Milwaukee Legate Art Wigchers — dubbed ‘Father of the Poor’ — has begun a tidal wave of cultural change in Ethiopia
Art Wigchers didn’t set out to change the world, but the soft-spoken Milwaukee businessman is doing just that — beginning with one small Catholic diocese in Central Ethiopia.
When his father-in-law died about 15 years ago, he left a sizable sum of money that Wigchers (pronounced Wiggers) and his wife Mary Ann — members of Legatus’ Milwaukee Chapter— decided to send to Catholic Relief Services.
It was meant to be a one-time gift, but the local CRS rep called Wigchers every three months to invite him on a trip to visit CRS work in Latin America.
“Then, in 2003, they asked if I’d like to go to East Africa, and I said yes,” he said with a grin. “I’m a news junkie, and I knew of the difficulties in Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. I thought, ‘Here’s my chance to see what’s really going on and understand from the ground up.’”
The last leg of Wigchers’ trip took him to the Vicariate of Meki, a few hours south of the nation’s capital in central Ethiopia. In the Catholic Church, an apostolic vicariate is a form of territorial jurisdiction in missionary regions where a diocese has not yet been established.
After touring several CRS projects, Wigchers struck up an almost instant friendship with the newly appointed leader of the vicariate — Bishop Abraham Desta.
“I asked him what he needed most,” Wigchers said. “He said he needed help with a school in the mountains in a heavily Muslim area. I went home and talked to my wife, and we decided to help.”
After pondering his gift for a few months, Wigchers decided to return a year later and check on the school’s progress.
“My 2004 visit is where I really got hooked,” he explained. “I had been wondering if the school we helped fund really existed. The school not only existed, but it was doing every well.”
In fact, because of the Catholic Church’s investment through CRS in education, sustainable development projects, famine relief, disease prevention and community water projects over the last 58 years, the Church has earned the respect of faith and community leaders nationwide. That would prove beneficial for the work Wigchers would later undertake.
Bishop Abraham Desta
The 72-year-old Wigchers said that being on the ground in Meki — seeing firsthand the incredible poverty and the great need for education — touched his heart because of his own upbringing.
Raised in rural northwest Wisconsin, Wigchers, at a very young age, suffered the death of his father.
“We didn’t have running water or indoor plumbing, but we had focus,” he said. “My mother had six years of schooling, and she said, ‘You’re going to college. You’re not going to end up like me.’”
Wigchers went on to earn an MBA and CPA. His career led him to work for a large real estate developer in Milwaukee where he spent 35 years. He retired as CEO of Zilber, Ltd., six years ago.
Bishop Desta said that Wigchers’ 2003 visit was a Godsend because he brought a remarkable zeal for education.
One of the challenges the bishop found as a new leader was that women were not being afforded their rightful place. This is not only a problem in his heavily rural, poverty-stricken vicariate, but across his country with its male-dominated society.
Art Wigchers gathers with school children near Meki, Ethiopia
“I saw that women are, in this area, not well-treated,” he explained. “They’re not given the opportunity to advance. As they grow up, girls drop out of school.”
Another danger that caught the bishop’s attention was that most Ethiopian girls are subject to harmful traditional practices — including female genital mutilation (FGM).
The World Health Organization estimates that up to 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to FGM with 3 million girls in Africa at risk every year.
In fact, President Barack Obama lashed out against FGM during his July visit to Kenya and Ethiopia. He reiterated those remarks to African leaders in Washington a week later.
“There’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation; there’s no place in a civilized society for the early or forced marriage of children,” he told an audience in Kenya. “These traditions may go back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.”
Change through education
Girls fill their containers of water at a community well near Meki, Ethiopia.
Wigchers and Bishop Desta agreed that the best way to eliminate these traditional harmful practices was through education.
“The Catholic Church is a big voice here,” Bishop Desta explained. “If anything comes from the Catholic Church, people see it as a positive. We are a moral voice, plus we have the understanding of the people around us to start this project.”
Wigchers, a member of the CRS Foundation Board, began by supporting the vicariate’s 44 schools. The idea to advocate for women began to blossom only three years ago.
“In 2012, when I was here with some college professors,” Wigchers explained, “the bishop said that the most important thing he needed was help for the girls to have more respect and equality in the society.”
Wigchers began to rally support at Marquette University and Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. That caught the attention of some highly placed educators.
Linda Gordy, associate dean at Waukesha County Technical College, is a literacy expert who heard about Wigchers’ work three years ago. She jumped at the chance to help.
Wigchers also recruited Madeline Wake, a retired dean of nursing at Marquette. The three put their heads together and developed a program to help restore women to their rightful place in Ethiopian society by training teachers in hygiene, nutrition, health and the dangers of FGM and other harmful traditional practices.
“We knew that the teachers could reach parents in a way that we never could,” Wake said. “Education always empowers a community.”
The project has trained over 270 teachers and 34 administrators with another 26 school directors being trained to teach others.
“Our goal is to make this self-sustaining in the vicariate so we can work in other areas,” Wigchers said. “This is a large country — 90 million people in an area twice the size of Texas — so there’s no end to what we can do to help.”
“Art is a unique individual,” Gordy said. “His personal commitment and vision is very special, giving him the ability to gather all these different perspectives.”
Bishop Desta also lauds Wigchers’ passion, which has yielded great success. The businessman has helped rally secular, ethnic and faith leaders to back his plan to restore women’s dignity.
“He is a pioneer in this area of education,” Bishop Desta said. “Art is ‘Father of the Poor,’ really. I admire him for his concern — especially for the girls who are burdened with so much in this male-dominated society. From his heart, he wants to help with knowledge, empowering people. This is truly the social teaching of the Church in action.”
PATRICK NOVECOSKY is Legatus magazine’s editor-in-chief. He spent five days with Wigchers in Ethiopia in July. To learn more about Wigchers’ work, contact him at email@example.com