WAUTOMA — Julie Vargas is living her dream and, in the process, she’s helping others achieve some of their own. Since 2011, Vargas has been on a mission — well, 10 actually — working with Sr. Maria Marciano in the Dominican Republic and Haiti to assist villagers in creating a sustainable society (sistermariahaiti.com).
She was confirmed in sixth grade, taking the name Therese. “St. Therese of Lisieux is the patroness of missionaries,” said Vargas. “I seriously wanted to be a Maryknoll nun because they are foreign mission nuns.”
In high school at St. Joseph Academy in Green Bay, Vargas joined an active missions group and made rosaries, rolled bandages, collected stamps and sent money to various missions. During the summers, she and members of the Young Ladies Sodality went to Door County and taught catechism to Hispanic children.
Vargas graduated from St. Norbert College with a major in elementary education and a minor in Spanish. “My goal was to join the Peace Corps and go to a country where I could use my Spanish. I got accepted to go teach English in Thailand — where they don’t speak Spanish,” she said.
After expressing her reluctance to go to Thailand with her advisor at St. Norbert, he suggested she speak to Norbertine Fr. Conan Mulrooney, the mission procurator, as the Norbertines had a grade school/high school parish in Lima, Peru, and were looking for someone to teach English to the students.
“I was very sheltered, and at 22, had not traveled much outside the state of Wisconsin,” said Vargas. “But I was brave and excited.” She spent two years in Peru, living in a convent that hosted Mother Teresa, who discerned to send her nuns there in 1973.
She returned to the states in 1973, more fluent in Spanish, moved to Wautoma, and enjoyed a career that included developing and directing a day care center for migrant children, teaching English as a second language. In 1984, accepting a position at Tri-County Schools in Plainfield as teacher and Title 1 Migrant Program director, which she continues to do, part-time, since retiring in 2011.
Retirement afforded Vargas the time to become more involved in Hispanic ministry, Spanish liturgies and catechism at St. Joseph Parish and to revisit her passion for missionary work. “I saw an ad in The Compass about the Diocese of Green Bay’s mission in the Dominican Republic,” she said. “In January 2012, I joined Fr. Bill Hoffman’s group, not knowing a soul, and went to be a missionary.”
In the Dominican Republic, she met Sr. Maria Marciano, a Dominican sister from Brazil, and hasn’t looked back since. “It’s been seven years and I’ve gone every year — double sometimes. I love it; I love working for sister and coordinating things on this end.”
Vargas interprets for the teams and Sr. Maria. The first few years, projects included refurbishing 580 schoolhouse desks; building cement block homes; adding classrooms to a school and fencing in the playground before focusing their efforts in Haiti for the last four years.
“In Haiti, we’ve helped build accessible cisterns, a circular agriculture research training center, a trades center, small homes, a school and fenced in five tilapia fish ponds. Now we’re building park shelter-type structures to use as community centers for adult education and medical clinics.”
Three construction groups, dentists from Two Rivers and student nurses from Holy Family College in Manitowoc, will go down in 2020.
“Basically, the groups are only there two weeks, but sister says, ‘You think you’re only here two weeks; your spirit is here all year because we tell the Haitians they have to finish the project, because you’re coming back next year and you want to see it done,’” said Vargas. “Everything is a collaboration with the villagers – nobody gets a freebie; they have to work and contribute.”
Missionaries bring a second suitcase filled with medical and hygiene supplies, clothing, baby carriers, school supplies and tools. “Our mission group at St. Joseph sews kids’ clothes and simplistic baby carriers for me to take, and the moms in Haiti are thrilled to have two free hands to carry purchases on market day,” said Vargas.
Also, every year they notice more progress in the mountain villages such as thatched huts with new tin roofs, cement block homes underway, more motorcycles, and drip line irrigated vegetable gardens.
“I always had my dream of being a missionary and I’m going to continue doing this as long as I can,” said Vargas. “We are all created with a purpose, to leave a mark. I think it’s a personal assignment from God to find out how and where, whether it be in our family, community, parish, nation or world.”