Border mission instills education and hope in poor

Denver priest’s Miguel Pro Mission continues vital 35-year ministry in Juarez

Roxanne King

Long before migrant caravans and controversial Trump administration immigration policies began dominating headlines last year, a Catholic mission in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, led by a humble Denver priest, was tirelessly working to prevent the forced migration of the young poor who Pope Francis said “are persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs” prevalent in their impoverished communities.

Inspired by the work of others, Father Peter Urban, 89, founded Miguel Pro Mission in 2010. The Colorado nonprofit offers scholarships and tutoring to children in Juarez to help them attend school from kindergarten through college. Recently, the mission also began building eco-friendly, energy efficient homes for the poor.

While an education makes a brighter future possible, the homebuilding and repair assistance provides safe, dignified dwellings. Both efforts foster hope, which is the mission’s goal, Father Urban said.

“Five of our students have graduated from college,” he told the Denver Catholic. “Seventeen are enrolled at a university. More than 30 are in middle school and high school.”

The scholarships are vital, Father Urban said, as free education in Mexico only goes through the sixth grade.

“Then they are out and may be tempted to listen to narcos and sell drugs to make a living,” he said.

The youths are also vulnerable to other criminal activities. Some try to flee the wretched poverty and violence of their city by seeking a better life across the border.

Once considered the most dangerous city outside a war zone, the homicide rate in Juarez began dropping in 2012 but last year reported “1,247 homicides, a number comparable to the most violent era for the city from 2008 to 2011,” according to El Diario de Juarez. The increase, the newspaper said, is attributed to cartels fighting for control of the city’s lucrative drug-smuggling routes.

Physical education teacher Oscar Sandoval was able to earn his college degree thanks to Miguel Pro Mission scholarships. Today, he teaches at two schools in Juarez and, with a promising future, recently married.

“He got married in the Catholic Church because of his background,” Father Urban said, referring to Sandoval’s experience with the mission, which nurtured him both academically and spiritually. “Now he can impart knowledge not only about physical health, but also his faith.”

A heavily industrialized city boasting some 300 factories, nearly a third of Juarez’s population is comprised of people who relocated from elsewhere, primarily from other parts of Mexico, but also from other Central American countries.

“They hear there is work,” Father Urban said. “They come and find rocks, cardboard and some kind of roofing and put it together to house their family. They work long hours at maquiladoras, factories, for 20 to 40 dollars a week. That’s not poverty — that’s misery.”

Last year, the mission built a home for a woman raising her three children and battling cancer after being abandoned by her husband. In 2017, the mission helped complete a residence and chapel for the Tonantzin Sisters, consecrated women who partner with the mission and staff four community centers around Juarez where they offer child care to working parents, provide tutoring to children, and offer catechesis and counseling to families.

Deacon Paul Zajac, who serves on the Miguel Pro Mission board of directors and ministers at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Denver where Father Urban resides, helped build the residences.

“It was a good experience,” Deacon Zajac said. “Miguel Pro Mission’s focus is to help those most in need in a manner that helps them the most. It lives out the Gospel precept that when you care for your neighbor you care for Christ.”

Not only does the mission uplift people by helping them to acquire an education and a proper dwelling, the deacon said, but it involves them in those efforts and gives witness that God loves them.

“It helps them to know that God created them with a mission and a purpose,” Deacon Zajac said. “It tells them God cares so much that he sent people who live 800 miles away to help them.

“The people have such a sense of gratitude. It was important to them to share with us what they had in return. It was like being with the community of the early Church.”

In addition to helping residents build energy efficient adobe homes that include dry ecological toilets, which turn waste into fertilizer (a lack of water and sandy soil are issues in Juarez), the mission encourages the people to become self-sufficient by growing a garden for vegetables, and raising chickens and perhaps a goat for eggs and milk.

“If you have that, you may be poor but you have a dignified poverty,” Father Urban said, likening it to what Christ described when he said, “Blessed are the poor.”

Father Urban got involved with the poor in Juarez in 1994 through Father Stan Martinka, a former U.S. Army chaplain who knew the Tonantzin Sisters and had started an apostolate 10 years prior to help them build community centers and provide financial aid to families to keep their children in school. Later, Deacon Michael Howard assisted their work with a house-building effort.

Both Father Martinka and Deacon Howard died in 2011. Father Urban credits the two men and the Tonantzin Sisters with inspiring Miguel Pro Mission, which he established with the help of his friend Dan Schell after some 16 years supporting the ministry both on site in Juarez and from afar in Denver.

Today, even as the mission explores adding new technology to teach children English at a younger age via educational computer games to aid fluency and enhance their ability to get better paying jobs, the idea is rooted in its foundational goal: to instill hope for a better future.

“We like to do education more than anything,” Father Urban said. “We plan to build two more homes this year and many, many more over the next 20 years. But our main focus is education.”

It costs just $30 a month to provide a scholarship. The cost to build a home, too, is minimal at about $20,000.

Additionally, organizers are planning a grand event to celebrate Father Urban’s 90th birthday and benefit the mission in August, said Mary Ann Hand, secretary of the mission’s board of directors.

“We’re excited about the work going on,” she said, “and the good things happening through the mission.”

“It gives people a dignified life,” said Deacon Zajac. “And they can see a greater future.”

COMING UP: Denver’s first Catholic classical high school opens under patronage of Our Lady of Victory

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Nearly half a millennium ago, thousands of Catholics heeded Pope Pius V’s call to pray the Rosary requesting Our Lady’s intercession for the deliverance of Europe from Turkish invasion.

In a miraculous triumph, at what came to be known as the “Battle of Lepanto,” the outnumbered Christian “Holy League” overcame the Turkish forces, winning Our Lady of the Rosary a new advocation: Our Lady of Victory.

Today, Denver’s new and first Catholic classical high school has chosen Our Lady of Victory as its patroness, with the mission of developing the whole person and forming students who are holy, well-educated and prepared to engage the present culture and contribute to society.

Our Lady of Victory High School is part of the Chesterton Schools Network, which encourages parent-led Catholic schools across the nation, inspired by the life and work of G.K. Chesterton, who wrote a poem about the victory at Lepanto.

Although the school is not an archdiocesan high school, it has been officially recognized by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila as a Catholic school. This fall’s inaugural 9th grade class will launch at the St. Louis Parish School building in Denver with nearly 20 students.

“Chesterton’s model of joyful Catholicism draws upon the classical tradition but is very evangelical: It engages the culture with a joyful approach to being Catholic… rather than a reactionary one,” said Dr. R. Jared Staudt, President of the school, Director of Formation at the Archdiocese of Denver and Visiting Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute. “We want to form saints to go out and do great things for the Lord within our culture.”

The classical education approach highlights the trivium (logic, grammar and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).

“We emphasize Socratic dialogue as well as the trivium: how to read texts carefully and understand them through grammar, how to think about them in a coherent manner through logic, and then how to express yourself well in writing and speech through rhetoric; but also the quadrivium: How do we understand the logical order and beauty of the universe?” Dr. Staudt explained.

The benefits of this type of education are many, he assured.

“It’s not just a practical output, but about forming strong dispositions of thinking, of being able to evaluate things, being able to form a plan of action for your life that will translate into being successful in the future.

“It’s about becoming the person that God wants us to become… We emphasize the fundamental things that shape who we are, so that, secondarily, we are also good at doing things,” Dr. Staudt said.

Part of what makes this goal possible is the communion between faith and reason. Students begin the school day with daily Mass; read Homer, Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dostoevsky, G.K. Chesterton, etc.; and study the Bible and the Catechism. They participate in a curriculum where history, philosophy, literature and theology are “braided together,” as their website states.

Part of what makes it unique is also its approach to the fine arts and to mathematics and science.

“We emphasize the fine arts because we want the students to be engaged with beauty and wonder… We want to humanize them, to make them more fully alive,” Dr. Staudt said.

“I would say we also approach math and science from that perspective. We take math and science very seriously, but not as something dry and textbook based, but something that is engaging the beauty, the logic, the wonder of the universe, and the fact that we can logically understand [it] because it is itself something that is a creative work of a mind, of God’s mind, and his beauty is impressed within it.”

As part of this approach, the school has implemented in its unique formation a lot of time in the outdoors, beginning the year with a three-day backpacking trip with the students and ending with a whitewater rafting trip.
The school also plans on having retreats throughout the year, attending and hosting fine arts events and providing service opportunities for its students.

“I think that’s truly part of what makes us unique, that we want to develop the whole person: body, mind and soul,” Dr. Staudt explained.

“It’s about becoming the person that God wants us to become… We emphasize the fundamental things that shape who we are, so that, secondarily, we are also good at doing things.”

The seed for the foundations of the school began with the desire of a group of Denver Catholic parents for a holistic, classical formation for their children, also motived by the need for a Catholic high school in the South Denver metro area.

Hoping to open a Catholic classical high school for their children in the future, six dads organized a series of monthly talks titled “The First Educators” at St. Mary Parish in Littleton from September to November 2018 as a first step to help in this direction.

Little did they know that their dream would become reality only a few months later, with the help of Dr. Staudt, the Chesterton Schools Network and the support of other parents around the archdiocese.

With six experienced teachers on board, the mission-driven school is set to begin forming students in the classical tradition.

“We want them to be holy. I would say that is our biggest overarching goal, that we want to form saints in the sense that they are thinking people who are well-educated and well prepared to engage the world and make a contribution in society – but [in a way] that holiness integrates everything else that we do,” Dr. Staudt concluded.

For more information, visit ourladyofvictorydenver.com.