Little did I expect that after my visit to the Dominican Republic and our archdiocesan mission parish La Sagrada Familia, Oct. 18 to 22, another visitor would arrive, this one, a very unwelcome one — Hurricane Sandy.
This intruder devastated neighborhoods which are really more akin to what we consider villages. Homes, many with thatched roofs, are about the size of a small garage.
In fact, houses with wooden or corrugated sheet metal roofs and possible small openings for windows are considered more middle class. There is no electricity or water in most of the homes and, unlike our homes, where rooms are separated by walls and doors, there are no divisions in many of these homes. For example, the parents’ bedrooms are created by thin cloths hung to afford some privacy.
Cooking is done outside the home and restroom facilities are latrines with a 30-foot hole in the ground topped by a recognizable toilet seat; no water, no flush. AKohler product, they’re not!
If a family is fortunate enough to have a pig or some chickens, these animals roam freely.
I visited one home with a dirt floor and thatched roof where a mother was caring for her daughter who appeared to be about 4 years old, seated in a wheelchair. Upon further inquiry, I discovered the girl was really 16 and suffered from a genetic defect which did not allow her to grow.
The mother was so grateful to the priests and members of the Community of St. Paul because without them she would not have the wheelchair that gives her daughter mobility in the village. This simple instrument gives so much joy.
La Sagrada Familia established a medical facility with a doctor and nurse who respond to initial medical needs, and a dental clinic to assist people who suffer from dental problems. The parish created a pharmacy which provides basic medications.
The parish has also established a pharmacy in most of the villages (neighborhoods). The “pharmacist” is a person assigned a key and a metal cabinet which contains aspirins, Tylenol and some antibiotics. Imagine going to your neighbor’s home to secure some pharmaceuticals!
The parish initiated a project to replace thatched roofs with the more secure corrugated steel. Sometimes the homes were too weak to support a new roof and needed to be reinforced. They established a joint project with a charitable organization from Spain to bring water to irrigate the land for agricultural purposes. Now they are able to live off the land.
The parish partnered with Catholic Relief Services to provide a shelter for people in the villages who experience floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters. Imagine how important it is to have a place of some safety. They are doing so much with so little.
Shortly after I arrived as the 11th Archbishop of Milwaukee, the voice of Franciscan Sr. Fran Cunningham, then-director of our World Missions Office, was constant in her advocacy for La Sagrada Familia. At First Friday archdiocesan staff meetings, Sr. Fran would remind us all of our mission parish in the Dominican Republic.
She also challenged me to visit our parish and see for myself the great sacrificial work accomplished for the poor in the DR. I promised that as soon as my schedule would permit, I would indeed visit our mission parish. And Sr. Fran was right.
I am not unfamiliar with the mission work of our dioceses in Latin America. Many dioceses in the 1950s responded to a request by Pope Pius XII to share God’s abundance of vocations in the United States with the missions and to adopt a relationship with a diocese in need. Many dioceses established missions staffed by their priests; however, when tvocations began their decline in the late ’60s and early ’70s, many dioceses closed their missions.
When I was bishop of La Crosse, I had a diocesan parish in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, staffed by a diocesan priest, Fr. Robert Flock, who recently was named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Santa Cruz.
Much good work was accomplished there and a parish was well established, but I must confess, the abject poverty of La Sagrada Familia was far greater than my previous experience in Bolivia.
Early in the establishment of our mission, parish priests from the archdiocese who staffed the parish made their mark in establishing relationships with the people and building a parish and center.
The people of La Sagrada Familia remember with affection the work of our archdiocesan priests. Fr. Jerome Thompson, who died in the airport in 2003 returning from his assignment in the DR, is revered as a saint who battled for the rights of these neglected people and who gave his life literally in their service. Some of the modest garage-type homes I visited were referred to as Fr. Jerry homes. I am blessed to have the name Jerome since it evokes such fond memories.
The Community of St. Paul, our own archdiocesan missionary community, staffs La Sagrada Familia. Archbishop Dolan appointed the Community of St. Paul and pledged support for its work. The two priests, Fr. Marti Colom and newly ordained Fr. Juan Manuel Camacho, are assisted by members of the Community of St. Paul.
Fr. Marti directs the operation of the parish while Fr. Juan Manuel has established an outreach to the immigrant Haitian population who has crossed the border in search of menial labor. Fr. Juan is learning Creole in order to celebrate the sacraments and assist in the educational transition of this disenfranchised group.
It’s a great advantage for the archdiocese to have a number of missionary-minded women and men working for the good of the people in the name of Christ and his church.
The spirit of the people was most evident in the celebration of the liturgies. Fr. Ricardo Martin, another member of the St. Paul Community, and pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Racine ,and vice chancellor of the archdiocese, and Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff, accompanied me.
Fr. Ricardo did a fine job translating my homilies and addresses. Topczewski’s height fascinated the natives and brought smiles to many faces.
Everywhere we traveled in the parish we were greeted by hugs and kisses, joined by words of gratitude. They welcomed us like members of one family. After visiting areas of such extreme poverty, I’m left with a sweeping sense of gratitude for the life that we have been blessed with in our country.
Now when I travel the highways around our state I appreciate that they are paved and I can travel at a maximum speed. When I turn on my lights, I am grateful the electricity remains on and constant. I am grateful I can turn on hot or cold running water, that I don’t have to go outside to the restroom ,and when I go to a drug store, I can purchase medications I might need.
My visit to this impoverished area is a reminder of my responsibility to care for the needs of the less fortunate, to understand that my Christianity makes a demand on me to share the gifts I have received and to pray in thanksgiving for the missionary spirit which brings Christ to those in need.