Progress continues in mission
More lay leaders going through training and chapel work continues
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
The past year has been one of continued progress at the Green Bay Diocese's Dominican Republic mission parishes in Elias Piña and El Llano, said Fr. Mike Seis, pastor.
"We have finished a few more chapels, expanded some of our catechetical programming and worked on starting up programs for the formation of lay leadership," he said. "Most things here develop out of need. You see a need, you start something and it seems to work out in God's plan."
Elias Piña, which borders Haiti, is the most poverty stricken area of the Dominican Republic. The average person lives in more impoverished conditions than the poorest people in Wisconsin. Approximately 10% of the children of Elias Piña die before the age of five. There are limited employment and educational opportunities. Many of the 60,000 people in Elias Piña and the surrounding areas work as farmers or in the trade industry with Haiti. The needs are many, said Fr. Seis, a native of Antigo who recently visited family and friends in Wisconsin.
"For the people, the needs are survival," he said. "Before I left, I came across a family that hadn't eaten in three days, so we found them some food. Clothing is definitely not a need. This is the youth clothing capital of the world. If people wish to help it is better to send us donations so we can apply it to the areas of greatest need."
"It is also important that people realize that we do not support handouts," he said. "The community has to do its part. We don't want to create dependency."
The parish missions in the Dominican Republic are funded through the Bishop's Appeal. The appeal provides funds for food, gas, maintenance, education, formation, a St. Vincent de Paul Fund and a health program. Fr. Seis also requests funding for specific needs in the annual budget. For example, this past year, the church needed repairs, so he asked for an additional $4,000. Funding is also provided by the Missionary Cooperative Plan.
"There are also a number of parishes and individuals that make donations," said Fr. Seis, who is in his sixth year of service in the Dominican Republic. "It all helps. We do so many on the spot things here. We do plan, but often we are responding to needs. We have our hands in everything. People in Wisconsin probably think it's ridiculous that we participate in road construction, but it makes a big difference in the community."
This year, Fr. Seis will also receive a $2,000 donation from the Catholic Foundation, which he will apply to a scholarship program. He has already selected the first recipient.
"There is a young man (Jose Altagracia) who is the son of one of the ladies who works in our bakery who would have a hard time going to college without the scholarship," said Fr. Seis. "He is a good kid. If you have an education, it opens doors."
The parish missions also receive support through visits by groups from the diocese, including the most recent in June. A group of students from Xavier High School in Appleton spent Holy Week in Elias Piña.
"They painted the church roof, helped in the bakery and played games with the kids," said Fr. Seis. "It's not just a working experience. I want them to see how the people live. Hospitality is a part of the Dominican culture, so the people reach out to the visitors. In the States, we pride ourselves on privacy. We build our houses and put up fences around them. Their homes are open all the time. They are friendly to everyone."
Spiritually, Fr. Seis hopes to see more growth in Elias Piña. More than 90% of the people are Catholic, but only a small percentage are active in the parishes.
"There is a lot of work to do in evangelization, but we are making progress," said Fr. Seis. "There were more than 600 Baptisms last Easter season."
The more than 40 chapels in the surrounding areas serve as a positive sign of faith formation," added Fr. Seis.
"The buildings are hit and miss," he explained. "Many are basically posts with barbed wire, cement, wood doors, wood windows and tin roofs. Many parishes have helped us build chapels through their donations. They obviously do not compare to the chapels in the States, but they serve the needs here."
The Diocese of Green Bay has operated missions in the Dominican Republic for 38 years. Fr. Seis hopes to hold a 40th anniversary celebration in 2003. In the meantime, he continues to address the day-to-day needs.
"This is an unchurched area in many ways, but the people have a real sense of faith," he said. "They are faced with such difficulties in life that their faith is often the only thing that keeps them going."