Dedicating his life for more than 50 years in Guatemalan mission

September 26, 2023

Father Joseph Perez, a priest with the Archdiocese who has worked in Guatemala for more than 50 years, visits Houston’s Mission Office Director Hilda Ochoa last August. (Photo by Jo Ann Zuñiga/Herald)

HOUSTON — Father Joseph Perez, a Houston native, left the city in 1971 as a fresh-faced, newly ordained young diocesan priest for mission work in Guatemala, helping the poor build better lives.

He followed a line of Houston priests and religious sisters working there as well. But now 81 years old and still with a full head of dark hair only slightly peppered with gray, Father Perez is the last remaining Houston Archdiocesan priest in Guatemala as others have retired or died.

He revisited his hometown recently, which he tries to do annually, except for the pandemic years. He reconnects with the Archdiocese and its Mission Office, as well as personally visits his siblings. But Father Perez said he is not ready to retire from his mission work in Guatemala and returned to Central America in September.

“When you’re working with the poor, you don’t see it as a sacrifice,” he said humbly. “You feel incompetent because you are not able to help as much as you want.”

Yet Father Perez has been able to help the community groups of 200,000 residents on the outskirts of Guatemala City to build a school and a nonprofit clinic still in operation. When he first arrived, he worked as a priest at the church of Jesus Nipalakin (Jesus Walks with Us), named from the Kaqchikel Mayan parishioners, who comprise about half of that church’s population.

Father Perez worked with fellow Archdiocesan priest Father William Packard, who first went to Guatemala in 1967 and returned to Houston five years later, dying in 2015.
Father Perez said, “The community wanted to award me a medal for all the work over the past 50 years, but I thanked them and declined. I told them that all of this is something the community and I did together. I walk with them, and we work together.”

He credits groups like the women parishioners who call themselves “Las Margaritas” as they do pastoral work like visiting homes, offering food and water or other needed supplies.

“We as a community raised money to help put in roads and potable water and trash pick-up since the government had not been able to do it. The work is not done yet,” he said. “I am there representing the people of Galveston-Houston.”

With World Mission Sunday this October, Father Perez is the epitome of dedicating one’s life. After spending most of his life as a missionary, he serves as an inspiration to all those he meets, said Hilda Ochoa, director of the Archdiocese’s Mission Office.

Working with Father Perez for the past 30 years, Ochoa said, “We support Father Joe through our Mission Office. Archbishop (Joseph) Fiorenza was a big supporter of the missionary work and went to visit there a couple of times.”

“But now Father Joe is the only one from our Archdiocese there. All our priests are needed here since we’ve grown so large. We do not have enough priests for other missions,” she said.

Although Father Perez is no longer a pastor at the church, he remains busy teaching along with 18 teachers who instruct about 200 students from first grade to ninth grade.
“This is the first day of school for them in three years because of the pandemic,” he said. “During the pandemic, there were 1.7 million young people who had to drop out of school in Guatemala.”

About two-thirds of the overall 17 million of the population live on less than two dollars a day, with 46.5% of children under 5 suffering stunted growth because of malnourishment, human rights groups report.

But living conditions were even worse during the Guatemalan Civil War that lasted for 36 years, from 1960 through 1996, as guerrillas rebelled against government oppression, Father Perez said. More than 200,000 were killed or forcibly disappeared, mostly indigenous Mayans, during the war.

The then-Diocese tried to recall Father Perez back to Houston during that time, but he pled his case that the poor people in Guatemala needed help even more during such violence.

“Priests and nuns were also killed during that time,” he said. “But I could not leave the people. They have a great faith that God will protect us. If I, as a priest, left them, that would question the faith they have.”

Others who worked there during that time also included Archdiocesan priest Father John Francis Ulm, who worked in Guatemala with Father Bill Picard in the Dominican mission from 1967 through 1973 before returning to Houston as a local pastor. Father Ulm recently died on Aug. 15.

Sister Theresa Macey, OP, also answered an appeal from then-Pope John XXIII for religious communities to minister in Latin America, dedicating over 40 years of her life to ministering in Guatemala, only recently dying last May.

She worked as a pastoral minister in Zacapa, Guatemala, and co-founded Colegio Parroquial San Vicente de Paul Bethania, a Catholic school in Guatemala City. Sister Macey was instrumental in fundraising for the school, serving children from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. She brought education and religion programs to many impoverished young people in Guatemala, empowering them to become future leaders. She also served as a spiritual counselor, translator and aide.

Missionaries impact the lives of people for generations.