By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic Staff – August 16, 2017
Editor’s note: Meekins participated in a construction mission trip in the Diocese of Orlando’s Sister Diocese San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic July 22-29, 2017. She shares her experience of encountering generations of lives changed through the efforts of the diocesan Mission Office.
ORLANDO | It was a typical early morning in the mountain town of La Cucarita and after two cups of strong Dominican coffee, several of the missioners and I were preparing to continue painting the mission bunk house while others had gone to the nearby village of Los Frios to work on tiling the local school. It was then that I met Francisco Aybar Jacobo walking along the road in front of the mission house. Jacobo has lived in La Cucarita for 70 years. He came at the age of 15 with his father and four other families seeking to make a life farming the steep hills along the rich and fertile mountainside.
Jacobo invited me to his home off the main road, through a path that meandered through the woods buzzing with crickets and flanked on either side by coffee plants and banana and mango trees. He explained how coffee was once a primary crop when the agricultural founders of La Cucarita first came, but they became infected and were wiped out.
“This is a new variety that is more resistant,” said Jacobo. “So far, it is doing well.” Most of the residents are farmers of one type or another, growing gandules – a small bean, corn, auyama (a type of pumpkin), bananas and mangos. Last year, the harvest was lacking, making an already difficult life even harder, so the promise brought by the new coffee beans is significant.
I had the opportunity to meet one of Jacobo’s grandchildren, Miguel Angel, a bright eyed youth who excels academically and loves playing chess. The opportunity for education has been afforded to him by the efforts of the Mission Office, led by Ursuline Sister Bernadette (Bernie) Mackay, director, who has worked to instruct and train many of the locals to be teachers over the years. When she arrived in La Cucarita in 2000, the state provided classes only sporadically.
La Cucarita’s mayor and Jacobo’s nephew, Fredy Aybar recalled, “She tried to help us get the state to offer more classes, but they wouldn’t. So she started teaching the adults with the help of the missioners that came. The programs have greatly benefitted us. Now we have many students going to school abroad and here in the country in different towns. And they are graduating often with high marks.”
Bacilio De Los Santos Comas is one student who has benefited from the increased educational opportunities and graduated from Melbourne Central Catholic High School in Melbourne in 2017 as valedictorian. Aybar’s son, Luis José, was the first to graduate from the educational programs instituted by the missions. He began in pre-school when classes were still being given in homes. Later, the Escuela San Pablo was built, which went up to 4th grade. Students could continue at the mission-built St. Maximillian Kolbe School in Los Frios through the 8th grade. If they were eligible, they could continue at Loyola Polytechnic School in Azua, a state-run school with teachers who came from the mission’s educational opportunities. Here, a residence program is offered at Residencia Nuestra Señora de Las Lomas, a boarding facility for students in 9th through 12th grade.
Altagracia, Aybar’s wife, better known to La Cucarita residents as “Mami”, pointed out, “The whole mission project has been very transformative, as much in education as in the way of living and sharing, it has increased our solidarity—even more so in education because many professionals have come out of it, especially in La Cucarita. Ours is the smallest town, yet it has the most professionals in all of Las Lomas.” She added, “Now there are many teachers including my daughter, Fredelina (Nany), who worked in the first high school in Guayabal.”
Nany still teaches today, as does Mami who serves as a teacher and support coordinator for the schools, but the road was not easy. Mami rose every Saturday morning at 2 a.m. for four years to make the long walk to Los Frios, then on to Montecito where she finally received her teaching degree.
Mami also spoke of the medical missions where she learned first aid and many residents received needed surgeries and of the nutrition programs that helped increase the infant mortality rate through fortified milk and cereal provided for all pregnant and nursing women and their infants. There was also a farming program established where pigs were raised for meat and chickens provided eggs.
The building of a church and Father Fred Ruse’s 9-year presence helped the community grow spiritually. “It has helped to have the church here because, in my case, I didn’t go before,” recalled Mami, “After Father Fred came, we began to go as a family. And we’ve learned so much. Now, the day I don’t go to Mass I feel lost. One learns a lot about spirituality and sharing in the sense of true church, it gives us a sense of peace,” she said.
When Sister Mackay arrived in La Cucarita, “there was unstable housing,” she said. Now there are about 32 houses. Each resident desiring a home was required to work on the residence alongside the missioners. They then paid up to 100 pesos or $2.50 a month for 10 years depending upon the total number of hours they invested.
“It was an education for people,” added Fredy. “They could work hours within their own project and they learned how to work construction.” All homes were wired for electricity for later installation of solar panels. Sister Mackay emphasized, “It was a hand up, not a hand out.”
Today, rain water is captured in a cistern that still requires filtering and is used sparingly, but families make do with what they have and find every reason to be grateful for their blessings.
At the end of the week, as we travelled back to the capital for our flight, my eyes could not ignore the majesty and lush vegetation of the mountains contrasted by the poverty that lay at its foothills. The mission has left La Cucarita changed, but there is still much work to do. I could not help but recall the words of Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (Joy of the Gospel), “Throughout the world, ‘let us be permanently in a state of mission.’”
Since 1983, The Mission Office has strived not only to empower the people of the sister diocese but also to educate and encourage the members of the Diocese of Orlando to use their time, talent, and treasure to reach out to those in need.
The Mission Office Annual Collection will take place in parishes the weekend of Sept. 16 and 17 and is an opportunity for the people of Central Florida to support the good work being done in the Sister Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana through educational efforts, pastoral services, construction projects, and medical assistance.
For a list of donations needed and upcoming mission trips, visit: www.orlandodiocese.org/ministries-offices/mission-office