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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.