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 | Story By Mary D. Dillard

One starfish at a time

If there was one way to sum up lay missionaries Mark and Cindy Rhonemus’ philosophy of life, it would probably be that of the starfish story, a miniscule tale with a monumental message. The story begins with a boy happening upon a beach with thousands of starfish stranded on the shore. Seeing the marine life helpless and dying, the boy instinctively begins throwing them back into the ocean. When a passerby notices the boy’s seemingly futile efforts, he exclaims, “There are too many! You can’t make a difference.” Without missing a beat, the boy throws another starfish, turns around, and replies, “I made a difference to that one.”

The Rhonemuses’ road to making a difference was, unfortunately, borne out of heartache. In 1997, the couple’s newborn son, Mark Ezra, died from health complications. “It was devastating,” Cindy shares, but, thankfully, in their time of despair, the couple drew closer to each other. “We lost our child, and we were searching for something,” remembers Mark. It was during that search that a missionary from Food for the Poor spoke at their parish. Almost immediately, the couple knew they wanted to be involved. In 1998, the Rhonemuses joined one of Food for the Poor’s mission trips and traveled to Haiti. Looking back at the poverty they witnessed, Cindy admits: “We had no idea. You hear about it, even see it on TV, but until you actually see it, it’s just so hard to believe.”

The experience prompted the two to vow that when they retired, they would devote their time and energy to missionary work. For 16 years, the couple financially supported Food for the Poor, and when the time came to retire in 2014, they sold most of their possessions and moved to Alabama, purchasing a house close to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville.

With their hearts on fire for missionary work, they traveled to New Orleans in 2015 on their first missionary trip since 1998. The trip, organized by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth’s Lay Mission Volunteer Program, sparked a collaboration which led to trips to the Central American country of Belize in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

At the end of their 2018 mission trip, Sister of Charity of Nazareth Luke Boiarski inquired if they would travel 50 miles west to the village of Las Flores to meet a family whose house sat unfinished. Learning that the funds needed to complete the house totaled $6,000, the Rhonemuses joyfully took on the task, returned to the village in 2019, and made the incomplete structure a home.

Witnessing firsthand the great need in Las Flores led Mark and Cindy to approach village leaders about a building that would serve as a mission house, providing a central location for volunteers, medical professionals, and other community needs. The mission house was completed in 2022, and the couple had every intention of supporting and collaborating with those involved, but the Lord had different plans.

Those plans involved the Rhonemuses founding San Miguel Arcangel Missions. “Having a charity never entered our minds,” contends Cindy, “but if it is the Lord’s will, it will be done.”

The mission, named after Las Flores’ local parish, is run completely by the Rhonemuses. “This is our passion,” explains Cindy. The couple doesn’t get paid, and they cover administration costs personally. “If you give $100,” Mark boasts, “then $100 is going to the mission.”

Their dedication to the people of Las Flores stems from the couple’s firmly held belief that they were put here on this earth to glorify God not only through their relationship with Him but also by the works they do to help the poor. “If we can make someone’s life just a little bit better, then it is all worth it,” insists Cindy.

Education, health care, housing, and awareness are the means used to make life “just a little bit better.” Mark and Cindy, through their charity, provide scholarships to elementary, high school, and university students. The two will be establishing a medical clinic in 2024 at the mission house to provide much needed tests and treatments which are otherwise not available. Staying true to their missionary roots, San Miguel Arcangel Missions still builds housing, but instead of joining another group, Mark and Cindy organize and lead immersion trips.

“We think it’s an experience that everyone needs to have in their life,” professes Mark, but it’s not all about the house. Cindy stresses the importance of building relationships with the people of the community. “Despite the challenges of communicating across languages,” notes one of the charity’s high school missionaries, “the heartfelt connections we made were deep,” and those “heartfelt connections” are what helps raise awareness of the plight of those living in poverty.

The Rhonemuses pray every day that the mission house in Las Flores will be a “beacon of Christ’s light.” While there is no doubt that it is, the same can be said of Mark’s and Cindy’s life, for they keep making a difference for those proverbial starfish, one at a time.

San Miguel Arcangel Missions holds a number of 10-day immersion trips throughout the year. The cost breaks down to roughly $75 per day, which covers all expenses except airfare; however, the Rhonemuses can assist with arrangements. The typical cost is $750 per round trip, which brings the total cost to approximately $1,500. If interested in learning about the next trip, please contact Mark and Cindy at, 740.416.0203, or 256.887.3117. To learn more about San Miguel Arcangel Missions, please visit