The Arlington Diocese is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its mission
in Bánica, Dominican Republic. A partnership between Arlington and the Diocese
of San Juan de la Maguana, the mission serves 13,500 people in the largely
impoverished, rural area of the Dominican Republic on the Haitian border.
Michelle Ramirez was one of the first lay missionaries to serve
in Bánica. She went twice on spring break mission trips while attending Christendom
College in Front Royal, and shortly after graduation, she returned as a chaperone
for a high school group from Our Lady of Angels Church in Woodbridge. After the
third trip, encouraged by her priest Father Daniel Gee who was working at the
mission, she decided to commit to a year there starting in the summer of 2007.
While at the mission, she taught English in the parish school and traveled to villages
to teach the local community the basics of the Catholic Mass.
Ramirez said she expected to make an impact on the people in
Bánica, but she soon realized she would be impacted profoundly as well. She
realized she was not the solution to their problems, “but if I can help lead
them there, and if I give them the tools to then be able to take that and run
with it, it’s inspiring.”
The Bánican way of life prompted Ramirez to reflect on U.S.
culture — the immense value placed on material things and the resulting de-emphasis
on community. She realized the importance of non-material blessings and the
significance of human connection.
“You know, for all we have
in this country, (the people of Bánica) are so much happier,” she said. “Their
lives are based around each other and community, and we don’t have that here.
People trust people there, and even though they have power and running water
now, people don’t spend time in their houses — they’re out and about talking to
Mary Jo Dyer, the first lay volunteer at the mission, said the
people of Bánica valued the opportunity to strengthen their faith just as much
as, if not more than, the improvements to infrastructure and access to food and
“While the other stuff was
important, the opportunity to go to Mass, get married, baptize their children
and get communion was the stuff that was most overwhelming for them,” Dyer
Her most vivid memories of the mission are how happy the people
were living simple lives, and how much they craved an opportunity to
participate in their religion.
“The people (in Bánica)
would put on their Sunday best and walk miles just to make Sunday Mass happen,”
she said. “I can barely get out the door, and (my church) is literally three
minutes from our house. I try to remember that when I think about how important
faith is and passing it along to my children. It’s had a huge impact on my
As it rings in its 25th year, many structural improvements have
been made, and countless lives have been impacted both in the Arlington Diocese
and the villages near Bánica. However, Ramirez said the whole purpose of the
mission is to reach a point where the presence of the diocese is no longer
needed. The goal is to catechize the Bánican people enough to where they are self-sufficient
in their faith and can begin catechizing each other.
“Dominican people are
deeply rooted in traditions,” Ramirez said. “If you can get them to that point
where going to Sunday Mass or even daily Mass is engrained in them, they’ll be
set forever. I think it’s just making it a part of their culture, because they’re
already a Catholic people.”