Due to numerous ethnic representations, one might think the whole world passes through Ithaca, N.Y. The reverse holds true as well — Ithaca folks travel the world via many missionary activities in Catholic faith communities.
A leading example is St. Catherine of Siena Parish, which enjoys a strong sister relationship with San Antonio De Padua Parish in Monte Plata, Dominican Republic. Staff and parishioners offer considerable financial resources, as well as occasional personal appearances, to this poor Caribbean community.
St. Catherine’s routinely collects more than $1,000 per month toward education and meals for the nursery school that it sponsors, El Portal de Belen. Much of this funding is derived from the well-supported “loose change bowls” at St. Catherine’s church entrances.
Hands-on ministry, also, is a key part of the Dominican effort. Every two years, a group of adults and youth-group members from St. Catherine’s make a pilgrimage to Monte Plata, conducting parish fundraisers to offset their travel expenses. This past Feb.13-20, the group involved Father Mike Mahler, St. Catherine’s pastor; Angeline Duane, the high-school youth minister; Juan Arroyo, an adult parishioner; and five parish youths: Il-Sang Yoon, Kathy Shuler, Marion Ferguson, Kristen Gravani and Sylvana Rueda.
The visitors brought several boxes and suitcases full of clothing, computer equipment and school supplies. While in Monte Plata they stayed with host families and visited with the young people at El Portal de Belen.
“These are the poorest children of the area — from families who cannot afford to take very good care of their children,” Duane said.
She added that the experience — her first trip to Monte Plata — was a real eye-opener. “I’ll tell you what — I can speak for myself and this probably was the case for the teens as well — it absolutely affected our perspective on how much we actually have, and how much we take for granted,” Duane remarked. “Running, clean water, I didn’t have it. I had to get rain water to wash my hands, and you had to get bottled water to brush your teeth and drink.”
But Duane said natives went out of their way to share their limited resources with visitors. She also observed that unlike many service projects, which involve hands-on labor, “You would actually be insulting them if you did any work down there. Absolutely not — that is unheard of for them. We are their guests.”
In 2001 St. Catherine’s made a reciprocal effort by arranging to host 19 teens and three adults from Monte Plata, but those plans were squelched at the last second when the Dominican Republic government denied visas to the group. Although restrictions are still tight for traveling out of the country, Duane said a future visit by the Dominicans is “the parish’s continual hope.”
The Dominican connection was started in the late 1990s through the efforts of Father Ron Gaesser, St. Catherine’s former pastor, who retired in 2003.
“It’s always been a personal kind of thing — people to people, not just institution to institution,” Father Gaesser said. “It’s not a project where you can write a check and walk away. You have to care about those people.”
Father Gaesser has gone on to even greater involvement in Monte Plata since his retirement. He lives more than half the year at the San Antonio De Padua rectory, serving as a parish priest.
“If you’re going to have a healthy retirement, you retire from something to something. You don’t just retire,” Father Gaesser remarked. And Monte Plata is the perfect place for him: “These people are very warm. They relate to me; there is a connection.”
Father Mahler, who succeeded Father Gaesser at St. Catherine’s, has a strong missionary background as well. Not only did he make the Dominican trip in February, he also involved parishioners this past spring in his annual service trip to rural Kentucky — a commitment he also made with students throughout his 20-year tenure as chaplain at Cornell University.
Other Tompkins parishes exhibit similar missionary leanings. At All Saints in Lansing, young parishioners partner up with the United Methodist Church for an annual trip to Guatemala. And at Immaculate Conception in Ithaca, members are closely involved with assisting the poor of India.
Duane observed that this awareness stems from the worldwide makeup of Cornell University and Ithaca College. “Ithaca is so unique in that its is such a small town and has two such huge colleges and universities,” she said. “I’m a Cornell graduate and was introduced very strongly to the whole diversity push.”
This spills over into missionary duty, she added: “People from Cornell are traveling all over the country all the time. So it seems much more reachable to actually go to these other countries. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky thing, it’s reality.”