Selene Alanis (left) and her twin sister Stephanie pose with Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki during a pilgrimage to La Sagrada Familia in the Dominican Republic. (Photo courtesy of the Office of World Mission)

There may be 2,000 miles between Milwaukee and the Dominican Republic, but for eight days last fall, the two worlds became one as pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee made a long journey to honor four decades of shared ministry.

In October, 19 individuals from all over the archdiocese — including Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki — spent time worshiping, learning and breaking bread alongside members of La Sagrada Familia Parish in the province of Azua in the Dominican Republic’s southwest region.

The pilgrimage marked the 40th anniversary of the sister parish relationship between the archdiocese and La Sagrada Familia.

The pilgrims began their stay in the country by attending Mass at the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santon Domingo, the oldest cathedral in the Americas. The following day, the group traveled to La Sagrada Familia and spent the remainder of the trip connecting with many of the 30,000 people served by the parish throughout dozens of communities.

On the itinerary were trips to new chapels built with the support of parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, visits to nutritional centers and housing constructed by La Sagrada Familia, and meals in the homes of parishioners.

The relationship between the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and La Sagrada Familia began in 1981 when then-Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland sent a letter to Bishop Ronald G. Connors, from the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic, offering to send priests to minister there. Over the years, nearly 20 priests from Milwaukee have served the community at La Sagrada Familia, including two who were present for this pilgrimage: Fr. Marti Colom and Fr. Juan Manual Camancho. Fr. Javier Guativa and Fr. Thomas Naidu are the current pastor and associate pastor, respectively, of La Sagrada Familia.

Additionally, individuals from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee visit La Sagrada Familia each year, cementing a familial relationship between the two entities. Over the years, the archdiocese has also provided financial and material support to the community in a variety of ways, including the construction of chapels, nutrition centers, a health program, sewing center, literacy programs and ministry to Haitian immigrants.

“This relationship has been transformative for so many people on so many different levels in both countries,” said Antoinette Mensah, Ph.D., director of the Office for World Mission/Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

This was Dr. Mensah’s ninth visit to La Sagrada Familia in the nine years she has served in her role at the archdiocese. It was, for her, a moment to reflect on how much work has been done and how deeply entwined the archdiocese is with the communities that make up La Sagrada Familia.

“Being present and encountering members of the parish creates a different level of bonding,” she said. “You are able to identify and become kindred spirits regardless of language and cultural differences because you share a common faith.”

During the group’s visit, three children of the parish were baptized by Dcn. Manuel Maldonado, associate director for the Office for Diaconate Formation for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

“To witness the ceremony reminded me that our connection in faith draws us together. Dcn.

Manuel’s involvement in this very sacred experience of having your child received into the faith forms a forever connection with the family and a link to the archdiocese,” said Mensah.

This was the first pilgrimage experience for Lucca Kenyon, who joined the World Mission Ministries staff in the summer.

“I was very grateful for this opportunity because it has enhanced my day-to-day work at the office,” said Kenyon, who attends Gesu Parish in Milwaukee. “Now, I have an even deeper motivation and personal connection, having encountered the communities in the Dominican Republic and visited the projects funded through the support of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”

Like Kenyon, fellow pilgrim Stephanie Alanis had no experience with pilgrimages prior to this trip. She heard about the pilgrimage while attending a gathering hosted by the World Mission Office the previous year.

“I didn’t know much about the relationship with our sister parish, but I found it fascinating that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had a connection to communities in the Dominican Republic,” said Alanis, a parishioner of St. Anthony in Milwaukee who works in Mission Advancement at Catholic Charities. “I honestly had the misconception that experience was important or that I had to have certain gifts, talents or abilities to be of service if I were to visit the communities of our sister parish.”

Hearing the experiences shared at that gathering, she realized that wasn’t the case — and her interest in joining the 40th anniversary pilgrimage was piqued.

“Hearing from others who were in community with our brothers and sisters that La Sagrada Familia serves led me to feel that I didn’t need to bring experience with me, but rather bring an openness to God’s work on my pilgrimage journey there and an openness to the relationships that would be built,” Alanis said.

The trip was just the latest of many pilgrimages undertaken by Kenneth Kieck, who attends St. Alphonsus Parish in Greendale. Kieck has participated in four mission trips to Guatemala, along with pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Rome, Assisi, Lourdes and Fatima, and he has even hiked the Camino de Santiago.

“My experiences through missions and pilgrimages have helped me to broaden my thinking and to embrace all members of the Universal Church,” he said. “The highlight of this (trip) was the amount of time we were able to spend building relationships with the La Sagrada community through joint worship, sharing meals, visiting their communities and participating in their 40th year anniversary celebration.”

Lenten retreat planned for March

A Lenten retreat for early March is planned to allow more Catholics from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to visit La Sagrada Familia.

For those considering such a trip, Kenyon said, “it will change their worldview.”

“They will encounter people who do not speak the same language — people who live differently than they are used to — and still find many similarities,” she said.

Alanis agreed, saying “one of the many things I brought away from this experience that changed me was a reaffirmed belief in trusting God when stepping outside of my comfort zone.”

“I would encourage others to go on a pilgrimage to La Sagrada Familia the next time it is offered,” Alanis said. “Engaging in day-to-day life with fellow travelers and the community members is also an opportunity to learn from others and open up new questions for yourself about what God may be guiding or calling you to do for others.”

The retreat will run from March 6-14. The cost is $1,800 per person and includes meals, lodging and transportation. To learn more and apply, visit