Changing Bolivian society one student at a time

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

Father Bob Thames is a priest of the Diocese of Fort Worth who has spent 40 years serving the poor in Mexico and Bolivia. (NTC / Joan Kurkowski-Gillen)
Father Bob Thames from the Diocese of Fort Worth  has spent 40 years serving the poor in Mexico and Bolivia. (NTC / Joan Kurkowski-Gillen)

Father Robert Thames didn’t just open a school in Cabezas, Bolivia, eight years ago. He gave hundreds of needy youngsters a portal out of poverty.

But the diocesan priest with a missionary heart never expected to spend a chunk of his adult life tending to young souls in South America. As a younger man, he wanted to work in Southeast Asia.

“I liked ministering to the Cambodian refugees in Breckenridge (Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish), so I felt called to go to Southeast Asia,” explains the 74-year-old who began his missionary outreach as a Maryknoll associate.
His plans changed after the Maryknoll president returned from a mission trip to Bolivia.

“He asked me if I spoke Spanish,” Fr. Thames says, recounting the fateful question. “I said ‘yes’ and my plans changed.”

Dressed in a red plaid flannel shirt and carrying a multi colored woven bag crafted by one of his Bolivian parishioners, the soft spoken priest talked about his thriving school and the students it serves during one of his infrequent visits to Fort Worth. Every two years the native of Wise County returns to Texas to raise funds for Nuestra Senora del Carmen in Cabezas. He also meets with benefactors who sponsor a child’s schooling through Educate the Children Bolivia — a Diocesan Mission Council program. Thanks to the generosity of North Texas Catholics, many of the school’s 450 sixth- through 12th-graders from impoverished villages are given the opportunity for an education.

A Nov. 10 dinner and silent auction at St. Bartholomew Church hosted by the Mission Council netted $8,500 for Educate the Children.

Started in February 2004, the Nuestra Senora Del Carmen School has grown to include adult education courses and technical training for older students. Since its inception, 350 students have completed the curriculum with more than 70 graduates pursuing university educations.

“The youngsters learn a trade and then go home and teach their parents about agriculture or caring for farm animals,” says Alicia Ruggieri, an Educate the Children sponsor who visited Cabezas last year. “One little girl I met learned to sew and would make clothes for her younger siblings.”

The St. Joseph parishioner attended the school’s graduation ceremony and was impressed by the grateful hugs she received from students.

“It was an amazing moment for me,” she adds. “I've never seen so many graduates cry so much and be so appreciative. Education is something we take for granted in this country.”

Today, the school’s wide-reaching vocational and academic programs serve 1,000 people and are used as models for rural education in Bolivia. It’s a lifetime achievement for the grey-haired priest who spent 40 years serving the poor in Mexico and Bolivia. But his mission work came at a price — his health.

Fr. Thames still remembers the rigors of his first assignment.

“I really drove myself,” he said, recalling life in a high altitude region of Bolivia. “Everything was on foot in those days. There was no fuel and very little transportation.”

Traveling between his residence and outlying villages 13,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level exhausted him. After three and a half years he left the remote post and returned to the U.S.

“That really bothered me because I fell in love with the people there,” he confessed. “People in the rural areas are extremely generous. They are poor and struggle to eat, but whatever they have they will give you.”

Fr. Thames returned to Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Breckenridge but quickly asked for reassignment. After years of living a simple life in Bolivia, he could not adjust to fast-paced American society.

“I realized after a short time I could not stay in this country. Everything was so different,” he admits.
As soon as a Spanish-speaking replacement was found for the parish, Fr. Thames assumed a new post in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. From 1986 until 1997, he managed fast-growing parishes.

“It was going well until I had my first heart attack,” remembers the missionary who recovered easily from his first bout with heart disease.

A second heart attack in 1995 almost killed him. During three days spent in the intensive care unit of a Mexican hospital, friends did not know if he would live or die.

After leaving the hospital, he told the local bishop in Mexico the burden of overseeing a large parish was affecting his health.

“He insisted I stay, so I decided to go back to Bolivia. I just didn’t tell him that,” he confided with a sheepish grin.
After a brief stay in Trinidad, Bolivia, Fr. Thames relocated to the Santa Cruz Archdiocese where he became pastor of another burgeoning parish, Corpus Christi Church. What started as a congregation of 350, soon grew to 1,000. He enlarged the church twice.

Fr. Thames was the lone priest tending to the needs of 48,000 people at the main church, outlying communities, and three schools.

“Once again it was killing me,” he says, remembering the workload a team of three priests would later assume.
When a rural parish became available, the Texas native jumped at the opportunity. Trading his urban lodging for an adobe hut, Fr. Thames became pastor of a parish that covers 45 towns.

“When I got to Cabezas with my lay team and a group of sisters in December 2002, the first thing I did was ask the people what they needed,’ the missionary recalls. “Everyone told me they needed a school because most of the villages offered only a fourth or fifth grade education.”

When sending youngsters from outlying areas to public schools didn’t work out because of teacher strikes, Fr. Thames decided to build his own campus. A recently added highway and electricity made the construction project possible.

“I wanted stability for the youngsters, so we opened our high school for grade six up to graduation the next year,” he said.

Located on land that once housed a pig farm, the school has a 30-year contract with the property owner. Dormitories provide shelter for children who live too far away from the school to commute. Many youngsters are abandoned or come from single parent homes.

“They stay with us all year long and we feed them,” explains the visionary founder who tries to enroll the poorest, most vulnerable children.

Textbooks aren’t supplied by the government.

“If you can’t afford them, you’re really handicapped, so we furnish the books,” he continued. “We also give them school supplies, meals, and lodging. And if they need clothes or medical attention, and the family can’t afford it, we give them that too.”

Having won the respect of the Bolivian government, Fr. Thames hopes to keep the successful school operating after he’s gone. Well past the age most priests retire, the missionary forged an alliance with the Guarani Indians and the Campesinos — the local agricultural labor union — to ensure the school’s viability.

“We're forming a council that will direct the school and be responsible for fundraising,” he explains. “We’re a parish school well-known for helping the poorest students. That will continue and our principles will be maintained.”

With a small army of industrious alumni exemplifying the value of education, Fr. Thames knows he’s changing Bolivian society one student at a time. An increase in the number of high schools in the region is just one way Nuestra Senora del Carmen has impacted people’s attitude toward higher education.

“When our graduates began to branch out and became productive members of the community, people saw the benefit, and the number of kids going to school increased greatly,” he adds.

The small, rural school Fr. Thames started eight years ago gives the children of impoverished village families hope for a better life. Special education teachers, clothing manufacturers, a veterinarian, doctors and nurses, are among the school graduates.

“What we’re doing is making a difference,” he insists. “The support we get from the bishop and sponsors in the Diocese of Fort Worth is key. People interested in doing good things for others makes this school work.”

Father Robert Thames didn’t just open a school in Cabezas, Bolivia, eight years ago. He gave hundreds of needy youngsters a portal out of poverty.