The Catholic faith has a wonderful tradition of memorable saints. There are patron saints of nearly every profession.
St. Apollonia is the patron saint of dentists, and the Apollonia Guild does missionary dental work in her name. In November, a group of dentists and other medical professionals, mostly from East Aurora, traveled to Patzun, Guatemala to assist the Carmelite Missionary Sisters of St. Teresa in their service. During their stay, from Nov. 8 until Nov. 15, they performed procedures on people who would not have otherwise been able to afford expensive dental care, or even been able to afford to see a dentist at all.
This year, the team who assisted the mission included Dr. Donald Hayes, DDS, Dr. Raymond Niceforo, DDS and his wife, Marsha, oral surgeon Dr. Michael Garvey, DMD and his wife, Julia, Amy Vogt, DDS, Lisa Garvey, a registered nurse, and other members of their families. Dr. John Brach, MD, also came as a medical doctor who has had experience in critical care situations.
Dr. Hayes began the mission 25 years ago when he retired from his own dental practice and decided to look for ways to help others, having always been a giving person. He chose to help the Carmelite sisters, who serve in five Central American countries: Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. Today, both Raymond and Marsha Niceforo are primarily responsible for organizing the trip.
Deacon Donald Weigel, a permanent deacon assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish in East Aurora, said some members of this medical team that traveled to Central America are his parishioners. Additionally, one dental student went on this trip, the latest part of a medical mission "some of these folks have been doing for a very long time," although this was the first trip Deacon Weigel also attended.
"One thing led to another and (Dr. Hayes) started this," Deacon Weigel said. "He would just go down by himself and spend a couple of weeks. He had very rudimentary tools, just what he could carry with him. Over the years, this has grown. The mission to this place has grown, along with the mission location."
Dr. Hayes involved his former dental partner and the man to whom he sold his practice. From there, the mission grew further, and today Dr. Niceforo is primarily responsible for many of the matters involving organizing the annual mission, Deacon Weigel said. "It's becoming a really expansive kind of mission that comes down, and they spend a whole week just providing dental services to the poor."
During the trip, the team offered services to people in the villages surrounding Patzun, many of whom walked for miles to come see the team for care. The villagers paid a small, nominal amount to the mission for their services, but far less than they would have paid to see a local dentist.
"There's a wisdom there by the sister who runs it, that people paying a little bit feel better that it's not just charity - it's something they know they're getting a discount on, but they're still able to contribute," said Deacon Weigel. "I think that's a very smart thing that she's done there."
A surgical assistant also came on the trip, Carrie Hayes, as well as a dental hygienist, Elona Whitmore. Therefore, at one time, there were two dentists and their assistants filling cavities, a hygienist cleaning people's teeth and Dr. Garvey extracting teeth too badly damaged to be saved with fillings.
"This was all done in this tiny, two-room facility that they had," Deacon Weigel said. "They treated, as a group, upwards of 50 to 60 people a day. In many cases, some of these people had never seen a dentist and couldn't afford to go to a regular dentist in town. There were a lot of kids that got treated, too, and you know how important it is to have good dental health among kids."
The people the mission served were only those who could never afford to see local dentists, to avoid the possibility of taking away those dentists' business. The team provided toothbrushes and dental floss to the patients and instructed them in how to take care of their teeth. The mission, which mother superior Madre Ana Maria Chavajay leads, includes more than dentistry, but other charitable work as well.
"She and Sister Augustinia are really the ones that kind of run the whole thing, and besides this medical mission, she will bring in different people from the villages and teach them what to teach in religious education for the coming week. It was really cool to see all these people coming in," Deacon Weigel said. "She also visits these villages all the time. She just knows everything that's going on in the villages."
The mission has also built a school in one of the villages, Our Lady of Carmen, or Nuestra Señora del Carmen. It has expanded to include ninth and tenth grade, in addition to the original first through eighth grade classes. Deacon Weigel called this a "beautiful mission run by marvelously faithful sisters."
"I was just so thrilled to be a part of what they do and communicating with the people there, who are just beautiful and simple," Deacon Weigel said. "Madre Ana Maria is coming to the Western New York area in the beginning of February, so we're going to work with her on doing a little fundraising for her continuing mission there as well. Every time I interact the poor, it reminds me what's important."