone involved in the project or who has contributed to it will be filled with joy and amazement at what we can do when we come together to build the Kingdom of God both here and in Kenya,” Father Kabiru said.

“My passion for education was instilled in me by Catholic missionaries when I was growing up in Kenya,” he said. “Through prayer and education, I received the faith that unites us all as church and became a priest. It is by God’s grace that I am now serving the people of God in northern Minnesota. And, by God’s grace, we are now working together here in northern Minnesota to serve the people of God in Kenya. I think all of us feel this is the way it’s supposed to be.”
Northern Cross, Diocese of Duluth
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