This is the fifth in a series of articles introducing you to the six men scheduled to be ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination will be Saturday, May 17, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
Deacon Jose Mario Nieto Restrepo has a curious mind. He grew up in a Colombian household that embraced asking questions and seeking answers.
“Science is a strong tradition on my dad’s side,” Deacon Nieto said, adding that his family includes physicists, mathematicians and engineers. “We had our own library in our house.”
But since he was a child, growing up in Catholic schools and being around priests, he had “this curiosity” about becoming a priest.
During high school, he talked about it with his family. They respected his thoughts but wanted him to go to college first. He studied engineering at the Pontifical Bolivarian University in Colombia.
“I continued my life as any other young man,” he said. “I had a girlfriend, friends. But still, when I was finished with my degree in civil engineering, I still had that curiosity about being a priest.”
During college, he took a Scripture course taught by priest.
“I started talking to him about this curiosity, this call to priesthood,” he said.
Mission work takes him to DR
The priest suggested he do mission work with the Community of St. Paul in the Dominican Republic. His family didn’t expect him to still be interested in the priesthood after college.
“It was a surprise for them,” he said. “But I don’t think it was that big of a surprise … they didn’t like the idea of me going to another country, but they were happy that I was choosing the path to the priesthood.”
That path took him to the Dominican Republic where he worked at La Sagrada Familia, the sister parish of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“If you never had this encounter with the poor, I would say, you kind of lack that sensitivity that maybe you need to be a pastor who cares for other people,” Deacon Nieto said. “That contact that I had with other people, poverty, but also with community life, trying to make sense of my faith in that context of doing mission … assured in that this is what I wanted to do to be a priest.”
Deacon Nieto spent 2004 to 2009 in the Dominican Republic.
“Those were great, I would say, essential years in my vocation,” he said. “I grew as a person. I grew in my vocation. I grew as a human being.”
His interaction with the less fortunate impacted him profoundly.
“Our faith only makes sense if you put it in the context of the needs of other people,” he said, adding the Gospel talks about Jesus helping the poor. “If you really want to follow him, it makes sense if you’re doing it, too.”
Engineering degree comes in handy
He used his civil engineering degree while at La Sagrada Familia by helping with local projects.
“In the mission, I was able to help in some projects like water projects and also the construction of a nutritional center,” he said. “I could use those (civil engineering) skills to help in the mission.”
He came to Milwaukee in January 2009 to pursue his “curiosity” with the priesthood. His hometown in Cereté, the Caribbean side of Colombia, has never experienced a Wisconsin-like winter. Neither has the Dominican Republic.
When asked what he thought about snow, his answer was honest.
“I liked it the first day,” he said. “Then I didn’t like it anymore.”
With only a few English phrases and a harsh introduction to the weather, his transition to Wisconsin life was like going to another world.
“Being exposed to a different culture, different weather, different everything, I think that helps you to grow a little bit,” he said.
Nervous about ‘Anglo community’
Deacon Nieto admitted he never expected to be sent to another country for the priesthood.
When he came to St. Richard Parish, Racine, in 2010 he was anxious to start.
“It was my first experience in an Anglo community, so I was kind of nervous,” he said. “But after a month, I was really relaxed.”
The parish readily welcomed Deacon Nieto, according to Fr. Ron Gramza, pastor of St. Richard.
“We just love him,” said Fr. Gramza. “He’s a great teacher.”
One moment that sticks out to Fr. Gramza was a teaching moment with some of the younger parishioners. Deacon Nieto, back from a trip to Jerusalem where he participated in an archeological dig (see accompanying story), was asked to talk to a group of adults and children about biblical archeology.
“This is a group that has children 5, 6 years old in it. How do you approach a topic like that and engage the whole group?” Fr. Gramza asked. “He had pieces of pottery for them to look at and had them guessing ‘where did it come from?’… and the little kids were getting involved in that and tried to imagine what it was.”
Fr. Gramza was impressed.
“It was one of those moments when it was clear to me that he had a natural teaching ability,” he said, adding it’s something he’ll need for his ministry. “Every Sunday priests are addressing the entire congregation … you have to have an ability to touch peoples’ lives across the whole gamut.”
Approach balances science, faith
When Deacon Nieto was in Jerusalem in 2013, he was able to mix science and faith, like he had when he was younger.
It can be difficult for someone to find a compromise in the relationship between science and religion, but Deacon Nieto believes each plays an essential role in people’s lives.
“Science will never have the answers for our longing for God,” he said. “Our faith is not meant to be used as proof of anything … we need both.”
He believes the two institutions have a complementary relationship.
“We need both science and faith because science will explain to you how things work, but faith will let you know what is the purpose,” he said.
Fr. Gramza explained Deacon Nieto has an “analytical” approach to preaching.
“He will talk about the historical background of a text so you know what was going on at the time it was written,” Fr. Gramza said, noting that his teaching at St. Richard became a regular event for parishioners.
“He did some Bible studies with small groups,” Fr. Gramza said. “When you do Bible study in a church, you’re often only going to get 10 people to come to it. But he would get like 20 or 30 people … people learned from him.”
As long has Fr. Gramza has known him, Deacon Nieto has always had a “curious side” and a strong work ethic to make his ministry applicable to the masses, despite English being his second language, the priest said.
“He’s kind of impressed me along the way,” Fr. Gramza said. “He’d always ask me before reading the Gospel if there was a word he wasn’t quite sure how to pronounce, he would say, ‘How do you pronounce this?’ He was very intent on trying to be the very best he could be.”
Sense of humor translates into English
Fr. Gramza knows the challenges of being in a foreign culture. From 1985 to 1989, he worked at La Sagrada Familia.
He said Deacon Nieto has become so fluent in English he’s able to tell jokes in the vernacular of the parishioners.
“He can also be funny in a homily,” he said. “That, to me, is a key. I never got to speak Spanish so that I could convey such a humor … people will laugh because they get what he’s saying.”
Deacon Nieto’s compassion for the poor has spread throughout the St. Richard Parish. He was proud to see parishioners volunteering with the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization in Racine.
“I was filled with hope when I saw people from St. Richard’s doing this,” he said. “I thought it was a great witness to the Gospel. Lay people working for others, I thought that was really uplifting … I think I learned a great lesson from them.”
His upcoming ordination has filled him with excitement, but he also knows the reality of the world.
“You don’t have the answer for everything,” he said. “I’m afraid that I won’t be able to help someone who really needs the help of the church.”
These final weeks leading up to ordination have been packed with studying and exams, and he’s looking forward to his family coming to Wisconsin for the event.
“This is going to be a joyful time for the whole family,” he said.
The past few years he’s been traveling back to Colombia for Christmas; now, he jokes, his family will have to visit him at that time.
“I always make the joke with my family that now you are the ones who have to come here and experience the cold weather with me,” he said.
After ordination, Deacon Nieto plans to go to Cereté to celebrate Mass.
“I’m planning to go back there and have my Mass of Thanksgiving over there,” he said. “It’s giving thanks to God, but it’s also giving thanks to them because I am who I am because of all the people who have been in my life.”
Soccer, reading take up free time
But until that day, he’s looking forward to enjoying his free time a little more.
“Last year I read a lot of books on the historical Jesus because I was doing my M.A. thesis on that,” he said. “I’m looking forward to reading something that doesn’t have to do with academics.”
He’s also looking forward to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. When asked if he’s rooting for Colombia he only has two words –– “of course.”
But if the games go a certain way, he can see himself cheering on team U.S.A
“Maybe if Colombia is out very early, I’ll (root) for the U.S.,” he said.
He’s enjoyed soccer since childhood and he’s continued to play while in Milwaukee. He played goalkeeper on his high school team, but here, he’s gotten out from the box and has a more aggressive game.
“I like to go out there and try to score,” he said. “Sometimes it’s boring if your team is really good and you’re the goalkeeper; there’s not much action.”
He’ll treasure the friendships he’s created with the other seminarians, also his soccer teammates and opponents.
“At the seminary, that’s something you really have to take advantage of when you’re here,” he said. “To really make good friendships because I suppose nobody else will really understand what you’re going through but another priest.”
He also cherishes his time at St. Richard Parish.
“My teaching parish played an essential role in my formation as a priest,” he said. “(Fr. Gramza) taught me a lot about being a priest.”
Fr. Gramza predicts that wherever Deacon Nieto goes, he will have as big of an impact on the people he interacts with as he had on him.
“I think people are going to like him, are going to be able to relate to him, are going to learn from him,” Fr. Gramza said. “He will touch people’s lives.”