Seminarians and men in the diaconate formation program spent time in the Dominican Republic this summer to become immersed in Spanish and learn more about the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s sister parish, La Sagrada Familia. (Submitted photo)

This past summer, the Office for World Mission facilitated an immersion experience for men in the diaconate formation and seminarians from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

In July, seven seminarians entering Theology II traveled to La Sagrada Familia in the Dominican Republic, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s sister parish, and seven men in the diaconate formation went in August.

According to Antoinette Mensah, Ph.D., director for World Mission Ministries: Office for World Mission/Society for the Propagation of Faith, this was the third group of seminarians who traveled on a mission.

“This year was the first time it was so extensive, and it made a difference,” she said. “The men in diaconate formation would do their societal ministry by spending a week in the Dominican Republic to get a sense of pastoral care and, from a diaconate perspective, to open up to understanding where this call is to be a deacon. It is similar for seminarians. They hear from those who are different, build trust and connection between a pastor, church and parishioner, and learn Spanish through their immersion experience.”

Maria Espino, associate director of diaconate pastoral formation, traveled with the men in diaconate formation to the Dominican Republic for the first time.

“It was a great experience for them to be on a mission,” Espino said. “We did a lot of things, such as visit communities, a grotto, a physical therapy rehab center (and) an elderly community. They prepared hygiene packs and diapers, and collaborated with the food pantry to put together bags of food.”

Espino said the men returned with a sense of gratitude for their experience and realized how much we take for granted in the United States.

“We have so much, and they lack for many things,” she said. “We live in a country where we complain about everything. We don’t think we have enough when they don’t have clean drinking water. While we were there, there was a tropical storm and most of their homes leaked. They didn’t have much, and what they did have was gone within hours. The experience was a good reminder of how blessed we are.”

For seminarian Oliver Niles, the trip prepared him for ministry as a priest, as it got him out of his comfort zone and gave him a new perspective on the Global Church.

“Perhaps the greatest gift I received, though, was the understanding that God’s hand can be found in anything, anywhere and through anyone,” Niles said said. “Much of what we did in the DR was parish-related. Because we lived at the parish, we were involved in many of the ministries and activities. Some of these included catechesis and youth ministry, helping out at Mass, painting the parish center and organizing food bags for the elderly.”

La Sagrada Familia serves 22 communities surrounding Sabana Yegua. Niles said the seminarians visited these communities to bring supplies and spend time with the residents.

The seminarians had Spanish classes three days a week for two hours each from a Spanish teacher at a Catholic high school nearby. While that was helpful, Niles said the best lessons came from talking to locals at the parish and around the community.

“Besides ministry-related things, we also had a lot of fun. Being in the Caribbean, we took day trips to the beach and did some hiking,” he said. “We went to the capitol and did some sightseeing. In general, we tried to explore as much as possible while there, which led to many adventures and exciting experiences.”

The most significant impact for the men was their presence with the parishioners and the locals in town.

“The fact that we were there for eight weeks showed that we were committed to forming relationships and learning from each other. We started to feel like locals, recognizing more and more people every day on our strolls through town or pickup basketball games at the park,” Niles said. “Despite the language barrier, it felt like we were brothers and sisters in Christ. This became increasingly more obvious as the summer went on, as we developed these relationships, and it transcended any other barriers we had. All this made me appreciate the gift of life and the opportunities that God gives us, mainly the unexpected.”

Seminarian Dennis Beltré Báez, a native of the Dominican Republic whose home parish is La Sagrada Familia, said the locals appreciated their work and companionship and were often invited to homes for conversation and to share a meal.

“It fostered in me a stronger sense of the universality of the Church — that Catholics are part of the same family no matter where we are. I had a lot of support from my classmates and a lot of reassurance of my vocation from my people,” Beltré Báez said. “La Sagrada Familia is a poor parish with many needy people, but the most important (need) is the spiritual. We need to make Jesus closer to them by our testimony, letting our good values shine so that they can see our love, care, compassion (and) generosity.”