San Lucas is a town of approximately 20,000 people, with another 20,000 living in twenty surrounding communities. Located on the shores of Lake Atitlan, the population of San Lucas is predominantly Maya Kaqchikel. Kaqchikel is one of about 24 distinct languages still spoken in Guatemala. The Kaqchikel people have a proud history dating back thousands of years in this area of Guatemala.
In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado, one of Cortes’ lieutenants in the conquest of Mexico, set forth to conquer the Maya peoples to the south. In May 1540, following several attempts at rebellion against Spanish dominion, and in an attempt to stem further rebellion, Alvarado ordered the last Kaqchikel king hanged.
Over the course of the next 500 years, the descendants and followers of the original Spanish conquistadors acquired more and more of the lands occupied by the descendants of the great Kaqchikel kingdom. In the late nineteenth century, state policies created a lang-owning economic elite and provided the land owners with a supply of cheap indigenous labor for the coffee harvest. While forced labor was abolished by the mid-twentieth century, the legacy of enormous disparities in rural land ownership, below-subsistence wages for most plantation workers, and extreme income inequality lives on.
The Kaqchikel of San Lucas Tolimán endured their losses with resolve, and in the last half of the 20th century there existed a tenuous equilibrium in which potential for growth in the community was stifled, bound by coffee fincas to the south and west, Lago Atitlán to the north and a steep 2000 ft. ridge to the east.
Throughout the past 50 years, land ownership and wealth in the area has been dramatically altered, with many families receiving land from the San Lucas Mission.
The Parish of San Lucas was originally founded by the Franciscan order in the late 16th Century, and the current church building was built around 1584.
In 1958, as the Catholic Church in Rome called for greater involvement of clergy and lay people in world missions, the Diocese of New Ulm responded by launching a diocesan partnership with the Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala. Father Greg Schaffer, a diocesan priest from New Ulm, began serving as pastor of the San Lucas Mission in 1963. In partnership with local leadership, Father Greg pioneered social justice initiatives to address both the immediate effects of poverty and its underlying causes.
San Lucas was once a small village of cornstalk homes with thatched roofs, lacking both electricity and plumbing. There were neither health care facilities nor schools and women and children suffered severely from the lack of healthcare, with many women dying in childbirth and children suffering from malnutrition.
A lack of access to education perpetuated discrimination against the Maya, who were consequently unable to find employment other than on the coffee plantations. The inaccessibility of land ownership for the Kaqchikel people has resulted in one of the gravest injustices: an inability to feed one’s own family.
Since 1963, the Mission of San Lucas has attempted to address all of these historic injustices. Shaped by Catholic Social Teaching and the tenets of Liberation Theology, the programming of the Mission has been designed to build on the strengths of the people of San Lucas in an effort to create a more just community.