Joann Roa, director of the diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry, calls the idea “exciting.” Diocesan Vocations Director Father Richard Rocha calls it “a Godsend.” For four hours a day during the summer, six seminarians work jobs for the Bishop Sullivan Center, installing air conditioners for Project ElderCool, or doing intake and sacking groceries at the food pantries at the center, St. James Place or Sacred Heart/Guadalupe Parish.
For the other four hours in their work day, five of them receive one-on-one immersion tutoring in Spanish. The other seminarian, Guatemalan-born Darvin Salazar, is learning English.
“It’s been a blessing and a Godsend for our diocese,” Father Rocha said of the program, which was put together by Father Rocha’s Vocations Office predecessor, Father Stephen Cook, and Bishop Sullivan Center director Tom Turner.
“We’ve been able to keep the guys in the diocese, learning about the community and learning Spanish,” Father Rocha said.
Roa echoed Father Rocha’s enthusiasm.
“It’s invaluable right now,” she said. “It goes right along with our pastoral plan. We need more priests to be bi-lingual. We don’t have enough priests in the diocese to cover the needs we have now.”
In addition to Salazar, the seminarians learning Spanish while they are earning on badly needed summer jobs are Curt Vogel, Sean McCaffery, Patrick Puga, Gabe Lickteig and Timothy Leete.
“Their workday consists of four hours of working, and four hours of one-on-one tutoring in Spanish, and they get paid for an eight-hour day,” Father Rocha said, who spent a summer in Mexico learning Spanish while he was a seminarian.
“I don’t regret that summer at all,” he said. “That one summer helped me to converse in Spanish on a basic level. But if I had this opportunity as a seminarian, it would have been wonderful.”
Vogel, along with McCaffery, also work two half-days a week at the Sacred Heart/Guadalupe food pantry in Kansas City’s Hispanic West Bottoms.
Both seminarians said that both the experience of working directly with the poor, and the opportunity to gain at least a working relationship with the Spanish language will make them better priests.
“You walk into their lives and see the challenges they face that I don’t in my experience,” said McCaffery, a fourth year theology student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, who is originally from Edmond, Okla.
“Learning Spanish gives me a greater opportunity and shows me how I can be of service with the sacraments and the faith,” he said.
For Vogel, a seminarian from St. Bridget Parish in Pleasant Hill who will enter his senior year at Conception Seminary College, it is also the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to be bi-lingual.
Vogel said his mother, Haydee Vogel, is a naturalized citizen from Columbia. Fearing that their son would pick up an accent and would be teased at school, Vogel’s parents decided to speak only English in their home as he was growing up.
“I’ve had a dream of being bi-lingual,” he said. “My parents have told me that if I were born right now, I would be.”
He does have the advantage of going home and practicing what he has learned that day with his mother, said Vogel who is in his second year with the program.
“My Spanish is certainly better than when I started,” he said
But echoing McCaffery, Vogel also said that working with the poor is another opportunity to add to their preparation as priests.
“I have never been exposed to the poor this intensely,” Vogel said. “When you go into their homes to install air conditioners, you see the environment they live in. That’s been a huge eye-opener, and it makes you humble.
“You see the reality for these people and you start thinking of ways you can help,” Vogel said.
Father Rocha said an influx of Spanish-speaking people into the diocese — and not just Kansas City — has already created pastoral challenges that can only be addressed by more people, especially priests, with a working knowledge of Spanish.
He recalled as a seminarian intern at Our Lady of Peace Parish in northeast Kansas City attending an ecumenical meeting of various denominations that were trying to work together to meet the needs of the rapidly growing, Spanish-speaking population.
“I was just shocked at the number of different religions that had already brought in Spanish-speaking people,” he said, noting that nearly all of the newly arrived Latinos were Catholic.
“I looked at our diocese, and all I saw were a few people like me who had just a little bit of Spanish,” Father Rocha said. “I thought then, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea if all our seminarians were being exposed to Spanish?’”
Father Rocha said that the tutors come from Kansas City’s Latino community. This year, the Bishop Sullivan Center contracted with Christi Ivers, Spanish teacher at St. Pius X High School, to design a uniform curriculum and to train the tutors in teaching Spanish to the seminarians.
Even if none of the seminarians becomes entirely fluent, the program will reap rewards, Father Rocha said.
“At least they are being exposed to the language,” he said. “If somebody comes up to them for help, they might be able to understand enough to understand their problem and to refer them to a person who speaks better Spanish. Plus, they should be able to celebrate Mass and the sacraments in Spanish better than if they weren’t exposed to it.”
Printed with permission from the Catholic Key, newspaper for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.