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History of the Diocese of Joliet's Partnership in Mission

History of Partnership in Mission

In August of 1992, Tom Garlitz was appointed director of the diocese’s Peace and Social Justice Ministry. He came with a desire in his heart to see the Diocese of Joliet become known as a Missionary Church, true to the life of its patron saint, Francis Xavier.

In a diocese of over 600,000 members gathered in 120 parishes, he envisioned a day when every parish would be a sending community—not only for short-term missions, but for long-term ones as well. HIs hope was that every parish would have at least one full-time missioner, serving in a distant land, who would be present to the poor—not just in a handful of countries, but in many. He wanted the poorest of the poor, wherever they may be found, to know the touch of a missioner sent by the Diocese of Joliet.

In Tom’s first week on the job, a memo arrived on his desk from Bishop Joseph Imesch telling him about a medical doctor, Dr. Enrique Via-Reque, who was a parishioner of the diocese and a native of Bolivia. Dr. Via-Reque had traveled on a number of short-term medical missions with evangelical groups to various countries, but never to his homeland of Bolivia and never with a Catholic organization. He was asking the bishop if such a mission might be possible. Tom was astounded at how quickly the Holy Spirit responded to his prayers and immediately contacted Enrique. They met the following week and began to pray and discuss how they might bring their visions together. Enrique and Tom believed that the Holy Spirit was calling them to step out in faith and begin a mission to Bolivia.

The first step was to develop a vision that would be truly Catholic in nature. It would, in a very real sense, be a field workshop rooted in the Church’s teachings—the Gospel of life and justice—while providing meaningful service to the poorest of the poor. The mission teams would be formed and travel as a community that would reflect all the various peoples of the diocese. Further, while the mission trips were imagined to be about two weeks in length, these would be short-term missions in the context of a long-term relationship with our partnering mission site— toward a goal not only of immediate care and aid, but of ongoing social transformation. The missions of the Diocese of Joliet would decidedly not be merely service tourism.

Another equally important goal would be that the trips would be an experience in reverse mission: Our missioners, through the formation process—daily liturgy in the field, regular opportunities for group reflection and most importantly, seeing Jesus in the face of the poor—would themselves be transformed, returning home with a desire to advocate for justice and serve those in need within our own diocese.

Out of this vision came the core values:

  • Service  To share skills and knowledge in aid of the poorest of the poor.
  • Spirituality  To deepen one’s own spiritual life by sharing service, prayer and reflection.
  • Solidarity  To learn from the poor and alienated in a way that reflects mutuality and solidarity.
  • Justice  To understand the causes of injustice and to find ways of communicating these insights.

Later that fall a meeting was held at the St. Charles Borromeo Pastoral Center, inviting medical personnel to hear the vision and to see who might be willing to join on such a journey. About thirty people responded to the invitation, and before the evening was over there was resounding affirmation and enthusiasm from many to become part of this mission experience.

Tom and Enrique began research on the best possible location in Bolivia and determined that Sucre seemed to hold the most promise. After communicating with Archbishop Jesus Perez of the Archdiocese of Sucre, they received an invitation to visit him and the head of the archdiocese’s Commission of Health, Fr. Juaquin Sanchez of the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God, and traveled there in the spring of 1993. After many long conversations with Church and civic leaders and visits with the people of the City of Sucre and the surrounding barrios, it was determined that a Partnership in Mission should be formed. It was called a partnership because it would not be outsiders determining what was best for the people, but it would be they themselves who would discern needs and the missioners would respond as they were able, according to their gifts and abilities. It was a covenant of mutuality and solidarity.

Missions take much planning and preparation, especially medical missions, so it would be a year later, in 1994, that the diocese sent its first medical team. In 1995, the diocese sent a spring and a fall mission. In the early years, the focus was on surgical needs, and then later expanded into clinical and dental.

Early on it was determined that many of the health issues were related to a lack of sanitation and clean water in the barrios, so Tom tasked Deacon Bruce Carlson—who would go onto become the longtime administrator of the mission program—to form the Catholic Construction Corps, with the goal to build baños for the homes and to make other improvements to keep the insects carrying the deadly Chagas disease from infiltrating the houses. Later, education and other outreach ministries would be added to the mission teams.

In 1996, Tom approached Sister Dolores Zemont of the Joliet Franciscans, then serving as Campus Minister at the University of St. Francis. At that time her students were traveling annually to Central America for a short-term mission experience. Would she consider changing destinations and joining the diocese’s work in Sucre? With little hesitation she said, "Yes." After the first University Mission to Sucre, the other Catholic Universities in the diocese joined in as well, along with students from other colleges who had interest. The addition of the university missions to the work of the diocese was a joyous development, strengthening the scope of our work and bringing change in the lives of all the students involved.

In 1998, a tornado devastated Tom’s hometown of Salisbury, Pennsylvania, in the hills of Appalachia. He noted that many organizations responded by bringing relief and assistance. There was financial aid from the Catholic Church, but no physical presence. With that, Tom saw the need to establish a National Disaster Corps, drawing upon the personnel and experience of our Catholic Construction Corps missioners. Working in partnership with Mennonite Disaster Service, a well-established and leader in this type of work, teams were sent to help victims of disasters across our own country.

In 2000, a 40-bed hospital, Christ of the Americas, was built with donations from the generous people of the Diocese of Joliet. The hospital, administered by the Order of the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God, continues to serve the poorest of the poor throughout the year, and serves as the base of operation for our returning mission teams.

In 2001, two deacons who had traveled on several of the early missions to Sucre, Larry Lissack and Tom Goebel, approached Tom Garlitz with a vision and a request. They both had the opportunity to visit the Navajo Nation and saw the need for better housing. Might the diocese consider sending the Catholic Construction Corps there on an annual basis? This would meet some needs among the Navajo as well as provide an opportunity for parishioners of the diocese who may not be able to travel internationally—thus, the Navajo Mission was formed. The first missions, in 2002–2004, resulted in several buildings being added to St. Michael’s Indian School. Beginning in 2005, the mission formed a relationship with Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Chinle, Arizona, where housing and outreach work continues with the people of the parish and the surrounding area.

In 2003, Norma Reyes, RN, noting the large Filipino population within our diocese, approached Tom with a request that a mission be established in the Philippines. Two sites were explored, Bacolod, Negros Occidental, and Borongan, Eastern Samar. Eventually, Bacolod would become the location for the annual University Mission, and Borongan the location for the medical, construction and outreach mission. The mission in Borongan was blessed with a strong relationship to the Borongan Diocese, as well as to a young community of women religious, the Oikos Sisters. Work there has included helping to build and establish a “Charity Village,” a community for landless and homeless people, complete with a medical clinic, school and church. Much of this work has been made possible by our missioners who formed a supporting organization, The Poor Household of God.

The work of Partnership in Mission has led the diocese to other locations, namely Quito, Ecuador, Naivasha, Kenya, and Uganda. Good work was done in Quito, but circumstances determined the diocese needed to move on. The work in Kenya was prospering, but a change in government blocked the diocese from continuing the work there. A good beginning was made in Uganda, with hopes remaining of it becoming an ongoing partnership. Such are the challenges of missions.

This is not a complete history. It does not tell the story of social transformation grants we funded and were given through the Social Ministries Office of the Archdiocese of Sucre. Or programs that have empowered women through training and establishment of business coops that have provided for their families and communities. Or of a program that has trained over 150 justice leaders for two of the indigenous nations within the Archdiocese, which has become an inspiration and model for the entire country of Bolivia. It does not tell of missioner Mary Meyers who initiated and led our partnership with Water with Blessings, a ministry which has brought clean water to hundreds of families. It does not tell the personal stories of the thousands of people whose lives have been changed through the work of our surgeons, the tens of thousands who have been helped by our clinics, the scores upon scores of families assisted through the housing projects of our construction workers and university students, the orphans and children who have been touched by our young people and outreach workers from all the missions. It does not name the many mission office and field team leaders who moved the work forward. It does not tell the stories of our thousands of missioners who have found their faith revitalized and the zeal and dedication with which they serve their parishes and their neighbors.

In the end, this is part of an old story—the story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ being proclaimed and demonstrated down through the centuries. It is the recent Gospel story acted out over these past 30 years through the work of the Diocese of Joliet—Partnership in Mission—and it is a story of mission yet to be written by all those who come after.

May all be to the Glory of God, the God of the Poor.

—Tom Garlitz