Gregory Schaffer was born in St. Paul, studied at St. Paul Seminary and was ordained as a Catholic priest for the Diocese of New Ulm. But he found his true calling in Guatemala.

He hadn't anticipated his appointment as a diocesan missionary there in 1963. Yet he stayed for more than four decades, leading project after project to better the lives of the Guatemalan people he loved.

Schaffer, whose caring and charisma drew thousands of Minnesota volunteers to San Lucas Toliman, died May 24 of lymphoma. He was 78.

"He was a devoted pastor and thinker and man who was generous in every way," said the Rev. John Francis Brandes, a retired priest who spent 10 years at the mission.

Schaffer was born in St. Paul in 1934. He was one of 10 siblings, yet "we never knew hunger," said his sister Ann Wiggins, of Eagan. "We always had a garden. The house smelled of homemade breads."

He studied at Nazareth Hall Preparatory Seminary, then St. Paul Seminary. In 1963, he was assigned to the mission in San Lucas Toliman, founded by a Franciscan order in the late 16th century.

His parents visited in 1965, Wiggins said. "When they came home, Dad said, 'He's never going to come back.'"

Over his decades there, Schaffer oversaw "an establishment which is mind-boggling," according to a St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity newsletter noting Schaffer's distinguished alumni award. "A parish church building, a school, a hospital, a program of agricultural education, a relentless drive for social justice implemented among the rural poor."

That newsletter lauded Schaffer's focus on gathering funds to "actually buy the plots of land for which blood had been spilt." Over time, he helped more than 3,700 families acquire 3 acres of property for farming, according to the University of St. Thomas.

Schaffer's land projects were just one example of how he focused on "not only the spiritual aid to the people but also the economic development of them," Brandes said.

Jacob Cunningham met Schaffer as a 20-year-old St. Thomas student in Guatemala for a month.

"I think what he said loud and clear over and over again, was that 'It's important that you're here,'" said Cunningham, who runs a University of St. Thomas program called VISION, which organizes mission trips for students. "'However, approach this with a lot of humility, recognizing the dignity and beauty of the people.' That created the possibility in San Lucas for a kid like me from Minnesota to have a real relationship with the mission and the people."

Schaffer won many awards for his work, including honorary degrees and the Order of the Quetzal, bestowed by the Guatemalan government.

Services have been held in New Ulm and Eagan. A third and final mass will be held at San Lucas Toliman, where Schaffer will be buried.

In addition to Wiggins, Schaffer is survived by four other sisters, Elizabeth Meidl of Lamberton, Judith Gust of Iowa City, Iowa, Geraldine Cunningham of Chicago and Monica Schwartz of Tucson, Ariz.; two brothers, J. Patrick of St. Paul and John Jr. of Burnsville, and a foster brother Robert O'Brien of Omaha, Neb.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168