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Leech Lake area priest leads effort to build school in Kenya

During his recent visit home, Fr. Francis stopped by the only elementary school in the Moto region to explain his school project to children who would benefit most from having a less crowded school located much closer to their home village. (Submitted photo)

The pastor of not one but two Catholic parishes in the Leech Lake area of the dioceses is building an elementary school in Africa in what little spare time he has. And he is doing it in less than one year with committees of volunteers both here in Minnesota and in his native Kenya.

Fr. Francis Kabiru, pastor of St. Agnes Catholic Church, Walker, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Hackensack, since April of last year, has both parish communities enthused and involved in the school project. He has established a Minnesota non-profit organization, Moto Hope Mission, Inc., to oversee the project and a Project Steering Committee to raise funds. During a trip back to his homeland in Kenya earlier this year Fr. Francis formed committees to manage construction and staffing. He also bought three acres of land for the school in the rural village of Moto, Kenya, near where he grew up as the eighth of 12 children.

"'Moto' is a Swahili word that means 'fire' and we believe each one of us has that 'moto' - that 'fire' - within us to make a difference for those who have little or no access to a good education," said Fr. Francis. He noted the Moto Hope Mission, Inc. logo is a flame. "Our goal is to reach out to the underprivileged children of Moto, Kenya, and help empower them through education," said the 37-year-old priest.

Bishop Paul Sirba of the Duluth Diocese is impressed with the project and in a recent letter to Fr. Francis he commended both parishes for embracing the project, adding, "I support and encourage faith communities to engage in efforts like this and wish you great success on this project."

The Moto Hope Elementary School will be located very near where Fr. Francis was born and raised, some 150 miles northwest of Nairobi. It will be built in four phases, starting as a day school with five classrooms but upgraded later with more classrooms and boarding facilities.

"Phase One is the five classrooms we hope to construct this fall for $65,000, with the goal of opening the school to students in early 2012. This will be followed as quickly as possible with funding for Phase Two - five more classrooms. Phase Three includes an administrative office, computer lab and library, hopefully in 2012. Dormitories will be Phase Four," Father explained.

"Access to education is a critical need in this remote area," said Fr. Francis. "Many youngsters walk over four miles each way to attend an overcrowded Moto central school. Some never try and most give up after a year or two. This project is in response to a need the Kenyan government is unable to meet because of the vast rural area the school will serve. Once our school is up and running, however, it will then qualify for limited but vital government support, much like the 'charter' school concept here in Minnesota."

The Moto Hope Elementary School will be open to all, regardless of religion or income, which for a majority of Moto families is under $2 per day. And although the school won't be Catholic, it will work closely with Chrisitan education resources in Kenya in the areas of teacher recruitment and training, and curriculum development. "Spiritual nourishment of children is very important to the Kenyan people," said Fr. Francis.

Parishioners at St. Agnes and Sacred Heart enjoy Father's stories about growing up in Kenya, and they have learned much about Kenya and its people in the relatively short time Fr. Francis has been their pastor. "The call for volunteers to assist with the school project was met with an overwhelming response," said Mike Bergmann, a St. Agnes parishioner and chair of the project's steering committee.

"Shortly after we announced the project, informational dinners were held in early June at both parishes and authentic Kenyan food was served up to capacity crowds in African decorated social halls right here in Walker and Hackensack, Minnesota," said Bergmann. Guests at both dinners viewed Power Point presentations on Kenya and the project, and were told details of plans to raise $65,000 to fund Phase One of the project - the first five classrooms.

"There was tremendous interest in the project at the dinners and that has carried over to our summer visitors. We are amazed and very pleased at how much the Moto Hope school project has touched people," Bergmann said.

Bergmann also mentioned a major fundraising dinner has been scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 13 at the Northern Lights Casino Event Center in Walker. The program will feature three Minnesotans who have led mission trips to Kenya and will share their experiences in working with schools and children as an important part of their faith journey. The dinner is complimentary, but guest will be asked to be prepared to make a contribution. For reservations, call the St. Agnes parish rectory at 218-547-1054.

Fr. Francis said that to date, over $40,000 has been raised toward the $65,000 goal to complete Phase One of the project.

"I am hoping that by the time we have our fundraising banquet in September, we will have Phase One all but paid for and be starting on Phase Two," Francis said.

He noted that the Moto Board approved start of construction, based on the success of fundraising so far, at its July meeting in Walker.

"If we remain on schedule, our first classes at the Moto Hope Elementary School will begin in early 2012. I think everyone involved in the project or who has contributed to it will be filled with joy and amazement at what we can do when we come together to build the Kingdom of God both here and in Kenya." Fr. Francis concluded.