Diocesan mission turns 20

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Twenty years ago Father Gerry Creedon arrived in Bánica in the Dominican Republic as the first priest from the Arlington Diocese to serve at the newly established mission. The area had not had a regular priestly presence since the departure of Father Raymond Conrad in 1971.

The trip from the Santo Domingo airport to Bánica could take up to six hours, depending on road conditions. The final stretch between San Juan de la Maguana and Bánica was especially difficult, a dirt road filled with potholes and wandering farm animals. Electricity was sporadic, at best. Water carried or pumped from the nearby river was not safe to drink.

Last week a group from Arlington that included Bishop Paul S. Loverde and Father Creedon, now pastor of Holy Family Parish in Dale City, returned to Bánica to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the mission. Accompanying the bishop were two priests who also served in the mission, Fathers Patrick Posey, pastor of St. James Parish in Falls Church, and Jack O'Hara, parochial vicar of Holy Family, along with Father Daniel Hanley, the bishop's secretary, and myself.

Thanks to vastly improved road conditions, the trip to Bánica took less than four hours. Some homes now have televisions and refrigerators. Most people carry cell phones. A newly constructed hotel in Pedro Santana is comfortable and clean.

Father Keith O'Hare is the only priest currently serving at the mission since the departure in June of Father Christopher Murphy. He is responsible for two parishes in the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana - San Francisco de Asis in Bánica and San José in Pedro Santana. The two parishes also minister to 74 smaller chapels located in the mountainous region along the Haitian border.

Father O'Hare will bring 10 people from the mission to Arlington next week for the Nov. 12 anniversary celebration at the Edward Douglass White Knights of Columbus Council Home. They will spend a week traveling across Northern Virginia to educate the schools and parishes about mission work.

In 1991, Father Creedon put together a list of priorities for the mission that included road construction, well-digging and catechesis. Tremendous spiritual and financial support from Arlington parishioners has allowed subsequent pastors to build small chapels in remote communities; open a parish school in Bánica that now has 250 students; and provide improved medical care, thanks primarily to the presence of Dr. Gil Irwin and the Medical Missionaries. Bánica now has a chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which helps feed 56 families on a weekly basis.

Father Posey, who spent eight years at the mission, said the biggest change in the past 20 years has been the catechesis of the people. "They really kept the mission going when there were no priests," he said. "Most of the people were illiterate. They had to be taught how to read so they could learn the Faith."

Visible improvement

San José Church is completely renovated and now has a separate parish hall that is a vital part of community life in Pedro Santana. A new chapel in Sabana Cruz was dedicated in September and includes Stations of the Cross from Sacred Heart Parish in Winchester, pews from St. William of York Parish in Stafford, and a tabernacle from All Saints Parish in Manassas.

Substantial private donations have led to the construction of a new library in Bánica, dedicated in memory of Father Conrad. A new ambulance arrived last week that will transport the sick to the hospital in Santo Domingo. A new computer lab will be built next year at the school in Bánica.

Youth groups from Arlington travel to the mission in the summer or during spring break to build latrines and chapels, paint houses, or teach at the school.

Mary Jo Lock was the mission's first lay volunteer. A steady stream of volunteers has followed her. Tom Brock and Laura Schafer are the two current lay missionaries.

The first part of our trip was spent in San Juan de la Maguana with Bishop Jose Grúllón-Estrella. He gave us a tour of the diocesan radio station, Radio Corazones, and invited Bishop Loverde and the priests to addres the thousands of people who receive the broadcast, including those in Haiti.

We got a tour of St. John the Baptist Cathedral, which was renovated in 2007. Paintings on the ceiling depict various aspects of diocesan history, including the arrival of Spanish soldiers and missionaries.

We then met the Chancery staff and saw a video presentation celebrating Bishop Grúllón's 20th anniversary as head of the diocese.

There were numerous spiritual and civic celebrations during our visit. Bishop Loverde and the priests were honored by the mayors of Bánica and Pedro Santana. We visited the remote village of La Pena, where Father Creedon baptized nine children.

Vocations success

The Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana only has 13 "home-grown" priests, so Bishop Grúllón is dependent on outside missionaries. In addition to Arlington, the Green Bay and Rockville Center dioceses have a presence here. Redemptorists and Spiritan priests have a strong presence as well.

One of the more encouraging aspects of the mission has been the ordination of two local men - Deacon Roberto Alcántara from Pedro Santana and Father Pedro Mateo Valdez from Pilón. Three young men from the mission currently are enrolled at Good Shepherd Seminary in Azua.

Three Franciscan sisters from Brazil, led by Sister Gracia, are stationed in Pedro Santana. They are doing remarkable work in the mountain campos, or towns. They identify and organize community leaders, in addition to working with them on agricultural projects.

Father O'Hare has organized youth missionaries to serve the communities. The students receive scholarships to San Juan de la Maguana University. In return, they spend three or four days teaching at the school or evangelizing in the communities. Some have expressed an interest in the religious life, according to Father O'Hare.

Bishop Loverde told the students at the high school seminary in Azua that they will bring the heart of Christ to the people. "I want to encourage you to fall in love with Jesus Christ, to dwell in His Heart and to love Him and all God's people with all your heart," he said. "I will continue to pray for you as you prepare to become priests."

"We are truly rich when the love of God is in our hearts," Bishop Loverde told the colegio students during Mass on Monday morning. "Of course, we need food and a place to live. We need money to buy the things we need. We are human beings who have to live on this earth.

"We have peace and a sense of being safe when we have the love of God in our hearts," the bishop said. "The joy of love is giving something without expecting something in return."

The Dominican people have a strong sense of community and a deep-rooted faith. That was evident when I visited Bánica in 1992, and was even more pronounced during my return last week.

Diocesan missionaries

Following is a list of diocesan priests who have served at the mission in the Dominican Republic:

Fr. Gerry Creedon

Msgr. Thomas Cassidy

Fr. Donald Rooney

Fr. Jack O'Hara

Fr. Patrick Posey

Fr. Daniel Gee

Fr. Christopher Murphy

Fr. Keith O'Hare

Read more

Check out blogs with day-to-day details of the trip at catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011