On April 20, 1981 Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, OSB, sent a letter to Bishop Ronald Connors indicating that that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee would send two priests to minister in the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic. In his letter Archbishop Weakland stated, “We do indeed want to be of help and I know that this is one area of the world where there is truly a need and where we can assist.” Thus, a relationship of ministry between the two dioceses was begun which, in over twenty-five years, has developed into a relationship of sharing faith and friendship, solidarity and on-going ministry. The agreement has been renewed on different occasions.
Over the years the following priests have ministered in La Sagrada Familia parish: Richard Broach, Thomas Demse, Robert Stiefvater, Ronald Gramza, Vincent Kobida, Dennis Dirkx, James Schuerman, Kevin Murphy, OSB, Donald Hying, Kenneth Clapp, Robert Wells, Jerome Thompson*, and Oriol Regales and lay missioners Christopher and Letzbia Laing-Martinez. Currently, Father Martí Colom is the pastor there, and is assisted by members of the Community of St Paul.
The parish of Sagrada Familia is located in the province of Azua in the southwest corner of the Dominican Republic. (The Dominican Republic shares the Caribbean Island called Hispañola with Haiti.) Sabana Yegua is the largest town in the parish with a population of 25,000. This is where the parish center is located, with the main church, that seats 300; the parish hall; the rectory; the sewing and cosmetology centers and the computer lab; and a health center with a clinic, pharmacy, and laboratory. In the village’s San Francisco neighborhood, there is a children’s nutrition center that accommodates a physician, a nurse, educators for both children and parents and offers nutritious breakfast and lunch for malnourished children under 6 years of age. Sunday Mass is celebrated in Sabana Yegua every week.
Surrounding Sabana Yegua are 22 smaller villages. There are approximately 30,000 people throughout the parish. There is no industry or manufacturing. The people face the challenge of earning their “daily bread” through agriculture in a semi-arid area of the island. In spite of the hardship they manage to produce bananas, plantains, tomatoes and tobacco. Generally this does not provide sufficient income for even a low cost of living. Many live in wood or cement block housing without plumbing, drinkable water or consistent electricity.
To attend to the many diverse needs of the parish usually two priests from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee work with a pastoral staff, health care staff and a social worker (all of whom are native to the Dominican Republic). In addition to addressing the physical needs of parishioners the staff strives to nurture the spiritual needs of the parish through evangelization, catechesis, sacraments, prayer groups, adult and youth formation and leadership training.
The majority of villages have their own chapel, catechists and church leaders. Mass is celebrated in most villages once a month. Most have a small dispensary for medicines, a project coordinated through the parish staff. All are working toward fulfilling their Diocesan Pastoral Plan which calls for local councils who are responsible for coordinating attention to the material as well spiritual needs of their community.
Besides providing some of the staff and financial support for the parish programs, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has developed relationships more broadly through annual pilgrimages with adults and immersion experiences with youth participating in the Global Youth Mission (GYM) program. Several individuals continue correspondence with people they met while visiting there as well as maintain a supportive relationship with one of the programs. St. Joseph parish in Grafton established a twinning relationship with the village of Los Toros, where the parish first began. Other parishes have now initiated similar relationships with villages and programs in the Sagrada Familia parish.
*Father Jerome Thompson was pastor of Sagrada Familia from October 2001 until May 2003. In early May he returned to Southeastern Wisconsin to attend the annual Spring Priests’ Assembly. On May 15 as he was in the Milwaukee airport security screening area he suddenly collapsed. He never regained consciousness and died of a cerebral aneurysm on May 17. Jerome was to have retired as pastor there on the feast of St Jerome at the end on October and soon after begin as pastor of St. Patrick in Racine. God had other plans.