of the Florida Catholic staff
ORLANDO | Thirteen years ago, Luis Jose Aybar De Los Santos sat in a new, one-room schoolhouse high in the mountains of La Cucarita in the Dominican Republic. Only four years old, he was eager to learn and the new school – started by Diocese of Orlando – provided far-reaching possibilities. In a village with no electricity, no indoor plumbing and no paved roads, education was not a priority or even an option until then.
On May 18, the 17-year-old celebrated a milestone very few from his country will ever experience. He sat among his Bishop Moore Catholic High School classmates at the Basilica of the National Shrine Mary, Queen of the Universe in Orlando during a baccalaureate Mass to prayerfully celebrate graduation.
What makes this celebration so special is that De Los Santos was among the first class of students to enter the school which was opened in 2002 by Ursuline Sister Bernadette Mackay, director of the Office of Missions in the Diocese of Orlando. She had just formed an educational partnership between the Diocese of Orlando and our sister diocese, the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic to teach children in the fringes of society. The 10 students of that first class were taught by women who, at the time, were learning to read and write themselves.
“Luis Jose had a real ability for math from the time he was four years old,” Sister Mackay said. “You only had to say ‘math’ and he would jump to attention. You could see from a very young age that he had potential, that he was a very bright child.”
In 2012, De Los Santos was one of four students from the Dominican Republic to receive a scholarship to attend high school in the Diocese of Orlando — two students at Bishop Moore Catholic High School and two at Fr. Lopez Catholic High School. This past year, 11 students from the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana were granted a scholarship to attend one of the five high schools located in the Diocese of Orlando.
“It has been a challenge, but it’s been good,” De Los Santos said as he reflected on the three years he spent more than 3,000 miles from home.
Sister Mackay said she is joyful in knowing that the efforts of both dioceses have been realized.
“There is a joy in knowing that in setting up this school we were able to show the world that it didn’t matter where the children came from, if they had the right tools, the right environment and the right supporting elements, they could do as well as any student coming from the wealthiest family,” she said. “Seeing Luis Jose and the other children, who came from huts with dirt floors, graduate with these students coming from super affluent families, is where the joy is.”
As for the future, De Los Santos hopes to continue his education in the United States and ultimately become a civil engineer. He plans to return to his homeland and help build the infrastructure there. In the meantime, he leaves an impressionable mark on the people he has encountered in his home away from home.
“When Luis Jose first came to us, we were very happy to extend a hand across such a long distance to help a community in the Dominic Republic. Little did I know that three years later I would be more than thankful for Luis Jose’s presence on our campus,” said Thomas Doyle, president of Bishop Moore. “He has enhanced Bishop Moore with his gifts. We are blessed to have known him.”