…Providence Legates experience supernatural spiritual growth in Dominican Republic
“Habemus Papam!” a woman yelled excitedly as she ran down a dirt road in a village outside Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.
Father Marcel Taillon and his friends gathered around a television set like billions around the world who watched live on March 13, 2013, as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio emerged for the first time as Pope Francis on a St. Peter’s Basilica balcony.
However, Fr. Taillon, chaplain of Legatus’ Providence Chapter, was far from his comfortable home parish in Rhode Island. He and a group of parishioners who had traveled to the Dominican Republic for mission work sat alongside several local people, most of them poor, in a makeshift home with an open roof as they watched the new pope on a television with a simple wire antenna. Together, they prayed for the new pontiff.
“It was very moving,” said Fr. Taillon. “I’ll never forget that. It was such a great grace for us. We all felt so bonded to the people and to each other.”
For the sixth consecutive year, Fr. Taillon, pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Narragansett, led a team of more than 20 teen and adult missionaries to the Dominican Republic in April to work for a week at the Hogar Immanuel Orphanage for severely disabled children. Many Legates have also taken part in the annual mission.
“If you look into the eyes of these kids, you see Jesus Christ,” said Dr. Richard K. Ohnmacht, a member of Legatus’ Providence Chapter who is also a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University in Providence.
Ohnmacht, the only pediatrician that many of the orphans will ever see, has coordinated free medical clinics in the village’s Catholic parish. Last year, he helped a young father who lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident to obtain a prosthetic and return to work to support his family.
“I’m moved by the goodness of people and how they are willing to help,” Ohnmacht said. “The kids are literally angels. They are without sin. Even though they may not be communicating with us, each of them has something very special.”
The orphanage is part of Mustard Seed Communities, a Catholic non-profit organization that operates facilities in Jamaica, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe for children with serious physical and mental disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. The apostolate seeks to create loving and caring environments to aid the children’s physical, mental and spiritual development.
“Mustard Seed treats the kids so well,” Fr. Taillon said. “A lot of the kids have a tough history that would make people really sad if they knew some of their stories. But they’re treated with great love and care. It’s really a profound experience of the Christian life.”
Father Taillon said he became involved in mission work after being challenged by a fellow diocesan priest who was involved with a different missionary organization. Hesitant at first, Fr. Taillon assembled a team and discovered that missionary work in the Dominican Republic, while demanding, is personally and spiritually rewarding for everyone involved.
“We’ve really adopted this orphanage and the surrounding Catholic community as well in the village when we go,” said Fr. Taillon, whose parish has donated the Stations of the Cross, a crucifix and other supplies to the local church.
“Fr. Taillon is a very generous person and his parish is very generous,” Ohnmacht said.
Father Taillon has also baptized 33 of the disabled orphans since the village lacks a priest. During this year’s trip, he baptized 13 new orphans. The teens and adults of St. Thomas More Church served as Godparents.
Said Fr. Taillon: “It’s great because we’re able to bring the sacraments to them. One of the big things for our parish is the sacramental bond with the kids.”
Inside the local parish, Immaculate Conception Church, the missionary team also sets up a medical clinic for Ohnmacht (who has made the trip several times) and other physicians to examine villagers. The medical team has provided medicine, vitamins, nebulizers, orthopedic equipment and other medical supplies.
“The first year I went, I basically saw all of the kids,” Ohnmacht said. “They had some health care available to them, so we tried to supplement that with whatever we could — either some medicines or offering orthopedic devices and things like that.
“Virtually every child in the orphanage has some degree of cerebral palsy,” Ohnmacht added. “The vast majority of them are non-ambulatory. A few are able to get around, but without much speed and with a lot of help. All the kids have some mental and developmental issues.”
Ohnmacht and the missionaries have also operated medical clinics in a local school adjacent to a garbage dump. The school — part of the Christ in the Garbage Ministries — educates many of the poor
Haitian and Dominican children who scavenge through the trash. Many of them live in small houses next to the dump.
“On a personal level, you see the goodness in these people. They don’t have a lot of material wealth, but they do have a lot in terms of just their faith,” said Ohnmacht, who also praised the orphanage’s staff for their care, compassion and willingness to improve conditions for the children.
“They work all hours. They don’t complain. They work very hard,” Ohnmacht said. “They certainly don’t have the surgery and the hospitals that we have here, but these kids are extremely well cared for, and that’s such a tribute to the people who work there.”
Ohnmacht added that about six or seven former and current members of the Providence Chapter have participated in the mission trip over the years. “Legatus really inspires us to work to better other people’s lives, and I think we’ve really grown spiritually together.”
Father Taillon added that being a Legatus chaplain inspires humility and gratitude for all that he has. “In America, we strive to be independent, and in a place like [the Dominican Republic], you strive to experience a Christian common life — both in prayer and in the way we share our lives together. They have a very spiritual Catholic Christian culture, and we try to bring that back with us.”
The youth who participate in the parish mission often return home with lasting impressions. Many become active in the parish and in college campus ministries.
“It’s a life-changer,” Fr. Taillon said. “First of all, they’re unplugged technologically. They’re not allowed to bring technology. It’s really a retreat as well as a mission trip. We do a lot of prayer and sharing together while we’re there. The Eucharist is the center of our day. We have daily Mass. We introduce the Liturgy of the Hours to them. The effect is really enormous.”
BRIAN FRAGA is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.