Kathy Norris has been straddling two worlds for a few years. While she lives in Kenosha, she spends approximately 10 days each year volunteering at the Milwaukee Archdiocesan sister parish, Parroquia La Sagrada Familia in Sabana Yegua, Dominican Republic. For the retired nurse and member of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish, the relationship began in 2009, while she was mourning the recent loss of her husband.
“A friend of mine told me that St. Mary Parish was going on another mission trip that January and wondered if I would like to go, as it might take my mind off of my sadness for a while,” Norris explained. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and basically I helped with house building and digging with soup cans into the rocky earth. It was a hard thing to do.”
Since that trip, she has returned with the medical team to assist with the eye clinic, led by Deacon Wilson Shierk of St. Mary Parish. Drs. Peter Emer and Jeff Thomas of Kenosha Optometrists are members of the team.
“That was much more up my alley than building houses,” joked Norris, 65. “I helped with putting eye drops in the patients’ eyes before they were to be examined.”
The parish of La Sagrada Familia is located in the province of Azua in the southwest corner of the Dominican Republic. Sabana Yegua is the largest town in the region and is where the parish center is located, with the main church and rectory as well as sewing and cosmetology centers, computer lab, a health center with a clinic, pharmacy, and laboratory. Impoverished families live on a monthly income of approximately $60.
It is tradition that families from the area host the missionaries in their homes. Norris moved into Wanda and Blas Dóleo’s modest concrete block house she referred to as the “Allendale” of Sabana Yegua, a stark contrast to neighboring shacks fashioned from flattened oil drums, tin, cardboard, and topped with wood, pine branches and old tires. Blas and Wanda’s home has no running water and only intermittent electricity.
“We usually sat around a kerosene lamp at night, but the simplicity was so beautiful,” said Norris. “The whole experience was humbling, amazing, scary, nice, overwhelming and exhausting. There were so many emotions rolled into one. They are such beautiful, grateful people, that I just had to keep going back. It gets to be addictive and you have to get more of what they are doing.”
Despite never having an actual conversation with the couple over the past four years, as Wanda spoke no English and Norris spoke little Spanish, their hearts connected. They communicated sporadically with the help of an interpreter.
Wanda referred to her friend as “Catalina,” the Spanish name for Katherine and the two learned to communicate through smiles, hugs, gestures and attempts at finding the correct word for something through the aid of an English/Spanish dictionary.
“Despite the verbal limitations, I feel a definite connection to them,” said Norris. “They are my ‘Dominican family.’”
Little did she realize that her impact was so great, that the couple would later invite her to become their baby’s godmother.
“I was there in 2011 when Wanda was pregnant with her second child, Keyler, and through another girl that stayed with me in their house, she asked me to be the godmother of her baby who was to be born in March,” said Norris. “I could not believe it; they waited all those months until I came back in January to baptize that little boy.”
Deacon Shierk performed the bilingual baptismal service with the assistance of seminarian Mike Wolfe of the Community of St. Paul, who has been assigned to La Sagrada Familia for the past three years.
“The baptism was totally beautiful,” said Norris. “There were about 25 of us in church, and the local kids played music with their drums, shakers and guitars. The godfather was one of the elders of the church. It was really nice. They used a plastic container on a wrought iron stand for the baptismal font. It was very humble as how everything is down there, and just so lovely.”
For the mother of three daughters and grandmother to six children, the experience has given her a greater appreciation of the Catholic faith.
“Some of the chapels in outlying villages are made of stick roofs and lean-tos, but the people who come to Mass are very reverent and religious,” said Norris. “I can really see the simplicity and beauty of our faith in the poor. They don’t need a marble baptismal font or a beautiful altar. Their altar could consist of a little fabric on a piece of wood and they will still have the Mass, just as we do. This brought me to the core of what it is all about. Their lives touched my soul and made me wonder why I was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin when I could have been born in Sabana Yegua.
“It made me wonder about the whys, but yet how we are still connected through the Eucharist, baptizing children and going to church on a basic level. The core of our faith is the same. It is universal and brings you down to what it is all about.”
While Norris is grateful for the opportunity to travel to the Dominican Republic to help, she admitted she has received more than she has given to others.
“I have just done a tiny speck of anything down there,” she said. “But I have gotten a million times more than anything I contributed.”
Like most grandmothers, Norris has photos of her grandchildren fastened to her refrigerator with magnets. However, next to her family, are photos of her Dominican Republic family nestled alongside the ones of her grandchildren. When other missionary groups travel to Sabana Yegua, she sends small gifts of clothing and toys for them to bring to Keyler and recently sent a photo book of the baptism as a remembrance to Wanda and Blas.
“I feel like they are a part of me, even though I have only spent maybe a total of 20 days with them, because we also travel to other places when we go there,” she said. “It is a cool thing to know that I will always have connections down there.”
Norris looks upon this relationship as a mystery and a blessing.
“I know now that I still have a responsibility to share what little talents I have with other people,” she said. “I hope I keep my house and always have a few extra dollars to keep doing this. I hope one day to bring each of my grandkids on a trip like this because I think it would be the greatest thing I could ever do for them. If people could just see the difference what a mission trip in one little village in one little corner of the world, or going beyond yourself in the community to help others can do, they would be amazed. Mine was on an island in the Caribbean, but it can be here in Kenosha, too. If we can just extend ourselves beyond our comfort zones and let the Holy Spirit take over – you would surprised at how much it will change you.”