Centro San Juan Diego honors 1st graduate of program with Mexican university

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Three years ago, Monica Chavez didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. But this Dec. 6, she was the first student to graduate with a bachelor’s degree through a program made possible by a partnership between the Centro San Juan Diego and a university in central Mexico, the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP).

Chavez chose to pursue a degree in social work. She bought her computer, and with the assistance of technical support and video tutorials, she learned how to use it. She studied even as she continued to care for her children, the oldest of whom has special needs.

“She is the tip of the arrow,” said Luis Alvarez, director of Hispanic Ministry and Centro San Juan Diego, during her graduation ceremony. Also present at the ceremony were Archbishop Samuel Aquila, the Mexican consul, Jeremías Guzmán Barrera, and 11 staff and directors from UPAEP who came from Puebla.

“It was 13 years ago that the Centro San Juan Diego was established to serve the immigrant Hispanic community — aware of this community’s great potential,” said Archbishop Aquila, speaking in Spanish. “As archbishop of Denver, it gives me tremendous joy to be a witness to the great capacity and effort of the Hispanic community. It brings me joy that as a Church, we walk with Centro San Juan Diego and UPAEP.”

In addition to Chavez, husband and wife team Norma Moreno and Esteban Palafox obtained diplomas in law. They both live in Phoenix, Arizona, and from there, they did their course work as they continued to work at a hair salon.

“Finally all of these years of effort have come to an end!” Moreno said, as Palafox described his graduation as “the best Christmas present.”

Opening doors

In the United States, only 15% of the Hispanic population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. Centro San Juan Diego aims to address this need through agreements that enable the Hispanic population of Colorado to gain college degrees. Thus, in 2012, Centro entered into a partnership with UPAEP that is allowing many to enroll in various bachelor’s programs online. Today there are 46 students following in the footsteps of the first graduate.

For Juan Carlos Reyes, director of family services for Hispanic Ministry and director of the UPAEP partnership, the experience of accompanying the students is “a delight.”

“To see their enthusiasm and their determination is for us a motor that simply pushes us forward,” he said.

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Monica Chavez, far left, and Norma Moreno and Esteban Palafox made up the first graduating class from Centro San Juan Diego (CSJD). The bachelor’s degree program is made possible through a partnership between CSJD and Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP). (Photo by Nissa LaPoint)

“Usually, when Hispanics come to the United States as adults, they don’t have going to school on their Plan A list or on their Plan B list,” Reyes explained. “Opportunities like this one remind them that they can reach goals that perhaps they never imagined. This is potential. It’s dynamite.”

Reyes said that thanks to his role accompanying the students at UPAEP, he has “met the best members of the Hispanic community of Denver.”

Effort and perseverance

Chavez has lived in Colorado for 19 years. She always wanted to go to college, but it had never been possible in her home country. In fact, she hadn’t been able to finish high school. Five years ago, she saw an ad in a newspaper that enabled her to get a step closer to her dream, and nothing has stopped her since. She got her high school studies completed, bought a computer and started studying. She chose to take extra courses each quarter so as to finish her studies ahead of her class (two and a half years).

“I worked day and night to do my homework,” she recalled.

Today she dreams of putting her degree at the service of the needy, working in a charity or in a non-profit organization.

Chavez dedicated her degree to her mother, Martha, who died 19 years ago, and her niece, Kendra, who died two years ago.

“I am sure that both of them are celebrating this triumph from heaven,” she said, her voice choked with emotion during her address at her graduation ceremony. “This is an amazing accomplishment, not just for me but for my family. It was everybody’s effort.”

For Móinca Cortiglia, director of academic innovation at the UPAEP, now for the new professionals, a new challenge arises: “to carry out your profession in the world, to give testimony of what has been forged in you, to help the world with learning and dedication.”

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.