Masons on a Mission


Masons on a Mission in San Pablo la laguna  Guatemala  February  2006

In February 2006, over a dozen masons (of the stone, brick, and block laying variety, no secret handshakes) from Maine, the US,  Canada and Austria, flew to the western highlands of Guatemala, at their own expense and with no monetary compensation, to  build, and to assist in the building of efficient wood burning brick cookstoves for  indigenous Mayan children, parents, and grandparents.
In February 2007 we will do it again!


Unloading truckload of estufa building materials.
El Rincon-2001

Our mission is mobilize North American masons and other interested parties to build safe masonry cook stoves for impoverished Maya in Central America, and to train local Maya in cook stove construction in order to improve public health in the region.
Masons on a Mission (MOM) is now a IRS tax exempt charitable foundation, and part of the National Heritage Foundation. All donations made to MOM are tax deductible.

We are replacing  what are known as 3 stone fires, with hand built masonry cook stoves, known locally as estufas, or la plancha. The 3 stone has a fire in the middle of 3 stones set as a triangle, with a metal plate (often the lid from a 55 gallon drum) laid over the top to cook on. These 3 stone fires are commonly located within a dwelling, providing heat as well.

A smoky three stone fire in Ixtahuacan -2000

The problem with this method of cooking and heating is that there is no way of properly venting the wood smoke. These open  fires are the sole source of cooking and warmth for thousands of Mayan families, but also the source of much misery. 

There are  deadly and debilitating results from constant exposure to the toxic smoke from a wood fire while inside the dwelling. There are the obvious respiratory illness’s and the stunting of growth in children’s young lungs. At higher elevations there is also a decreased level of oxygen in the air. Not usually a problem, you or I would just walk a bit  slower and just huff and puff more as your blood tries to absorb some oxygen. In a high altitude smoky dwelling it is much different. Everyone's blood has an affinity for carbon monoxide, meaning it prefers to absorb poisonous CO2 over what little Oxygen is available to begin with. No one needs to do any special studies to determine it is a very unhealthy situation. One that is easily made better with smoke vented from their dwelling. 
It also makes the women that live and cook with the 3 stone fire all day, cry every day. Their eyes are wet and red, and faces drawn, as the result of years of constant exposure to hot, toxic wood smoke. Such exposure results in what they call “clouds” in their eyes. Here we would call it significant loss of vision, or blindness.
There are also many very serious burn injuries from children's accidental fall’s into the open  fires.

                                                         New estufa in Los Mexicanos in 2004
 A brick and block cookstove allows safe indoor cooking by exhausting wood smoke outdoors. The enclosed brick firebox burns the wood efficiently, reducing wood usage. The masonry mass also stores surplus heat from the daily fire, and gives heat back at night. 

For me, one of the great joys of this project is seeing much different tears on the faces of  the women after    they have and use their new estufa. “Muchas gracias por la estufa” from the women often mixes with tears of joy. Every stove will improve the health of about 6 people. They know that, and they thank you for it! 

            Volunteers arriving trowels in hand, Main St in Xecarocoj   February 2005


One of the very first dwellings that I ever went into, to see about building the family a estufa, still had their 3 stone fire burning. The air inside was smoky blue, with beams of light from holes in the roof clearly showing the smoke, and within a minute my eyes started to water, and within a few minutes they were burning. I could only stay inside about 3 minutes, but I could taste the smoke all day.

In the highlands at 9000 feet it gets cold at night! When we would arrive in the mornings to build estufas, we would find an inch or two of ice in the water bucket. In the lowlands, a high mass  masonry cookstove is not as useful, because they do not have as much of a need to retain the heat. But in the highlands, that masonry mass also provides some heat throughout the night.                        

A newly designed Mesa estufa that we built  in association with the Calacirya Foundation,  in San Marco la laguna 
February 2006

The highlands are not the only places in Guatemala where the toxic open fires are used. For the past 2 years we have also been building estufas in the villages of San Marcos, Tzununa and San Pablo, all on the shores of Lake Atitlan. We have been working with the Calacirya Foundation in San Marco to develop a lighter weight and less expensive estufa than the heavier model we use in the higher elevations. We call the result of all our labors (above) the MESA ...Mission: Eliminate Smoky Air  

                                                         Lake Atitlan at sunrise

January 2006 was my 7th annual estufa building mission. Much is written here about the health benefits to all members of the family. Which is how it should be, that being the heart of this project.
Harder to quantify are the feelings we all get from sharing ourselves with these families as we build their estufas together. It's like nothing else! 

        Celebrating 25 new estufsa's in Los Romeo  2005

We realized early on that we would need to hire local Maya masons in order to get mucho estufas built. In 2000, about half of the 26 stoves built, were built by local Maya. Out of the thousands of estufas we have built there these past 7 years, over 90% were built by our crew of Maya masons! We feel that it is best that the majority of the estufas that we build for the Maya, be built by the Maya.


Building my first  estufa in Ixtahuacan  2000

Not to forget our U.S. and Canadian volunteers! Volunteers are a vital link to the transfer of resources and goodwill between the impoverished Maya, and affluent North Americans. It is the passion that we bring with us when we tell our stories here at home, that moves others to share a bit of their good fortune, and invest it in the future of humanity.


                                                               The gift.    
                                                      San Ramero 2005 

All of our volunteers also bring such good energy to this project. It really does take a certain sort of person to sign on, leave the comforts of home, and work with us, some years under conditions that can make a 
grown man cry!

Brian and village children dancing on the edge of a corn field.
El Rincon 2001


We are not just building cookstoves so that thousands of the Mayas' lives will be longer and healthier, even though that is our basic goal. Along the way, we are also building bridges between two very different worlds. We get to experience how WAY too much of the rest of the world lives, and realize just how how good life is for us here in North America. Once I was moved like that, it just became something that I can't  ignore.


Maya mason Don Juan with gringo mason Tom Hagelund at Los Mexicano 2004


It costs each mason who goes on a mission $1000 to $1500 of their own money, and two weeks of their time. We all think that it is well worth it!


View of a smoking dwelling showing 3 stone fire is in operation.
Ixtahuacan 2000

Do you? We can only build stoves for these families if we can buy the bricks and mortar, etc, that it takes to build them. You do not even have to be a mason to make a huge difference in these families lives. It costs an average of US$150 to buy and transport, in Guatemala, all the materials necessary to build one cook stove.

3 generations with one estufa

Masons and other volunteers (especially Spanish speakers) are welcome to apply to join us on a mission. Our intention is that once you see the conditions and poverty these people live with every day, after you return to the comfort of your own home and realize the difference that you just made, and could make, that you will be moved to assist us to raise funds so that  more estufas can be built.
If sometimes you feel that it might be time to give something back, to share some your own good fortune with others nowhere near as fortunate, this is your chance. Opportunity is knocking at your door.

More happy  estufa recipients in Nimasac.

In February 2000, in the village of Ixtahuacan, we built 26 estufas. In February and March of 2001, in the villages of El Rincon and Palemob, we built 150 estufas. In  2002, it was 500 estufas in She pop abaj, Shecam y parajes, and Concepcion . In February 2002 the village of She pop abaj was the first to welcome us, as we built estufas for 65 families. Next came Shecam y parajes with 65 estufas, Concepcion with 80, San Andres Xecul with 60, and Las Victorias with 45. Quite a difference from the 26 estufas we built in Ixtuachan on my first trip in 2000.   Now, in 2006 MOM & GSP has built or funded the building of over 3500 estufas!!

Combined Masons on a Mission and Guatemala Stove Project volunteers fanning out to build Mesa estufas in San Pablo.  February 2006


Each estufa (which is of a Central American design) that we build adds MANY YEARS of health, and vision, to the lifetime of every member of the family, especially the children. ALL of the money we raise is used to buy (in Guatemala) the masonry materials that we need, as well as to hire and train local Maya to help us to build hundreds of estufas, even after we come home.

 Four generations benefit from one estufa!
Palemob  2002

My partners and friends in these missions, Tom Clarke and Ali Ross of the Guatemala Stove Project  from Canada, and  Emily  Webb and Christian Nix of the Calacirya Foundation, and I, are always in the process of raising funds  to allow us to continue to build more cookstoves. We all share a vision of hundreds of thousands of  Maya breathing clean air within their homes. 
Although any size donation is appreciated, for a donation to MOM of $150 you will receive a picture suitable for framing, of a family with a new estufa that you helped build.

I would be pleased, and grateful, if you were to rally for our mission and  make a generous donation of your money, and/or your time. Your contribution will make a difference in the lives of these families, and yourself, I guarantee it.

MOM crew building double wood fired bread baking ovens in Guatemala City January 2006

Before we built estufas in San Marco in 2006, we contributed the labor to built a pair of wood fired brick bread baking ovens for Safe Passages, an organization based in Yarmouth, Maine, but very active in Guatemala. 
SP provides educational opportunities, recreational activities, vocational training programs and healthy meals for the children of the families that scavenge the Guatemala City dump. The ovens will be used to provide baking experience for the students in a baking program and to provide bread and pizza for the school lunch programs, as well as  possible commercial baking for students to earn money. 


Stopping for a photo op on a day trip to market in Chichicastenago February 2005. Our drive brings us up thru the highest (at 10,000 feet elevation) mountain pass on highway CA 1 in Guatemala. From where we stand we overlook Xela to the northwest. Less than a mile away to the south east we can see the village of Ixtauachan, where it all started for me in February 2000.

This February 2007 we will be based in San Marco la laguna, again building estufas in the that area.  We will also accept donations earmarked for buying emergency supplies, beds, blankets, water filters, food etc for the people of San Marcos, who are still digging out from under 6 feet of rock and gravel that slammed thru town during Hurricane Stan a year ago.


Above pencil drawing done for MOM, by volunteer Travis Chapman, and it will go up for auction at our Sunday Brunch and Art Auction at The Edge restaurant on the ocean in Lincolnville, ME, at 11-2PM, on Sunday  September 10 2006.


Tom Clarke /Ali Ross  Guatemala Stove Project

Chris Oslers Pictures from Guatemala

Article in Maine's Kennebec Journal

Article in Maine's Free Press

Related Links

Many of the masons that volunteer repeatedly are members of the Masonry Heater Association

Renewable energy and appropriate technology  The Sustainable Village

You can help by donating money for the materials to build a stove for a family. It costs about $150. Simply contact Pat.


or mail your contribution , made out to "Masons on a Mission" directly to

J. Patrick Manley 111
Masons on a Mission
15 Nelson Ridge South
Washington, Maine 04574 USA


This site was created on November 20th, 2000, and last updated June 23,  2006

The colorful border on the left of this page was inspired by the pattern of a hand woven blanket that was made for me when I was in Guatemala in Feb 2000.  Red signifies the blood (life) of the people, blue/purple is  death, yellow is spirit, and green is the natural world.

Copyright 2001 Pat Manley. All rights reserved.