Celebrating 20 years of service in Jamaica!
Jamaica: A Vision Culminating in 20 years of Service, Success, and Trusting in God's Providence
On May 5, 1999, 19 friars gathered around a conference table at St. Francis Friary in Cincinnati with Bishop Charles Dufour of Montego Bay, Jamaica. Bishop DuFour outlined the needs of the diocese at length:
“Our country is made up of the very rich and the very poor. The tourists never see the very poor. In such circumstances, the role of the clergy is critical. We have an awesome responsibility. People look up to us in every walk of life. They look to you for leadership and vision and to help them better their living circumstances. People expect you to lead them in things they cannot do themselves.”
In 2000, we began a new chapter in our mission history and arrived in the Diocese of Montego Bay. There was much to be done despite many obstacles and challenges. We had limited funds and resources, faced government bureaucracy, and needed to understand and embrace the cultural differences. There was no roadmap for success, and many things were learned by trial and error and accomplished with sheer perseverance and God’s grace.
The Jamaican people have been warm, welcoming, eager for assistance, and thirsty for the Word of God. With the help of locals, generous volunteers, and your support, we are making a difference and accomplishing great things with much more on the horizon.
St. Anthony’s Kitchen was established in 2010 and now feeds more than 200 school children and adults each weekday. In 2012, we also instituted the Get Kids to School Program, which helps children and their families overcome educational challenges by assisting with school supplies, lunch money for kids, transportation, and other support resources. Our most recent endeavor, the Health Clinic Initiative, provides medical and dental care to locals who would otherwise have none or who struggle to receive prescriptions, and preventative and emergency care. In addition to our many school and community outreach efforts, we manage parishes in Jamaica and bring the sacraments to thousands. We currently serve at Mary, Gate of Heaven in Negril, St. Luke in Little London, St. Julie Billiart in Orange Hill, and St. Mary in Revival.
And then, COVID-19…
Much like in the U.S., the global pandemic has intensified the already existing challenges in Jamaica, further isolating the needy from the more fortunate in society. If Jamaicans contract the novel coronavirus, adequate medical care is often out of reach for many due to the lack of transportation and monetary resources.
Some schools in Jamaica (which are typically overcrowded) cannot safely operate with new social distancing guidelines; however, the alternative—virtual learning—is not possible for many due to sub-standard internet access or their inability to afford it. Rural areas are extremely vulnerable. There is a high likelihood that students will get even further behind in school, and since many parents cannot read or write, they cannot help their children.
Jamaican unemployment is skyrocketing, and many families are unable to obtain sufficient food supplies. This in only compounded by a shortage of food items. Donations from Food for the Poor and many other support programs have suffered or stopped altogether.
St. Anthony’s Kitchen has been overwhelmed, now serving over 300 meals per day with more people showing up every week.
Volunteers with mission trips have also been unable to make the journey due an order from the Jamaican Ministry of Education to cancel all mission trips through the end of the year. We have lost seven scheduled trips through the remainder of 2020, and two for 2021 have been postponed indefinitely. Time-sensitive mission trips face an additional challenge with a two-week quarantine currently imposed on visitors to Jamaica.
The situation in much of Jamaica is dire, but hope abounds. We are adapting to the fluid situation and now provide food and supply distribution to the “the Bush”—a rural area in Jamaica—every two weeks instead of once a month.
Fr. Colin King, OFM, explains that during a recent food delivery, a woman approached him and tearfully said, “Father, we were out of rice! I didn’t know what we were going to do!” She was extremely concerned, as rice is a staple in the Jamaican diet—it is served at every meal.
Schools are set to open in September with social distancing guidelines, and we have been working to obtain face shields and masks, sanitizer, and other necessary supplies.
The pandemic has made the need for learning centers only more critical. Students desperately need a place to go before and after school to access to the internet, do homework, research, and get assistance as needed.
We are happy to report that Fr. Jim Bok, OFM, recently secured most of the funding required to open a new learning center in Negril with the help of two non-profit organizations—Cornerstone Jamaica and the Negril Education Environment Trust (N.E.E.T.). Opening the center to help students succeed in school has been one of his longtime dreams and part of the friars’ education initiatives.
While we reflect on our own challenges and blessings as we find our way through the pandemic, let us not forget our Jamaican brothers and sisters through prayer, and if possible, through monetary donations. Right now, financial gifts have the most immediate impact with the current situation in Jamaica.
We thank God for the gift of being able to serve in Jamaica for 20 years. Your support has made it all possible. With your continued help, we are excited for the future and look to it with hope. From the bottom of our hearts and from the hearts of the Jamaican people—thank you.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Mark Soehner, OFM, Provincial Minister
Missionaries share their memories
Fr. Henry Beck, OFM
I had felt for a while the desire to engage more deeply with persons who were African American or from the black culture, and suddenly the door opened up to go with the first team of friars to Jamaica. I felt very much a ‘tap on the shoulder’ by the Holy Spirit...I heard the words ‘you could go’ whispered in my ear. I felt taken aback at first, but I also felt wondrously invited to this new venture. I feel it gave me a deeper experience of knowing there is a God in my life who does invite me into new experiences and to new places, and this God is faithful and trustworthy.
Br. Christopher Meyer, OFM
Missions: Where my prayer life grew feet
Missions: Serving from the Table of Plenty
Missions: Hand-in-hand service
I went to serve, but I received much more.
My time in foreign missions was an instruction of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Br. Vincent Delorenzo, OFM
A big realization for me was knowing that I was the minority—white and Catholic. Having a good fraternity of friars was so important. In the General Constitutions we are told that ‘the fraternity is the privileged place of meeting with God.’ Having this fraternity made it much easier to adjust and to do the ministry that was needed. I miss the people of Jamaica and the simpler lifestyle.
Br. Tom Gerchak, OFM
I have many happy memories of being greeted with joy, courtesy, and respect. It was difficult for me to understand the local spoken language for several years. Upon my first return to the USA (for vacation) I was somewhat in awe looking at our houses. I had not seen so many large homes for a while. In Jamaica, there are a few large homes and many smaller dwellings made of boards.
Br. Mark Gehret, OFM
I always wanted to try life as a missionary. At the time I was enjoying my third year at St. Mary of the Angels in New Orleans when the call came from the provincial. I put this new venture in God's hands. Though the ministry was tiring and many times stressful, I loved the people in Jamaica. I will always be grateful for the experience in Jamaica and the bonding of the four friars who lived there. I kept up the discipline of personal prayer time and that kept me going. Glory to God.
Br. Louie Zant, OFM
In Jamaica, people readily sang songs—in church, in parish and diocesan gatherings, and when visiting the sick. Occasionally one could hear someone singing as they walked down a city street. While there, I treasured visiting the sick and bringing Holy Communion to the sick and those who could not get out to come to Mass. Getting to their homes was sometimes a challenge, especially at St. Mary's in Revival due to unmarked roads, lanes, and locations.
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