Fr. Juan Camacho knows the parishioners of La Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Parish in the Dominican Republic well.

During a 2015 visit to La Sagrada Familia, Antoinette Mensah, director of World Mission Ministries for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, visits with Fr. Juan Camacho, associate pastor of the parish, during construction of the Center for Dominican and Haitian Cultural Integration at the parish in Sabana Yegua, Azua, Dominican Republic. (Photos courtesy of World Mission Ministries)

Prior to studying for the priesthood at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, Milwaukee, the Colombia native served in the parish as a member of the Community of St. Paul. Since his ordination in 2012 as a priest for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, he has served as its associate pastor.

With that background, he speaks about the people, ministries, challenges and hopes that compose the archdiocese’s sister parish. The archdiocese is celebrating the 35th anniversary of that relationship this year.

While most Catholics talk about the “new evangelization,” Fr. Camacho talks about the “first evangelization” in the Sabana Yegua region that La Sagrada Familia serves.

“The presence of our churches there, when you look at it, it’s not like a parish you have here (in Milwaukee) that’s been here 150 years,” he said during a Jan. 22 interview at the Cousins Center.

Noting that the Diocese of San Juan, in which the parish is located, is only 65 years old, Fr. Camacho said, “It is a new work trying to bring the Word of God to people. People are very religious, people worship God, they believe in God, but at the same time, the essence of the church is relatively new for them.”

Prior to 1981, there was no permanent presence of the Catholic Church in that area. But as villages and communities grew, so, too, did the church in the form of La Sagrada Familia.

Today, the parish serves 30,000 people living in 22 towns and villages. Fr. Camacho and Fr. Esteban Redolad, administrator of the parish, each celebrate two vigil Masses on Saturday afternoon and four Masses on Sunday.

The parish center, including the main church, offices and hall, are located in Sabana Yegua.

“Some of the other 22 sites have chapels, some don’t,” the priest said. “Sometimes, we celebrate under a tree.”

Like La Sagrada Familia itself, the average age of congregants, according to Fr. Camacho, is “relatively young – 30 to 35 years old.”

“What is interesting about our congregation is you get a lot of young people and then you have an older generation,” he said. “But the between generation – 30s and 40s, we’re missing there. But you have lots of people in their teens and their 20s, and then lots of people in their 50s and 60s.

Fr. Camacho said there are “a lot of younger children” in the parish who voluntarily attend Mass.

In an undated photo, Fr. Juan Camacho, associate pastor of La Sagrada Familia, listens to a Scripture reading during a Mass he celebrated at one of the parish’s 22 worship sites.

“We have 25 to 28 altar servers, ages 10 to 15. Most of them come to daily Masses. They come on their own,” he said.

‘God central to lives’

Fr. Camacho noted that, compared to Mexico and Colombia, not many people come to Mass, but what he sees among them is a “deep, deep faith in God.”

“Everybody will call themselves Catholics, even if they don’t go to Mass. There is a deep belief, a deep sense of God in their lives,” he said. “Faith is a very, very big thing in their lives so that’s what makes them strong in the difficult moments of their lives.

Fr. Camacho said La Sagrada Familia builds upon that faith in efforts to connect them to the church.

“God is always central to their lives. You go to this place and you think we are going to bring God to them, but God is already there working in them,” he said. “We just have to help them discover God through the ministry of the church.”

Developing lay leaders

One of the ways they are helping in that discovery is through formation in Scripture. Every Saturday morning, there is Scripture study or parish meetings.

“We are a growing community of people, with more knowledge of Scriptures, and (who are) wanting to learn more about the Scriptures,” Fr. Camacho said. “We are forming people so that they could be good disciples of Christ.”

That formation, according to the priest, is “key” in developing lay leadership.

“The only way we can have success in sharing our faith with them is by having lay people,” he said. “We have a big network of lay people that is committed to working in the church so each community at least would have four people who are very committed.”

Those four people focus on a specific pastoral area – social concerns, family, youth and spiritual formation.

Economic challenges

Asked what challenges La Sagrada Familia and its members face, Fr. Camacho answered immediately.

“Poverty,” he said.

The priest explained that parishioners are willing to come to participate in meetings or to help with activities but work takes precedence.

“People will come, but if they need to go and work to get money for their food, they won’t come for that because they need to go to work,” Fr. Camacho said.

The parish is in the midst of farming communities; some members own their own land, most do not.

“The problem is that not all of them have land so they work for somebody else. So in our parishes, people who own their own land would be better off; they have a more stable economy, and probably be people more willing to help and be volunteers than people who do not own the land,” he explained.

The priest likened it to the Gospel in which people go to the square waiting for somebody to invite them to work.

“They are out there waiting for somebody to take them to work on their farms. When work is available, they take it,” Fr. Camacho said.

‘Family of Christ’

While numerous parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, e.g., St. Mary, Kenosha, Holy Apostles, New Berlin, have served and supported La Sagrada Familia with their talent and money, Fr. Camacho said it goes beyond that.

“It is not about coming to solve problems, but it is more about coming and sharing our faith and hope,” he said of the groups who visit.

It’s also about relationships, according to the priest.

“We don’t want short term things like, ‘Let’s come and do this or solve this problem,’ but we talk more about we are Christians, we are brothers in Christ, so we talk about creating relationships,” Fr. Camacho said.

He said that is exemplified by people who visit year after year and stay with the same host family.

“Neither of them speaks the other’s language, but they have this wonderful relationship and they have this understanding of family in Christ,” the priest said.

‘Same pilgrimage of faith’

When those who visit La Sagrada Familia ask him, “Father, what do you want us to do?” the priest’s response might surprise them.

“‘The only thing I want is for you to be a better person when you return to Milwaukee.’ I am 100 percent sure that the people who come and visit us and share with us our faith, hope and love, when they come back (to Milwaukee) they share that there are different ways to help and work together to help the community grow, to work together. We are on the same pilgrimage of faith,” Fr. Camacho said.