This is the seventh in a series of articles introducing you to the seven men ordained priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination for six of them took place on Saturday, May 19, while the seventh, Deacon Enrique Hernandez Castellanos will be ordained on Saturday, Nov. 3 at 10:30 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee.
Deacon Jorge Enrique Hernandez Castellanos really doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Had he had a less determined personality and given up after the first rejection, it’s unlikely he’d be preparing for ordination to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this Saturday by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki.
In Deacon Enrique’s case, it wasn’t just one rejection. In fact, his mother, father and bishop all tried to steer him away from ordination at different times and for different reasons, but he was persistent.
Deacon Enrique, 28, grew up in Pamplona, Colombia, the third of four children in a single-parent home. He, his mother, Paulina Castellanos, brother, Angel, and sisters, Lorena and Syndy, lived with his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in a home he described as always having at least 12 inhabitants.
Church was central to family life
The Catholic Church was a focal point of life for the family and Deacon Enrique remembers walking 40 minutes every Sunday to get to Mass, until about sixth grade when the family moved closer to the parish. Because they were now about five minutes from church, the family became even more involved. Deacon Enrique was an altar server, and he eventually became involved with youth ministry, served as sacristan and directed a prayer group.
“Marian devotions are very huge in Latin countries and every May and October we have big celebrations with large images of Our Lady,” he explained. “My family was very involved in all of this – they were very Catholic – and that’s how I started thinking about a priesthood vocation.”
Priesthood ‘too expensive’
When he was about 9, Deacon Enrique remembers being at Mass with his mother, watching the priest and telling his mother that he’d like to be like him one day.
“My mom said, ‘no,’ because to study to be a priest, you have to have money. It’s very expensive so priesthood is not for you. At that age, I think whatever my mom says is the truth so I forgot about the idea of becoming a priest,” Deacon Enrique explained during an interview with your Catholic Herald in his office at St. Frances Cabrini Parish, West Bend.
A few years later, however, when Deacon Enrique was in ninth or 10th grade, the call to priesthood returned. His parish priest at the time was a people-person who helped many people, described Deacon Enrique.
“Sometimes when I was helping at the church, people came to the priest to talk and they would be crying when they came, but when they left, they had a smile on their face. I thought to myself, I want to be that person, to help those people at moments in their life,” he reflected.
Second rejection from bishop
He attended a retreat for young men considering priesthood, but again was met with rejection. This time it was his bishop who told him that priesthood was not an option for him.
His reason? Deacon Enrique’s parents never married, and according to the bishop, possibly drawing upon the 1918 Code of Canon Law or a particular law for the church in his country, he could not become a priest since he was not a product of a marriage.
“He told me you cannot preach about love if your parents weren’t married,” said Deacon Enrique.
A few years later, Deacon Enrique’s father appeared in his life for the first time. He had left his mother when she was pregnant, and Deacon Enrique admitted his return was emotional.
“I had never met my father growing up and that year he showed up in my life. It was difficult to go through all of that,” he said, explaining his grandfather was always a father figure to him.
During that turbulent time in his life, Deacon Enrique said his hopes rose again regarding priesthood when his pastor, also vicar general in the diocese, told him not to worry, “We’ll get you into the seminary.”
Deacon Enrique recalled a conversation he had with his father at the time, explaining to him that he wanted to enter the seminary, but was rejected by the bishop because of his parents’ marital situation.
“My father said, you want to be a priest, ‘OK, I will get married with your mom,’” but Deacon Enrique said he quickly told his father that marriage is sacramental and “we cannot play with it.”
Ironically, some years later, Deacon Enrique said his father, who lives in Venezuela, promised his son everything he had: animals, farm – if he did not become a priest.
Deacon Enrique said he wasn’t even tempted to take his father up on the offer; he was too determined to be ordained.
Hopes rise again
In 11th grade, Deacon Enrique said his hopes rose again when his pastor arranged for him to attend the retreat for boys considering priesthood. Yet, once again, his hopes were dashed quickly when the same bishop again told him not to even consider it since his parents weren’t married.
“At that point, I told myself, if God wants me to be a priest, he will find a way,” said Deacon Enrique, explaining he eventually was invited to enter a national seminary – if the 75 open spots were not taken. The seminary gave first priority to young men who had support of their bishop.
It was a waiting game, he described, but he was accepted to the seminary.
“I started to pay for it myself and while it was not expensive for a middle class family, it is expensive for a poor family,” he said, noting several of his siblings were also in school at the time. The seminary was also 12 hours by car from his hometown, something that did not sit well with members of his close-knit family.
“Hispanics are very family oriented and we are expected to stay in the same town, connected with the family,” he said, describing how hard it was for them to let the 17-year-old live so far from home.
Invitation to America
Fr. Robert Stiefvater, then vocations director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, would make regular trips to the Colombian seminary looking for candidates who might be willing to study for priesthood for the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
Fr. Stiefvater met Deacon Enrique on several of his trips and the last year he came, Deacon Enrique obligingly put his name on the paper to schedule a time to talk with Fr. Stiefvater, but he had no intention of committing to Milwaukee.
“I signed up for a time to interview with him,” explained Deacon Enrique, “but I was going to tell him I was not interested in going to America.”
But the American priest greeted him warmly and told him he thought he’d be a good candidate to go to Milwaukee.
Fr. Stiefvater also offered him financial assistance, and perhaps more importantly, time. He invited the young seminarian to come to Milwaukee to study English for two years before deciding whether to continue in the seminary. This time was exactly what Deacon Enrique needed, as he was having second thoughts about being ordained at the age of 25.
On Jan. 17, 2005, the young man from a tropical country found himself in a car driving from Chicago to Milwaukee in the middle of a snowstorm.
“He came in January, knowing absolutely no English whatsoever, and it was 9 or 10 at night and we were driving back in the middle of one of the worst snowstorms of the year and he had never seen snow,” recalled Fr. Joseph Juknialis, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Parish, Eden, then director of the college program for the archdiocese. He and Fr. Stiefvater and a couple of students had gone to Chicago to meet Deacon Enrique’s airplane.
“It had to be crazy experience for him in a strange country, wondering where are we going?” the priest said.
From 150 to 3 seminarians
Deacon Enrique and three other seminarians lived with Fr. Juknialis and Bishop Richard J. Sklba at SS. Peter and Paul Parish rectory for about 18 months, a contrast to the seminary experience he left behind where he was one of 150 students.
Learning English was his primary challenge and for two years he studied at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee in the English as a Second Language program.
“I loved that program. I met a lot of people, but the first six months were a nightmare,” admitted Deacon Enrique of the ESL experience. “I had no clue what they were telling me – I did not even know hello at that point and it was difficult to sit down and listen to the noise and not be able to understand. It was challenging, but I learned it somehow.”
Fr. Juknialis helped along the way, too, he said, describing the older priest’s system of fines. He told the seminarians that if he caught them speaking Spanish among themselves, he’d fine them 50 cents a violation.
“He never really kept the money and probably used it to take us for pizza,” admitted Deacon Enrique, adding that it helped him feel more comfortable with the language.
His ability to speak English and Spanish will be a benefit in his ministry, noted Deacon Enrique, explaining he hopes to be in a parish where he can serve in both languages and cultures.
“My heart really is in helping both communities,” he said, not only the Anglo community.
During his time in Wisconsin, Deacon Enrique has not only learned English, but he’s learned to cook – he couldn’t even boil water when he arrived, according to Fr. Juknialis – and he’s learned to love Wisconsin and the Packers.
“What I like about Wisconsin is that it is a new (state) every six months because of the seasons. While I don’t really like the winter – it’s too long for me – I’m happy to be here and think this is where God is calling me to be on my way to holiness,” he said.
Fr. Juknialis, who will serve as his priest-mentor for three years, also taught him to love the Green Bay Packers.
“He loved football and couldn’t believe we didn’t know anything about football, so he made sure I’d sit with him to make sure I’d be a Packer fan,” said Deacon Enrique.
While he said he misses Colombia, its warm weather and his family, Deacon Enrique is confident he is where God wants him to be.
“One of the reasons I stayed here is I see the great need for priests in this diocese. The other reason is it’s been very welcoming, with great parishes, great people, great bishops,” he said. “I feel very blessed with the faith in this diocese.”