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: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”