Diocesan mission in Dominican Republic receives support from Bishop’s Appeal

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | March 12, 2014

Mission provides service opportunities for local Catholics

GREEN BAY — The scenic landscape of the Dominican Republic/Haitian border features an array of colors, rolling mountains and open skies. The beauty of nature masks much of the extreme poverty in the area, including the makeshift shacks that serve as homes in Las Lagunas, Dominican Republic, a mountain village, located along the border.

Members of a team of volunteers from the diocese work on constructing a chapel for the diocesan mission in the Dominican Republic. The cement block chapel, located in Las Lagunas, a poor mountain village along the Dominican Republic/Haitian border, serves as a gathering space for the community, including the celebration of Mass and the sacraments. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)
Members of a team of volunteers from the diocese work on constructing a chapel for the diocesan mission in the Dominican Republic. The cement block chapel, located in Las Lagunas, a poor mountain village along the Dominican Republic/Haitian border, serves as a gathering space for the community, including the celebration of Mass and the sacraments. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)

Last month, an 11-member team from the Diocese of Green Bay, including eight deacons, brought new life to the village. The group built a 40-foot-by-24-foot cement-block chapel to serve as a place of worship and gathering space for the community. Las Lagunas is located approximately six miles south of St. Therese Parish in Elías Piña. Fr. Mike Seis, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, serves as pastor at St. Therese and St. Isadore Parish in El Lano. He is also assigned to 22 districts. Fr. Seis visits each district once a month. Ninety chapels are located within the region.

Last fall, the diocese marked 50 years of ministry in the Dominican Republic. The mission receives a third of its operating funds from the annual Bishop’s Appeal through the department of Stewardship and Pastoral Services.2014-Bishop's-Appeal-logo.jpgweb2

A group from the diocese travels annually to the Dominican Republic to build a chapel. Volunteers pay their own expenses. Many of the old wood-structure chapels are no longer usable. The block chapels provide a sustainable space for Mass and also to celebrate the sacraments.

Deacon Paul Umentum of St. Mary of the Angels Parish, Green Bay, a veteran of the chapel building projects, led the recent group, which arrived in the Dominican Republic on Feb. 7 and departed on Feb. 20. Deacon Luis Sanchez of St. Willebrord Parish, Green Bay, was among the first-time participants. In addition to his construction work, Deacon Sanchez served as a translator at the work site.

“Some of the people probably didn’t even speak Spanish,” he said. “We were right on the border, so some probably spoke Creole. The people were very friendly. The little kids would wave to us, which was neat. The people would always wave to us as they would go by and say ‘¡hola Americanos!’”

The joy of the people made the experience rewarding, added Deacon Sanchez, although it was difficult seeing their living conditions. “Sometimes I felt as though my heart was broken to see that situation,” he said. “I was born in Mexico in a small place, a poor area, but nothing close to this.”

“It’s helpful to get a perspective of how most people live there,” said Deacon Mark Mullins of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Green Bay. “They don’t have the luxuries that we have. They live day-to-day. You got to see the importance of their faith.”

Deacon Mullins accompanied Fr. Seis on trips to a couple remote chapels for Mass. The spirit of the people stood out, he said.

“They congregated and were singing while waiting for Fr. Mike to show up,” he explained. “The sign of peace was very heartwarming. People came up to me and hugged and welcomed me. It was wonderful.”

Deacon Sanchez was also impressed by the enthusiasm at the liturgies.

“The way they celebrate Mass is so joyful,” he said. “They clap their hands, move their shoulders, move their feet. I was moved with enjoyment.”

People from Las Lagunas joined the group at the work site. Some of the locals carried water from a stream to use in mixing cement. Lunch was provided by the villagers each day. Young people brought a wheelbarrow with pots to cook rice and beans. A woman, who served as the local leader for the church community brought coffee each day.

A bakery at St. Therese Parish helps raise funds for the mission. Each day, bread and cookies from the bakery were distributed to the people of Las Lagunas.

“I enjoyed sitting in the pile of gravel and saying, ‘I’ve come to give you guys one,’” said Deacon Sanchez. “Some kids told me that the last time they had a piece of bread was probably two months ago. We picked up four or five bags each day to make sure we had enough for each to have one.”

Deacon Sanchez added that he would like to bring a group of teenagers from his parish to the Dominican Republic to “see this world.”

“The kids here have everything,” he said. “Those kids don’t have anything. One kid, 10 or 11 years old, asked, ‘Can you get me a racquetball?’ I told him, ‘We need water tomorrow. You bring some water and we will bring you a ball tomorrow.’”

The boy, without shoes, worked from 4 to 9 p.m. filling barrels of water.

“He went back and forth to the spring to get water,” said Deacon Sanchez. “The next day, he was so proud. If you asked a kid here to go and get water from the river for $20, they would probably tell you it’s not enough.”

Deacon Mullins, also a first-time volunteer at the mission, enjoyed the camaraderie with the other team members.

“Every day, we did morning prayer, evening prayer and prayed the Angelus at lunch,” he said. “It was an opportunity to build community with the people we went down with on this trip.”

The chapel building group was one of three with diocesan ties serving in the Dominican Republic in early February. Other groups worked on volunteer projects in San Juan. Deacon Sanchez said that he is open to more opportunities to serve the mission. He added that he will never forget the words shared by a woman from the village at Mass celebrated at the new chapel on the final day.

“She told Fr. Mike that she wanted to say something,” explained Deacon Sanchez. “She was in tears as she said, ‘These Americans work so hard to build a church for us and I feel kind of sad that we didn’t feed you guys better, but we give what we have.’ Those words really touched me, ‘We give what we have.’”

Deacon Paul Umentum contributed to this story

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