Missionary priest updates friends on the school that faith built
BEDFORD — Father Robert Thames was more than 4,100 miles from his home in Bolivia, but for the priest from the Diocese of Fort Worth, his recent trip to North Texas was a homecoming for a class reunion and a chance to give an update on the success of Educate the Children, Bolivia.
Fr. Thames came to North Texas for a reunion for The Happening, a retreat for Catholic youth designed in the late 1960s by Fr. Thames and a group of other young priests.
Thames held a Period of Reflection March 3 at St. Michael Parish in Bedford, attended by roughly 20 people, including some who participated in The Happening. They were intent on hearing Fr. Thames' "Reflections on Humanity."
During the reflection, Fr. Thames reminded, "God does not live in temples, God lives in people," and that prayer is important.
"Get in touch with God," he told attendees. "We can pray any place, any time."
Thames was raised on a dairy farm in Decatur as the eighth of nine children. He was ordained on June 27, 1964 at St. Patrick Cathedral in Fort Worth and will celebrate his 54th year in the priesthood this year.
“We live in a very secular age, a materialistic age, and we forget about God,” Fr. Thames cautioned attendees at the reflection.
“God never forgets about us, we forget about God,” he said.
“We have become too institutional, too organizational, too office-oriented,” Fr. Thames said.
It’s important to be among the people, something he said Pope Francis has excelled at, even before he was elected as pope.
“People will share things with you in their homes that they won’t share with you in the office,” Fr. Thames said.
Fr. Thames has served abroad for decades.
He spent 11 years in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, serving poor colonias across the Rio Grande and visible from the University of Texas at El Paso campus.
Since 1996, Fr. Thames has served the rural villages in Cabezas, Bolivia, a remote agricultural section of the South American country where Educate the Children Bolivia has four schools.
Nuestra Señora del Carmen School opened in 2004 in Cabezas with the help of funding from the Diocese of Fort Worth. Original plans were for 100 students, but 250 came.
Now, the regular high school has 352 students.
The adult high school program for people 18 and older has 430 students.
“That’s for people who didn’t have the chance to study when they were young,” Fr. Thames said. “That’s our largest program because there were no schools out there.”
He said the awareness of the need for education is growing in the region, “Hopefully because our school gives them possibilities.”
A special education program has 60-65 children from different locations in the area, Fr. Thames said.
“We’re the only program in the whole area out there” that deals with disabled children, he said. The children have a variety of disabilities, both physical and the so-called “hidden” disabilities such as vision or hearing issues, as well as mental and psychological conditions.
The technical institute — similar to a junior college — includes a physical therapy class among its curriculum.
Fr. Thames said the program has had a lot of success helping the children of Cabezas.
As an example, he cited seven-year-old Kamila Taborga, who was born paralyzed and came to the school when she was five.
“One of our technical courses is physical therapy, and a second-year student began to work with her in July 2016. By January 2017, she walked out to my house four blocks away,” Fr. Thames said. “She walks up to our school every day and then walks back to her house.”
Another girl named Beatriz came to the program with psychological issues and Fr. Thames said the team looked for ways in which she could learn.
“We found out she could learn physical, touchable things,” he said. “So, we taught her to cook.”
When she was 18, about four to five years ago, Beatriz completed her education and now works as a cook in a restaurant and is married.
“We go out and look for those kids who need our help,” Fr. Thames.
The program serves a huge area, “probably a hundred miles every direction.”
The school is sought out and well known, particularly by single mothers who may not have the money to provide a good education for their children.
“About 60 to 70 percent of our high school is single-parent children,” he said.
Educate the Children Bolivia is supported by the diocese and by donations.
At the end of the reflection, Steve Wilkes — who was a teenager when The Happening was created — and his wife, Karen, presented Fr. Thames with a check for more than $1,600 for the program in Bolivia that was raised by those who attended the reunion.