Bishop Donald J. Hying couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth. He had just come from a weeklong visit to the Milwaukee Archdiocesan sister parish in the Dominican Republic, and while he enjoyed the trip, he was certain he could not accept an assignment there.
“The people were wonderful, I could deal with the heat, I could deal with the bugs, I could deal with the poverty, but I didn’t know any Spanish and everything you do as a priest is communication, whether speaking or listening, so I thought there is just no way I could do this,” he said convincing himself he was not called to this ministry.
Yet, when Don Mueller, then-director of the Office for World Mission, called and asked him if he’d go, he heard himself say, “Yes.”
“I came back firmly convicted, but when Don Mueller called and said, ‘What do you think?’ out of the blue, I heard myself saying, ‘Yes, I’ll go.’ It was completely opposite of what I was going to say, so this had to come from the Holy Spirit and once it was out, I couldn’t get it back,” recalled Bishop Hying of the decision he now calls one of the greatest experiences of his life.
It was spring of 1993 and Bishop Hying was nearing the end of his fifth year as associate pastor at St. Anthony Parish, Menomonee Falls, and Mueller had invited him to consider the team member position at the parish in the Dominican Republic and persuaded him to at least make a visit to see the parish firsthand.
He did so in fall, and within the next few months he was enrolled in a three-month intensive language program to learn Spanish.
His five years of Latin proved helpful in learning the new language, and by the time Franciscan Sr. Frances Cunningham, the new director of archdiocesan World Mission Ministries, visited him in 1997, she said he appeared at ease celebrating Mass in Spanish as well as conversing with parishioners.
“I came during his last year there and spent a good week and a half down there with him,” she said, noting it was Bishop Hying who showed her around the parish which at that time included two priests serving 50,000 people in an area comprised of about 22 villages.
“His interaction with the people is wonderful,” recalled Sr. Fran, who described a Mass he celebrated in a prison.
Bishop Hying initiated the prison ministry. After much persuasion, prison officials allowed him to visit the overcrowded facility to celebrate Mass, but it was celebrated through two sets of bars.
“He took me with him for one Mass, and even to see them reaching out to him to touch him through the bars before Mass, to see him ministering and directing the message of the Gospel to them in ways they could understand was wonderful,” said Sr. Fran.
Bishop Hying served La Sagrada Familia from 1994 to 1997, and according to Fr. Martí Colom, a member of the current pastoral team, he’s fondly remembered.
“The weekend after the news that Fr. Don had been named a bishop, I announced it at all Masses,” he told your Catholic Herald via email. “The immediate reaction was a great ovation. Everyone felt that it was great that a priest who served here is now a bishop. People felt that maybe this would help strengthen the bonds between Milwaukee and La Sagrada Familia.”
People often mention “Padre Donaldo’s” dedication, goodness, willingness to understand the culture, added Fr. Colom, who said that Bishop Hying has maintained close friendships with some of the Dominicans, and about three or four years ago returned to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of a couple from one of the small, rural communities.
“They were delighted to have him back for that occasion,” he said.
Bishop Hying has made several return visits, and according to Sr. Fran, as rector of the seminary, he initiated a program where seminarians spend time in the parish over the summer.
He’s shared his experiences with many others, and after becoming pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish upon his return from the DR in 1997, he “not only encouraged the parish to contribute to La Sagrada Familia, he also took groups of young adults down to the parish in the Dominican Republic on his own several times. Don was intent on building that mission heart within the youth of the parish in relationship with La Sagrada Familia,” said Sr. Fran.
Echoing similar thoughts Dominican Sr. Rosemary Huddleston, recently retired International Mission Coordinator for the archdiocese said, “He had a unique way of bringing people together in a spirit of solidarity,” she said. “Don’s way of mission was and is to relate to people in walking side by side with them in a spirit of accompaniment.”
The experience opened him up to the richness of faith and what it means to believe in divine providence, said Bishop Hying.
“The importance of experiencing church in another cultural context really helps you understand what is of essence to the church and essentially is what is a cultural expression of the church. Every priest should understand the church expresses herself differently in different cultures and places and our experience of church is not necessarily the normative,” he said, describing the experience as “living the Acts of the Apostles” as they baptized probably 2,000 people a year, trained catechists as lay leaders and led social projects, such as building houses, a nutrition center and chapels.
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