Memoirs of S.C.O.P.E.

By Bill Howard


Santa Luisa School has provided children from San Salvador, El Salvador’s poorest families with an education rooted in the Gospels for more than 80 years.

The school has survived the increasingly tough surroundings. It has weathered the country’s horrific civil war from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. Santa Luisa was blessed to receive occasional visits from martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was beatified by Pope Francis in 2015.

The school’s existence in a rough market neighborhood of the inner city has been essential. For many of its students, this school represents their best chance to break out of the cycle of poverty that surrounds them. But while the school’s 80th anniversary has passed, it still survives on a year-to-year basis. A lack of families able to pay the school’s meager tuition has caused the school to rely more on outside help. Santa Luisa currently is struggling just to meet its budget for this school year.

A 100th anniversary celebration seems very far away, but Salvadoran Children of the Poor Education (SCOPE) is on a mission to make sure it happens.

STARTED AS A PRAYER

SCOPE is the product of two immersion programs Jesuit Father Brendan Lally steered over two decades at the University of Scranton (Pa.). The first, International Service Program, began in 1987 and took students and alumni to two homes for street children in Mexico City for seven weeks of the summer. Its success spawned a second program, Bridges to El Salvador, formed after Father Lally’s heart was moved by the Catholic witness of the people there.

A visit to Santa Luisa Catholic School in San Salvador has always been part of the Bridges itinerary. He has taken groups of students, professors, university staff, fellow priests, seminarians and alumni through the streets of San Salvador.

Father Lally said he wanted the pilgrims “to meet the people and to discover the reality of their lives, to experience their faith, to listen to their stories and to let them know that their sisters and brothers in faith from the U.S. cared about them and were united with them.”

“We were also seeking our own conversion, so that we could discover the Gospel alive amid the materially poor – the Gospel that Archbishop Romero died for, the Gospel that could change our own lives and attitudes,” he continued.

Through these Bridges visits, a special relationship was developed with Santa Luisa School. Founded in 1935 by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Santa Luisa currently has a staff of 23 lay teachers and four Sisters of Charity. Under the guidance of Santa Luisa’s staff, a target enrollment of 500 boys and girls get a solid Catholic education and find sanctuary from the rough surrounding streets.

“The school caught my imagination because it was doing something concrete to make a difference in the lives of (those) children each year,” Father Lally said. “It was being led by heroic and generous nuns and dedicated lay teachers. It was giving the children the one gift that so many of us take for granted – opportunity. This was not lost on the children. They knew that they were getting an opportunity to change their lives and hopefully not have to fall back into the unemployment and poverty of their families. While there are no guarantees regarding their futures, this is their best possible gateway to a better life.”

Former SCOPE board member Marie Karam will never forget the first time she set foot in Santa Luisa.

“We stepped from the dangerous and chaotic world of the downtown street market into the joyous sea of smiling faces of the Santa Luisa students,” she said. “The overwhelming warmth of the welcome and the entertaining dance presentations by different ages grabbed my heart and has never let go. The faculty is devoted and the children are so eager to learn. I only wish everyone could visit this school.”

Karam, the former director of Bridges to El Salvador, was one of the alumni who helped form SCOPE with Father Lally. She was introduced to Santa Luisa by Cristina Quintanilla, who was an acquaintance of Kevin Yoners Taiz, director of the University of Scranton’s semester-abroad program in El Salvador.

With each visit to El Salvador through the Bridges program, Father Lally and his pilgrims could see that Santa Luisa’s needs were growing greater. Outside help was needed to offset the costs of keeping the school open – which included teacher salaries, the purchasing of needed equipment, and major tuition assistance. In a situation where some people might find despair, Father Lally found life and hope.

“The school was a ‘city of joy’ in the midst of the poverty and the discouragement it brings. It was a school for the poorest of the poor and as such its mission was aimed at the heart of the problems in society,” he said. “It seemed that the goal was within reach. With the help of generous people who could build up a fund that would give the school and the heroic sisters who run it the financial backing they needed, we could help keep this Christ-centered mission viable.”

In the autumn of 2001, a brainstorming session among Bridges to El Salvador pilgrims revealed a strong prompting by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all involved to do something more. SCOPE was born.

Demand to get into Santa Luisa is high, and the nuns ask the families to pay about $25 per student per year for tuition. In reality, many families cannot afford even that, and the nuns never turn away a child. The true cost of educating a student there is about $60. The annual budget of Santa Luisa is $30,000, and continues to climb as the cost of living increases. If the nuns could collect the full tuition for each student, it would cover about half of that budget. In reality, they do not come close. Under $8,000 is actually collected. Even with such a low tuition, the danger always exists of the children having to leave to fend for themselves on the inner-city streets.

From 2000-05, friends or pilgrims of Bridges to El Salvador helped keep Santa Luisa open through charitable gifts. A critical point for Santa Luisa School occurred in 2003, when Sister Martha Daniela took over as principal. The school’s treasury was empty and the school was in imminent danger of closing. The turnover among lay teachers was high and positions such as administrative staff and custodians were not subsidized by the government and came completely out of the Santa Luisa treasury.

With Santa Luisa in dire straits, Father Lally and Matthew O’Rourke, the current board chairman and SCOPE president, embarked on developing a board of directors and learning the ins and outs of a creating a non-profit organization that could support the school.

By 2003, pilgrims of the University of Scranton had raised about $25,000 in charitable donations for Santa Luisa. In 2005, SCOPE became a free-standing, non-profit 501(c)3 public charity and received its tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service. A board of directors was created that includes many members who have traveled through Latin America and Central America, most of them with one of Father Lally’s pilgrimages and missions.

The founding purpose of SCOPE is to keep Santa Luisa open. SCOPE is building an endowment fund to generate interest annually to permanently ensure that happens, and to also allow for long-term projects such as upgrades in facilities and new computers for the classrooms.

BLOOD OF THE MARTYRS . . .

On the University of Scranton campus, a life-size crucifix sits outside the priests’ residence hall in remembrance of the six Jesuits and their two housekeepers who were murdered in 1989 during the El Salvador civil war. It is a physical reminder of the price one may be asked to pay for spreading Christ to the world.

One cannot fully understand the importance of Santa Luisa School without also understanding the country’s recent history of bloodshed – often for the Catholic faith — that these students have inherited.

El Salvador holds a special place for Father Lally because of the martyrdom of many Catholics during the civil war. Among the countless innocent people who were tortured and/or called to give their lives for their faith were:

* Blessed Oscar Romero, the popular San Salvador archbishop and defender of the poor who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in March 1980;

* Three American nuns and a fellow church worker who were kidnapped, raped and shot to death in December 1980;

* And six Jesuits from the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, who, along with their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter, were awakened out of their beds in the middle of the night and executed in November 1989.

“Their lives and sacrifices were a call to action. I felt compelled to find a way to engage the Salvadoran reality,” Father Lally said. “As a Jesuit priest, I felt deeply in solidarity with the Jesuits at the UCA, the people of El Salvador as they struggled to live their lives with dignity, as well as with the Church in El Salvador, which had been oppressed and persecuted for living the Gospel and loving the poor.”

Added O’Rourke: “SCOPE’s origins are always centered on Christ and the light of his Gospel. Not politics, not liberation theology or class warfare, but rather the persecution of the clergy, the crushing of freedom of the Church . . . and the sacred blood of the martyrs who stayed true to the church and the Gospel, who were peaceful and were the true victims.”

Santa Luisa served as a refuge for children during the bloody civil war, with nuns and lay teachers shuttling the children through an underground passage from the school to nearby St. Paul Church to protect them – especially the boys who were military age – from being abducted by both the government army and the rebel forces.

Today, Santa Luisa is an oasis in a tough neighborhood that grapples with drugs and street violence. There are beggars on every corner, and the streets are busy and loud. It is one of the poorer neighborhoods in a country which is the poorest in Central America. Since its opening in 1935, Santa Luisa’s mission has remained the same. Without a solid education or a talent for selling in the competitive local markets, regular work is likely not going to be around for the students of Santa Luisa when they graduate.

A quarter of El Salvador’s economy already comes from Salvadorans who have emigrated to other countries and send money home. The migration – mostly of the men – has led to many children being raised in single-family homes. Without the stability of predominantly two-parent homes, many inner-city neighborhoods end up torn by abject poverty and crime.

“This is the pilgrim church, the church marginalized, the aching wounds of Christ, His Body scourged, and his poor marginalized,” O’Rourke said. “This is a work of mercy.”

It is an environment of misery that can make even the most faithful doubt in God’s love for them. This is why, while SCOPE aims to provide financial assistance to keep the school operational, the heart of the ministry is giving the children what they need to develop a relationship with Christ and build a moral foundation based on the teachings of the Catholic Church. Frequent prayer, an education in the Sacraments and the daily presence of the Sisters of Charity give Santa Luisa School an advantage the children cannot find at other nearby schools.

“The school is giving them a Catholic education, rooted in the values and teachings of the Church which will hopefully shape their lives of faith and morality and help them to become agents of change and hope in their society,” Father Lally said.

SIGNS OF LIFE

Tucked inside Santa Luisa’s fences are the sounds of children laughing and playing. The school’s courtyard teems with students skipping rope, playing soccer or basketball, and singing songs. They are looked after lovingly by the nuns and lay teachers, the latter of whom take meager salaries to keep the school’s mission alive. They are grateful for SCOPE’s solidarity with them.

Since its inception, SCOPE has managed to keep Santa Luisa afloat. In an effort to help the Sisters of Charity contribute to the funding, SCOPE donated a Eucharistic Host-making machine imported from Italy. SCOPE is also in the process of creating a large endowment that would ensure the school’s viability for years to come.

“SCOPE is not generic in purpose. Its mission is clear, focused and defined. It is for the poor,” O’Rourke said. “You can educate an entire school for less than it costs to send one U.S. college student to a private school for one year. One child can be educated for half the price of a new pair of Nikes, a monthly cable or phone bill or a meal at a U.S. restaurant.”

Since its inception, SCOPE has continued pilgrimages to the school, with past ones including seminarians from the Pontifical North American College, where Father Lally served as a spiritual director from 2003-10. These pilgrimages widen the formation experience of the church’s future priests, giving them a connection with the poor that they can share with congregations throughout their priestly ministry.

Now chaplain of St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, and rector of the Jesuit community there, Father Lally remains strong in his determination to support SCOPE. This means hundreds of children are given hope for a better life, rooted in the Gospels.

“I’m convinced that, while we may not be able to change all the problems in the world, here in this one place – hidden in this one small corner of the world – a saving ministry to the poorest of the poor could change their lives,” he said. “It can give them a deeper sense of their dignity as children of God, enable them to live better lives and be able to help their families. I believe that God’s purpose is in helping them, and I feel that reaching out to our brothers and sisters in the developing world – especially in Central America – is part of our responsibility as Christians and Americans.”

“If the life of one innocent child is saved from the filth and death of the streets, it will all have been worthwhile. But we have the opportunity here to give over 500 children each year the gift of live and hope and joy,” he added. “Each of us have had that gift as a given in our lives, none of us has earned it. It has all been a gift. I think it is time now to pass that gift on. I hope and believe that there are enough good people out there who will see it the same way. If we decide to, we can make a difference. I pray that God stirs up more collaborators in this work of Christian solidarity.”

O’Rourke said that SCOPE’s work is “unabashedly, unashamedly and unapologetically” done in the light of the Gospel, and is part of the culture of life’s antidote to the culture of death, he said.

“It’s a vision that transcends politics, economies and countries,” O’Rourke said. “It’s the call of the Gospel into action.”

Added Father Lally: “I pray that good people who learn about this effort will be motivated to participate in helping rescue the children who attend Santa Luisa School from the forces in their environment that would otherwise defeat them. There are many charities asking for help these days, but this is one that I know will make a difference. It may not make the headlines, but in one small place in the poorest country in Central America, over 500 children each year are given a ray of hope.”

“I would like to think that, in some small way, SCOPE will have been a part of it.”

Bill Howard is an award-winning Catholic journalist and a SCOPE board member.

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