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Arlington Catholics donate $18,000 to those affected by the pandemic in Bánica

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Father Jason Weber doesn't normally post on Facebook, but the scene struck him — five children crowded around a fire, heating up just a tin of sardines for lunch. It was the start of the pandemic, and people were struggling. In an area already beset by poverty, businesses had to shut down and the farming community was experiencing a drought. So the priest was traveling around, seeing if his parishioners needed help. 

Fortunately, the sight of the hungry children touched others as well and many who saw Father Weber’s social media post asked him how they could help. Over the course of the next three months, people donated $18,000 to the Bánica Mission. “We bought more than 50,000 pounds of food and went to all the communities twice, (distributing food) to different people between March and July,” he said. “That was one way we were able to respond due to the generosity of the people of Arlington. God bless the folks that sent money down.”

The Bánica Mission was founded in 1991 when the Diocese of Arlington adopted San Francisco de Asís Church in Bánica and San José Church in Pedro Santana, towns in the Dominican Republic near the border with Haiti. Arlington priests staff the parishes, and donations, including money from the Bishop’s Lenten Appeal, keep the mission running. Father Weber ministers to the people of Bánica, as well as 17 surrounding campos, or small villages. Father Stephen F. McGraw, parochial vicar, ministers to Pedro Santana and 38 surrounding campos. 

The Dominican government has taken strict measures to try to reduce the spread of the virus, imposing early evening curfews and limits on the size of public gatherings, as well as closing all schools. The 316 students at the mission’s pre-K through eighth-grade school are learning from home, working out of workbooks and watching class on television or listening over the phone. Youth groups were broken into six cohorts of 10 or fewer teens, but since COVID-19 cases have spiked, that was put on pause too, said Father Weber.

Fortunately, the virus hasn’t hit the area particularly hard. The mission didn’t have COVID-19 cases until around Christmastime, which Father Weber suspects was due to travel. For the people who did get infected, mostly the symptoms have been fairly mild, he said. He’s only offered one funeral Mass for a COVID-19 fatality — a 32-year-old woman who had experienced two strokes. Vaccines for the virus have yet to arrive.

The two priests have done their best to keep the sacraments available to the thousands of local Catholics despite the limitations, said Weber. “In Bánica, I have two Masses now each Sunday … to spread out the folks a little bit,” said Father Weber. “One of my churches, we actually have Mass outside — we have a nice little gazebo, a huge beautiful tree that gives a lot of shade. It allows for a little more distancing.” 

Father Weber is hoping for a return to normalcy soon. “It sounds like across the world cases are going down at the moment,” he said. “So hopefully that trend will continue.”

The Bánica Mission is funded in part by the annual Bishop’s Lenten Appeal. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021