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Traveling a road once tragic, two relocated retirees now toss starfish into the sea ... one house at a time

Story by David Moore

Having radically simplified their lives, then moved from up North, Cindy and Mark Rhonemus use their home in Dodge City as a base for their volunteer, lay mission work in Central America.
Mark and Cindy

After discovering life after death, Cindy and Mark Rhonemus found it easy to discover life after retirement.

For them, retirement lay on a radical road called “Simplify.” They sold off lots of stuff and, simple or not, moved from the banks of the Ohio River to Dodge City and now visit a poverty-plighted village in Central America as volunteer lay missionaries.

Prior to this radical, “simple” step, the Rhonemuses were accountants working as chief financial officers in separate, southeast Ohio school districts. Cindy had a son, Shaunn, from a previous marriage when she and Mark met in 1991 and married four years later.

Their ledger of life together showed a good balance – until 1997. That’s when an ultrasound during Cindy’s sixth month of pregnancy showed their new baby’s kidneys were not functioning. Doctors gave the baby an unlikely chance of survival.

“We were opposed to abortion,” she says. “We put everything in the Lord’s hands. Three things could happen. The baby could die in the womb, die at birth or be born alive.” Cindy and Mark became prayer warriors. Many others joined the effort. At home, they went ahead and prepared a nursery, praying that the child would be born alive and they would be granted a little time with him.

They got their prayer answered – all of it – on July 1, 1997.

Their baby was born. Alive. They got to hold him. They named him Mark Ezra. Had him baptized. And all on the same day they witnessed his last breath.

“You just … pray for a miracle,” Cindy says. “From the moment you become pregnant, you become a mother. We wanted a child together. It was devastating. They say if you lose a parent, you lose your past. If you lose a child, you lose your future. It can make or break a marriage.

“It brought us together,” Cindy continues. “When one was weak, the other was strong. Things that were important before became less important, and new things became more important.”

“It is,” Mark says, “the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through.”

In the dark months following their baby’s death, a missionary from Food for the Poor visited their church in Ohio and talked about the “wooden bell.”

“This is what some of the children who are starving sound like when they are dying of malnutrition,” Cindy says. “It’s a clucking, choking sound. We had heard that sound before.” Their child’s lungs had not developed. He’d made a similar sound.

“It just hit us,” Cindy says. “We both had the same feeling. We could not have children of our own but thought maybe we could help other children.” Food for the Poor offered mission trips. The Rhonemuses took the radical step of requesting to visit the neediest possible country. That, the missionary told them, was Haiti.

Mark and Cindy had lived in Appalachia, worked in the poorest counties of southeastern Ohio. Still, they were shocked when they arrived in Haiti in 1998.

They saw children living in homes with dirt floors. Even the hotel where they stayed had only cold water and no electricity at night.

“It’s so different in their world,” Mark says. “The country itself is so poor.”

Cindy says they decided on that trip that they wanted to do mission work when they retired. Back home, her parents asked why go overseas to help when there are those who need help right here.

“The Bible says the poor are always with us,” she replied. “It does not say the ‘us’ of West Virginia or Ohio. They rely on us … the Third World Countries.”

After Haiti, the Rhonemuses continued their jobs, but they now supported the mission group financially, even paying for the construction of three small houses. They became more active in their church and later joined a parish pilgrimage to Alabama to visit the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, but moving to Alabama did not occur to them.

Instead, life continued at their three-story, Victorian house, built in 1875 overlooking the Ohio River in the town of Pomeroy. Along with her five sets of China, Cindy collected antique tea sets. They played on the river in their boat, on their jet skis. Shaunn grew up and married.

While the years passed like water down the river, their dream of missionary work remained well anchored.

In 2014, the year they retired, Mark and Cindy took stock of their considerable stuff and saw no place for it in the nearing future. So they decided to simplify and set up a huge auction for the end of August.

In the coming weeks, Cindy would walk through the house, its furnishings evoking fond memories of family events and entertaining friends.

“It’s just furniture, I came to realize. All the memories were in my heart and mind,” she says. “It made it way easier to let things go.”

On auction day, except for a few keepsakes, all their antiques, furnishings and knickknacks where displayed in big tents set up in the yard. To spare emotions, the Rhonemuses left before the bidding began.

When they returned at the end of the day, everything was gone. “It was,” says Mark, “a sort of cleansing feeling.”

They retired December 31, 2014. That bitter winter lit a fire to move south, and they visited Asheville, Chattanooga and Florida.

About that time Mark read a story in the National Catholic Register about retired couples moving to be near shrines in order to deepen their faith. They were active at church, volunteering to help the elderly, and
cooking at the homeless shelter.

Mark and Cindy loved their restored Victorian house on the Ohio River … well, until they didn’t. They do still love their son, Shaunn, and his wife, Brooke, pictured at left at a restaurant they visited in Columbus, Ohio, during the 2016 Christmas holidays. And naturally Mark and Cindy love their grandson, Alder.

“We were so busy doing the Lord’s work that we lost something,” Mark says. “We needed to concentrate more on our prayer lives, our spiritual growth.”

So in March they revisited the shrine in Hanceville, this time exploring the surrounding area with an eye to moving.

“We were surprised to find this pocket of Catholicism here,” Mark says. Besides the shrine, there is St. Bernard Abbey, Sacred Heart (where they now attend church) and its monastery for the Benedictine Sisters, all in Cullman — St. Boniface in Hanceville and Christ the King Monastery in Fairview.

“We really loved the area and the people we met in Cullman County were so welcoming,” Cindy says.

They prayed heavily about moving here, including a nine day novena to Saint Joseph. Feeling led, they returned to Cullman County in June, looked at 16 houses and settled on a relatively modest rancher in Dodge City to be their future home base as missionaries.

They put their Ohio house up for sale. It went under contract in 11 days. They closed in Dodge City in July, moved in September.

“They say don’t do anything drastic the first year you retire,” Mark laughs. “We did it all. We broke all of the rules. Did we mention something about being radicals?”

“Everything,” says Cindy, “just fell into place.”

The next month, October 2015, the simplified radicals made their first missionary trip since Haiti; this time to New Orleans to rebuild a family’s house destroyed by the Hurricane Katrina flood 10 years earlier. Long-scattered, the family was able to reunite and celebrate Thanksgiving in their new home.

That project was organized through Sisters of Charity of Nazareth near Louisville, which works with Hand in
Hand Ministries to provide volunteer lay mission teams. Through that same collaboration, Mark and Cindy made
three trips to Belize (formerly the British Honduras).

The Central American country is renowned for its beautiful cays along on the Caribbean Coast, the amazing Blue Hole diving mecca and ancient Mayan ruins … all contributors to Belize’s annual $1 billion-plus tourism revenue.

On the other side of the proverbial tracks, some 41 percent of Belizeans – including nearly half of the children – live in poverty. They are also affected by rampant diseases.

It’s these people Mark and Cindy, as part of volunteer teams, went to help in January of 2016, 2017 and 2018. They also made a mission trip in June 2017 to the Crow Indian Reservation in Pryor, Montana.

On their first two trips to Belize City, they helped build 16×20-foot wooden homes – the low end of an average size deck in the U.S. – for needy families. If donations allowed, they added a 4×8-foot bathroom, for a total cost of some $6,000 each.

At the end of their 2018 trip, Sister Luke Boiarski, their Sister of Charity lay mission leader, asked the couple to visit Las Flores, a poor village some 50 miles west of Belize City.

“We saw so much need there,” Cindy says. “We saw houses made of sticks with linoleum flooring wrapped around them for walls and a tin roof.”

There they met Manuel Martinez, one of eight grown children, whose family is scattered except for two sisters, their children and his mother, Maria, whom he cared for. They lived in squalor while the walls of a block house that had been started for them stood unfinished.

Sister Luke asked Mark and Cindy if they could raise funds to finish the house on a future trip. She estimated that $5,000 was needed to complete the home. Trusting in the Lord, they said yes. Back home, calling on friends and family, they were able to raise $6,000, of which they themselves contributed $1,000 of their own funds.

Returning in January 2019 with a new team, they installed windows, doors, finished the roof and poured a concrete pad in front of the house for a future expansion. Manuel’s family is now living in the home, and recently someone donated enough funds for them to have electricity and a bathroom.

“The whole community takes part in the building – kids and adults,” Mark says. “They are helping their neighbors.”

While there, the Rhonemuses found themselves building not just a house but also relationships. They took village kids for ice cream and let them each buy a toy. They took Manuel’s pregnant sister for a timely ultrasound. It revealed the child’s umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck, so they paid for a second ultrasound and left money for a C-section if needed. Donations of clothes, flip flops, school supplies and rosaries were also distributed to the school and the church along with six wheelchairs for the handicapped.

Accenting the desperation, while the team worked on the house a villager would beg them for just two pieces of wood. “When you are there and actually see it,” Mark says, “you realize how blessed you really are.”

During the trip, the Rhonemuses continued discussions with village leaders they’d met on that first brief visit to Las Flores. The leaders settled and named the village in the early 1980s, refugees from deadly Christian persecution in El Salvador.

These men laid out to Mark and Cindy the idea of building a two-story building to house visiting doctors, nurses and other volunteers, store medical supplies and equipment, provide a community gathering place and eventually offer daycare

Recognizing the need, the Rhonemuses readily agreed to help. To make the project feasible, they downscaled it to a 42×48-foot block structure that will house 20 people instead of the proposed 40 and lowering the estimated cost to about $100,000 with furnishings.

They decided to spread the project over three years, so donors pledging support could spread out their contributions. They sent letters to potential supporters in November 2018 and lined up pledges of nearly $70,000 over three years.

Because they took on the fundraising themselves, Mark and Cindy turned to a group that does that on a regular basis called It Starts with Soccer. Started in 2001 in Austin by Doug Brown, the group’s website says it combines soccer with community outreach projects to promote lasting change in impoverished African communities.

Las Flores is its first project outside of Africa. Mark says they approached It Starts with Soccer because they needed an approved non-profit knowledgeable in making money flow into foreign lands and issuing proper tax receipts.

Doug visited Las Flores this past December to check out the situation. Along with the village leaders, he determined the first year’s phase of work would be building the foundation and walls, which will cost $35,000. While there, the former college soccer standout held a soccer clinic for 40 kids.

Mark, Cindy, Sister Luke and their new team traveled to Las Flores this January to break ground and do the first phase of the work on the multi-purpose building.

Close to meeting their financial goal, the Rhonemuses hope to generate local help once people know about the project

“Since we are still ‘new,’ we don’t know a lot of people,” Cindy says. “Even people in our church don’t know about the project. We are so close to meeting our goal, we feel if the project had a little awareness, then
we might get some local donors.”

“If we had the funding up front it certainly would not take three years,” Mark says.

People in Cullman already familiar with their volunteer work have donated items for Belizeans, from
flip flops and toothbrushes to clothes that Anne Oakes has sewn.

Elsewhere, the Knights of Columbus in the small Minnesota town of Watertown held a pancake breakfast and raised $1,500 towards the roof and plan on doing this annually.

“Mark and I can’t help the whole country of Belize,” Cindy admits. “But together we can do something.”

“It’s like the star fish story,” says Mark.

That’s the tale of the boy who comes upon thousands of starfish washed ashore and dying on the beach. He begins throwing them back in the water, one by one.

A man tells the boy there are too many dying starfish. His efforts are futile.

“You can’t make a difference,” he says.

Tossing another starfish into the life-giving water, the boy responds: “I made a difference to that one.”

Not everyone is radical enough to auction off their possessions – to simplify to such an extreme – so they can spend their retirement years as volunteer lay missionaries building houses for the needy 1,200 miles
away in Central America.

“What we do may be considered radical,” Cindy says. “But if each of us is willing to give up something to help make life better for even one person, then we are loving well. And that is what God calls all of us to do.”

Through the course of their lives, she and Mark have come to approach every day as a gift from God, Cindy explains.

“We wake up each day not asking ‘What are my plans for the day?’ but instead asking ‘What does God have in store for us today?’ Then we go where we are led, realizing that it is His plan, not ours. Our passion is to give back all that God has given us.

“In a nutshell, it is who we are,” Cindy adds. “We are not living this life for ourselves, but feel deeply that we are called to serve others. That’s how we roll. It’s who God wants us to be. And there’s no changing that.”


How do I get involved?

San Miguel Arcangel Missions
445 County Road 262
Hanceville, AL 35077

  • +1-256-887-3117
  • Mon - Fri : 8:00am - 6:00pm
  • contact@sanmiguelarcangelmissions.org