A Life Remembered: Guatemalan mission priest's roots were in Minnesota

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Oct. 24—Bill Peterson once asked the late Rev. John Goggin to define radicalism. The New Ulm Diocese priest served rural Guatemalan villages for close to six decades.

"He told me, 'following the Gospel and treating everyone as a child of God.'"

"That's what made him dangerous," said Peterson, of Cannon Falls and the executive director of the nonprofit Friends of San Lucas.

Goggin died Sunday in Guatemala. He was 85 and had been ill with cancer.

Peterson described Goggin as a very humble man who believed work with Guatemalan parishes and the San Lucas Mission were his life's foremost duties, especially during the Central American country's three decades of unrest that had begun years before his arrival.

"Father was there during the civil war. It was a very dangerous time. His life was under constant threat."

Goggin often had to drive long distances to officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals for his parishioners.

"He would get stopped late at night ... He knew full well what could happen. Priests had to be very careful how they worked and about what they said," Peterson said.

Over the years, members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the Rev. Phil Schotzko, of St. Peter, served with Goggin at San Lucas.

"He was a tremendous man," Schotzko said, adding that Goggin had immersed himself in the Guatemalan culture.

"The people there knew him as one of their own."

Goggin already had served for many years in Guatemala when, in 1981, a death squad acting on orders from the country's oppressive regime killed a nearby parish's priest. Goggin took on the duties of breaking the news of the death of Rev. Stanley Rother to the American embassy as well as the Catholic diocesan and archdioceses offices.

Pope Francis later recognized Rother the beloved missionary as a martyr. Goggin was among the thousands who attended his fellow priest and friend's rite of beautification services in 2017 in Oklahoma City.

The Rev. Gregory Schaffer and Goggin served as sacramental ministers in Santiago Atitlan after Rother was killed. The two priests also worked together for decades at San Lucas Mission.

Getting to some of the communities Goggin served required vehicles with four-wheel drives. "It meant going through streams," Goggin told a journalist for a Free Press story in 2022.

"He was a notorious driver. Everybody has stories about that," said Kathleen Peterson, of Ottawa, one of Goggin's surviving siblings. (She is not related to Bill Peterson.)

"I think he was always borrowing time — trying to get someplace by taking shortcuts. His guardian angel probably jumped out when his vehicle reached a certain speed," Kathleen said.

Her brother was the eldest of the Goggin family's five children. They grew up in De Graff, a small town in Swift County.

"John was ordained in 1964 in Hutchinson by Bishop Alphonse Schladweiler," Kathleen said.

Goggin's service at San Lucas began in 1968.

During a trip to Guatemala in 1970 to visit her brother, she witnessed how he worked with the Indigenous population.

"I remember the extreme poverty ... He told me, 'You have to take care of the body before you can get to the soul.'"

Goggin also was the Atitlan program coordinator for Unbound, a nonprofit founded by lay Catholics that pairs children and elderly people with sponsors in other countries.

On Thursday, Kathleen plans to watch from her home a livestream of her brother's funeral in Guatemala. The 10 a.m. service will be in Spanish. The service may be viewed on Zoom link using the passcode 943385.

An hourlong documentary about Goggin's life in Guatemala is slated for completion later this week.

"I was hired by the Friends of San Lucas," said Casey Ek, who is formerly from Mankato and worked on the film in Guatemala earlier this year.

"They sent me down there in July. I met with Father and I traveled to villages he served."

Ek was able to interview locals about Goggin's advocacy for landownership and the way he connected with the impoverished people who live in rural communities.

"He was very understated person. He was not braggadocious," Ek said.

New Ulm Diocese Bishop Chad W. Zielinski offered written response to an interview request about Goggin:

"In January, I had the opportunity to visit the San Lucas Mission and witness the work of Father Goggin. I was mightily impressed with his outreach and devotion to the people of Guatemala and the ongoing ministry that continues to happen there through the Friends of San Lucas.

"Celebrating a Memorial Mass for him Nov. 18 at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm will be an honor. "