An unforgettable experience

It was a privilege to walk with the poor in the Dominican Republic, to go where many Scarboro missioners have gone before

By Marie Butler
October 2003

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Marie and kids

Children in the neighbourhood greet Marie with love and friendship.

During March break 2003, I was privileged to go with a group of high school students and five teachers on a one-week cross-cultural experience to the town of Consuelo in the Dominican Republic.

This trip was even more meaningful for me because of my working experience with Scarboro Missions. As a member of the staff for many years, I have heard about the work of our priests and lay missioners overseas, and I have passed on this information to our benefactors and partners. Now I was going to one of these missions to see for myself where so many Scarboro members have served.

Many wonderful missioners have dedicated their lives to go and work among the people in the Dominican Republic. Being introduced to people in Consuelo and telling them that I worked at Scarboro Missions turned out to be a very special occasion for them and for me. Everyone I met would immediately mention a Scarboro priest that they had known. All had a story to tell about their friendship with one or another of the Scarboro priests and spoke very highly of them all.

I was happy to hear from my host family that one of the Scarboro priests had been a dear friend to them. The man of the house, Pablo, was crying as he told me a story of his love for the late Fr. Paul Ouellette who had helped the family through difficult times.

My most beautiful moment occurred when our group went to visit the Las Pajas batey. Bateys are extremely poor communities of mostly Haitian sugarcane cutters and their families living in the Dominican Republic. At the last moment, when we were boarding the bus to leave the batey, I found out that the church on the hill had been the parish of the late Fr. Dan MacNeil, a dear Scarboro member. I expressed my great desire to go and see his church and his house.

The school teacher in the community quickly took me up the hill, past the security guard, to the church and the house. The teacher, Elvio Valdez, expressed how much everyone had loved Fr. Dan. The people of the parish are scattered in different directions over this area, which is very dusty, hilly, and mostly open to the direct sun. I imagined Fr. Dan walking about and stopping at each house to chat and pray with these beautiful people that he loved so dearly.

I imagined Fr. Dan walking about and stopping at each house to chat and pray with these beautiful people that he loved so dearly.

Inside the church was like a small shrine. I felt an overwhelming joy at having this glimpse of the missionary life of this dear and humble priest-a life of love and service among the very poor.

We quickly moved to Fr. Dan's house, which was small and well-kept. I could imagine Fr. Dan working here from day to day on his own.

That evening, as our group gathered for reflection, I was filled with emotion, sharing my experience of this great, unexpected visit to Fr. Dan's church. Dean Riley, our Program Coordinator and a former Scarboro lay missioner, then spoke about Fr. Dan's life, as the rest of the group did not know of him. It was a wonderful ending to my story, and a great expression of love for Fr. Dan and for his many years of service in this particular community. There are many moments on this trip that are very dear to me, but for sure this was indeed the highlight.

Fr. Dan MacNeil, SFM, 1911-1995

Fr. Dan MacNeil, SFM, 1911-1995

Our schedule on the trip was very busy, visiting, touring, and then reflecting and praying at the end of each day. The trip was well-organized. We covered much more than I had expected in such a short time thanks to the wonderful work of Dean and his Dominican Coordinating Team.

Dean has a way of listening and speaking that helped us to reflect on our experiences and the purpose of our being there. For whatever reasons we came on this trip, he told us, "You are meant to be here." These were very powerful words for me.

I always looked forward to our gatherings with Dean and the team leaders every evening. Everyone in the group had an opportunity to share what they experienced that day. Hearing the reflections and praying at the end of each session helped me to be conscious of the very poor.

My experience of visiting the homes on the batey made me angry. I found myself questionning why the people have to live this way, in their rundown homes, with no electricity, no water, and very little food. I also felt helpless at not being able to do anything concrete at that very moment to help them.

The people of the batey were so happy to have us visit. They invited us into their homes without any worry of what they had to offer us. They seemed happy regardless of their difficult circumstances. I think they truly depend on the Good Lord to help them survive.

At one time I handed out a few balloons to a couple of children. Before I knew it, I was swarmed by children eager to receive a balloon. To think that a simple balloon would bring such joy to a child.

One evening reflection in particular was very special to me. The local bishop, Francisco Ozorio Acosta, was with us. He was a very gracious man and spoke through an interpreter about his work with the Church. He asked us questions and then invited us to ask questions of him. He was happy to sit for a group picture. He gave us a beautiful blessing and thanked us for coming the long journey from Canada to share this cross-cultural experience in his parish.

I would like to end my story with a few words of gratitude for my host family. My life is richer, more loving, and more prayerful having met these beautiful people. They took me into their home and shared their lives with me. I am grateful also for the neighbours who came and visited with us, and for the neighbourhood children who ran to meet us as soon as they saw us return home from our daily excursions.

The day of departure was very emotional for all of us. I thank God for this wonderful trip and I will never forget the people of Consuelo.

Marie Butler is a staff member at Scarboro Missions' central house in Toronto.

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