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Society of the Divine Word marks 125 years of ministry in North America

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CLEVELAND — Arriving in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam in 1980, Divine Word Father Quang Duc Dinh wasn't sure what the future held.

"I was naive and innocent," he said.

Before long, he was able to begin seminary studies with the Society of the Divine Word, later becoming ordained in 1992.

Today, at 59, he's the provincial superior of the society's Chicago province, helping other young men become missionaries to the world.

Father Dinh's story is one that illustrates the missionary outreach work of the society: to bring the good news of Jesus to others, especially poor and marginalized people, as envisioned by its founder in Steyl, Holland, St. Arnold Janssen, who was canonized in 2003.

The Society of the Divine Word observed its 125th anniversary of the arrival of its first member in the United States Oct. 15. To mark the milestone, the society unveiled an online exhibit at scalar.usc.edu/works/svd125/index.

It takes viewers through the history of the order's evolution from one man, Brother Wendelin Meyer — who volunteered to travel to the U.S. in the missionary spirit — through the most recent years that find priests of the order's three U.S. provinces ministering in poor and marginalized communities around the world.

Titled "Empowered by the Word," the exhibit recaps hallmark moments in the society's U.S. ministries: the opening of a technical school for orphans in Techny, Ill., outside of Chicago; the founding of the first seminary to train African American men who wished to become priests and brothers in Mississippi; and the broadening of outreach to marginalized communities in Appalachia beginning in the 1970s, which continues today.

"We serve the poor, minorities and marginalized people," Father Dinh said.

The Vietnamese priest is a portrait of the multicultural spirit of the society. He is one of about 90 Vietnamese Divine Word priests trained in the U.S. He heads a province of more than 200 priests and brothers of 30 nationalities who serve in parishes in parts of Canada, the United States and several Caribbean island nations. Priests of the society's Western and Southern U.S. provinces also serve widely.

Worldwide, the society has more than 6,000 members in 80 countries.

Brother Meyer arrived in Hoboken, N.J., Oct. 15, 1895, seeking German-speaking immigrants, a prime market for the society's publications. He came to North America to bolster the society's work at home. He sold magazines and pamphlets to finance his ministry while giving the newcomers a connection with their homeland.

During a trip to Chicago as the society looked for a new location to build its ministry, Brother Meyer learned that a 360-acre farm north of the city — owned by a German Catholic orphanage — was for sale. The property eventually was purchased and became the site of a trade school of orphan boys. It was there that the locale of Techny was born.

Techny today encompasses only the society's Chicago Province property. It is within the town of Glenview in Chicago's sprawling northern suburbs.

Over the years, the society expanded. In 1909, the society opened St. Mary’s Seminary in Techny. It was the first Roman Catholic major seminary for missionaries in the U.S. Other seminaries followed.

Sacred Heart College in Greenville, Miss., opened in 1920 as the first seminary for forming African American priests. Within three years, it moved 300 miles south to Bay St. Louis, Miss., becoming known as St. Augustine Seminary.

Other schools and seminaries followed in places such as Girard, Penn.; Duxbury, Mass.; Bordentown, N.J.; Conesus, N.Y.; East Troy, Wis.; Perrysburg, Ohio; and Granby, Quebec. Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, educates men and women for missionary service as priests, brothers, sisters and lay ministers today.

Father Dinh said the society's work in the U.S. has welcomed the opportunity to reach out to marginalized people. For example, Divine Word priests ministered to German Americans who were targeted for discrimination during both world wars, Japanese Americans interred during World War II, and African Americans who struggled generations after slavery ended.

Today, Father Dinh said, the effort focuses in many U.S. communities on Latino newcomers as well as immigrants from Poland and elsewhere. In Appalachia today, food programs benefit poor children. And in Jamaica, Antigua and elsewhere, Divine Word priests live in poverty like the people they serve.

The work continues to stem from the prophetic vision Brother Meyer first saw when he arrived in New Jersey, Father Dinh explained.

"It's part of God's plan," he said. "It's unfolding in history right now."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020