Father Paul Schindler is where he wants to be and doing what he wants to do: tending to a large flock of parishioners at the Immaculate Conception Parish, the Diocese of Cleveland’s mission in La Libertad, El Salvador. He is pastor of two parishes and oversees 39 chapels with about 140,000 parishioners in an area about the size of the Cleveland diocese.
Padre Paul, as he is known to the Salvadorans, is celebrating 50 years as a priest and at age 76, he is in his second stint at the mission. He has spent 14 years – so far – ministering there, first from June 28, 1972 to March 15, 1982. He returned on Jan. 31, 2008, after spending 26 years as pastor of St. Bernard Parish in Akron. “I spent my vacations helping at the parish in El Salvador,” he said.
In addition to the parishes and chapels, his responsibilities include overseeing a school of 1,000 students in grades kindergarten through nine, a retreat house and a clinic with six doctors and about 100 patients daily. He also is financing the college educations of 62 students, with whom he meets monthly to assess their progress.
So how did a kid from St. Charles Borromeo Parish in suburban Parma wind up as a priest and a missionary? Father Paul said the seed might have been planted when he was in first grade.
“We did a spiritual bouquet for the pastor. My line was, ‘I am a tulip, just like a chalice. Maybe I’ll be a priest someday.’”
He is the third of eight children – five boys and two girls.
“We lived across the street from the church and it seemed like we were always there,” Father Paul said. “I was an altar boy and if they needed someone to serve a wedding or a weekend funeral, they’d call our house and I’d go over to help. I fell in love with the priests. They were always so happy,” he said.
After finishing elementary school, he considered entering the seminary, but his father had other ideas.
“Other family members all went to St. Ignatius High School and my dad said, ‘If you have a vocation, it will still be there after high school,’ so I went to St. Ignatius,” he said. After graduating, he entered Borromeo Seminary, where he earned a college degree and then went on to Saint Mary Seminary for priestly formation. He was ordained on May 20, 1967 and spent five years as parochial vicar at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Wadsworth.
As that assignment was ending, Father Paul learned he had been recommended for the diocesan mission team. “I was in the second wave of priests going down there,” he said, adding that there was no formal training program. He learned the language and culture through immersion.
“I didn’t know Spanish. I learned it on the streets from the kids,” he said. “They would laugh if you said something wrong and ask ‘Do you know what you said?’”
The mission was established in 1964. Priests and nuns from the diocese rotated regularly in and out the mission for a number of years. Now, he and Father John Ostrowski are the only two priests working there. One of Father Paul’s parishioners, Father Julio Escobar, was ordained last July and is a parochial vicar. There are eight other parishioners in priestly formation, but Father Paul said there is a need for more priests, especially from El Salvador. He celebrates four or five weekend Masses and two or three daily. His pocket calendar is crammed with entries for Masses, meetings, confirmations, baptisms, weddings and other pastoral obligations.
It’s tough to get around to all the chapels, he said, since some are in remote areas with rough terrain and no electricity. Sometimes, during his first assignment, he rode a work horse to reach parishioners. Father Paul said he tries to visit and celebrate Mass at least monthly at each chapel. When he can’t be there, lay leaders preside at prayer services and help with sacramental preparation. “There is a real need for lay leaders,” he said.
About 50 percent of Salvadorans are 15 years old or younger. There also is a great need for sacramental education. Although most of the country is Catholic, Father Paul said there has been an influx of Protestants in recent years. There also are many single-parent families.
“I don’t baptize as many babies as I once did,” he said, recalling a time when there were 72 baptisms at one fiesta. He said parents attend three pre-baptism sessions and receive a card they can present for their child’s baptism.
There are about 80-100 children who make their first Communion at the main church, in addition to those at each of the chapels. Father Paul said he confirms about 400 people at the annual fiesta, using an amphitheater that seats 4,000.
As for weddings, “I did about 3,000 weddings in my 26 years at St. Bernard’s,” he said, adding “the church is sometimes called the cathedral of Akron.” Father Paul said that since it’s adjacent to the University of Akron, it’s a popular place for weddings.
In El Salvador, he averages about 72 weddings a year.
Father Paul was in town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination with his classmates and other diocesan priests who were observing significant anniversaries of their ordination. He also visited St. Bernard’s, where he offered Masses in both English and Spanish. Founding and nurturing the Spanish ministry at the parish was one of his accomplishments as pastor.
Large groups of parishioners warmly greeted him at receptions following the Masses. Father Paul updated them on the latest news from his mission work in El Salvador.
He has seen some turbulent times during his missionary work, including having a front-row seat for much of the country’s civil war, which raged from about 1977-1992. “There was a lot of military action. People would be murdered and their bodies left on the side of the road as a scare tactic,” he said. The violence also was a way to try and dissuade the Salvadorans from organizing the working poor. “Those who tried to help would be persecuted and killed,” he said, adding the struggles between rich and poor continue. “Most of the country’s wealth and land is owned by a small percentage of the population,” he added.
Missionaries sometimes paid the price for helping and trying to empower the poor. His mission residence is near the airport and not far from the coast, so hospitality is important. “We would arrange to pick up people at the airport or drop them off,” he said.
That’s what happened on Dec. 2, 1980, when Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan, both from the diocese, headed to the airport to pick up Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke. The women were abducted, beaten and murdered by five members of the National Guard of El Salvador who, years later, were convicted of the crimes.
Holy Martyrs Parish in Medina is named in honor of the four women and Father Paul said groups visit the mission for weeklong educational tours to learn about the parish namesakes.
During 1982, the last year of his first stint at the mission, “We buried at least six bodies that had been left on the roadside,” he said.
Although the civil war ended, Father Paul said violent gangs are a growing problem. The gangs are territorial and will murder someone who enters their turf.
He leads a busy, but simple life, rising about 7 a.m., unless he has an early Mass. “Breakfast is usually coffee, a banana and two eggs. I’ll eat whatever the housekeeper prepares for lunch,” he said, adding that lunch is the big meal. Since he’s often at evening meetings, Father Paul may eat something with his hosts. Pupusas, the Salvadoran version of tortillas, are a very popular dish. They can be stuffed with cheese and served with a type of fermented cabbage salad called curtido.
“I like things simple, without a lot of sauces,” he added.
In the evening, he gets on the computer, catching up with correspondence and often using Skype to chat with his brother in Independence and to check on baseball scores before turning in about midnight.
When the sun rises, he’s back at work. “Our main job is to help people help themselves,” he said.
Father Paul used to enjoy traveling. “I’ve been around the world three times,” he said, “but I’m starting to feel my age and have to slow down some.” He usually visits Cleveland a couple of times during the year and plans to return in the fall.
But his real loves are the Church and the people of El Salvador.
“I plan to live the rest of my life there and to be buried there,” he said. “The Gospel makes much more sense in a Third World country.”