APPLETON — Pope Francis says missionary work is “love without limits.” Fr. Mike Seis knows that firsthand. He’s starting his 22nd year as a priest at the diocesan mission in the Dominican Republic. He was in Appleton on July 14 for a get-together with people from the Green Bay Diocese who had either been on mission trips through the diocese or are considering volunteering for an upcoming trip.
Fr. Seis had visited the Dominican Republic in 1990 for a summer, while he was a seminarian. He was ordained in 1993 and assigned as a parochial vicar at St. Bernard Parish in Green Bay. In 1996, Fr. Phillip Dinh-Van-Thiep was returning to the diocese from Elias Pina and looking for a volunteer to replace him.
“So then I volunteered and went down there and I’ve been there ever since,” Fr. Seis said.
When he first started working in the D.R., Fr. Seis served with Fr. Bill Hoffman. Then Fr. Hoffman left the mission to work at the diocese in San Juan. So Fr. Seis has been there by himself since 1998, as pastor of Santa Teresa Parish in Elias Pina and San Isidro Labrador in El Llano.
As a seminarian, Fr. Seis also traveled to the Middle East. So he “had an inkling” of what poverty looked like, but found it eye-opening to move to a third-world country. However, despite their circumstances, “The Dominicans are real hospitable,” he said. “That’s part of their culture,” he said.
The diocese where he now serves has 500,000 members and the work keeps him busy.
“There are 90 smaller communities,” he said. “I have six to eight Masses every weekend. There are eight miles between my two main parishes. I’m the only priest there. I travel all the time. My farthest place out is an hour-and-a-half away.”
There are also two Catholic schools in Elias Pina: a grade school with 600 students and a high school with 500 students.
During his time in the mission, Fr. Seis considers it a highlight that four local men from have been ordained priests. They now serve in other parts of the diocese.
Every year, usually in January through March, Fr. Seis feels blessed to have groups from the Green Bay Diocese visit to do volunteer work.
“We’ve been doing a lot of construction work on chapels,” he said of the volunteers, adding that they help on “lots of different projects.” These include 400 recently built outhouses (pit latrines), more than 100 prefabricated houses in the last couple of years and six water projects (aqueducts).
Volunteers don’t need to a Spanish or have construction experience. What they need, according to Fr. Seis, is an open mind, the willingness to learn and patience.
“It’s not the United States. We don’t just go to Lowe’s or Home Depot,” he noted. “You’ve got to change your mentality a bit; you’ve got to be flexible.”
People who consider a mission trip often focus on asking about accommodations and food.
“We have running water at the parish,” Fr. Seis said. “We have bunk beds on the second floor at the parish. They stay in the city at night and then they go to the worksites, an hour away or so, during the day. In the rural areas we have latrines.”
While they do eat a lot of beans and rice, the volunteers do get some American food.
Spaces are filling up fast for the 2018 diocesan mission trips to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The trip to San Juan is full and three of the four trips to Los Cacaso, Haiti, are filled. The Elias Pina Chapel Project with Fr. Seis runs Feb. 4-18 still has openings.
Volunteer meetings for those interested in a mission trip will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 14 at St. Phillip Church in Green Bay, and at 6 p.m. Nov. 16 at St. Thomas More Church in Appleton.
Fr. Seis said he sees that volunteers are making a difference in the lives of the Dominican people.
“I had Mass the other day in a poor community in one of the chapels that was built by our volunteers,” he said, “and I was listening to the people do their petitions and they come from the heart. I thought, ‘This is beautiful. This is where the church is supposed to be.’ It was kind of a Pope Francis thing, being in the outpost. Nobody looks at these people. Even the politicians, they come for the votes every four years. It’s an area that nobody goes except the church. That’s really where we belong.”