By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 21, 2006
The archdiocese is welcoming priests from across Latin America in order to better serve its growing 61 parish Hispanic ministries across North Georgia. In February they welcomed Father William Canales of Nicaragua.
When the 31-year-old priest came, he was initially reunited with Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish community in Carrollton, where he had spent a month each year since 2002 leading spiritual renewal activities. When he left each year, many cried. When he returned, the community embraced him as their spiritual father, brother and friend.
“They welcomed me with much joy as if I had always been with them. Their hospitality was marvelous,” Father Canales said in a phone interview.
He is now serving at St. Michael Church in Gainesville, where he was assigned in June, assisting the pastor, Father Fabio Sotelo-Pena.
There are currently 17 priests from Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Colombia, Nicaragua, Mexico and El Salvador, who are on loan serving in the Atlanta Archdiocese. Another 17 native Spanish-speaking priests are serving who were ordained for the archdiocese. More priests like Father Canales are being invited to come—for a three- to five-year period initially—from Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and El Salvador, said Leonardo Jaramillo of the Office of Hispanic Ministry. They, along with a number of non-Hispanic priests learning Spanish, are working to better serve all the Catholics of North Georgia.
Father Jose Duvan Gonzalez is director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry and a vicar for clergy and recruits priest from Latin America, who are recommended and go through a screening, background check and interview process before being accepted. He recently interviewed priests and did recruiting work in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. The archdiocese is also planning to implement the new, standardized St. Paul Program to inculturate new priests coming from Latin America and other foreign countries. Through the program, for six to 12 months they will learn English, if needed, and about the archdiocese, such as priests’ and lay leaders’ roles, church offices, multiculturalism, and legal issues, before their first assignment.
In Carrollton, pastor Father Paul Williams is bilingual. Father Canales was first introduced by Marlen Baldizon, a Nicaraguan who helped found the parish Hispanic ministry which about 60 of her family members attend. While living in Nicaragua, she supported the priest in his work as rector of the minor seminary for the Diocese of Leon and on his weekend mission circuit going out to extremely poor areas. She made “arroz relleno,” rice with pork, chicken and vegetables, and brought food, clothes and other essentials to those hungry for the Lord and desperate for material support. She first heard Father Canales preach at a Pentecost holy hour and later met him through her involvement as a friend of the seminary.
“I went to the poorest parts of the country with him to celebrate Mass … even under a tree during the rain. … He was willing to go wherever there was a need for a priest,” she said. “When he talks, he gives you like a lift. Your life is renewed. People were looking for him everywhere. … He changed my life because he (and three other priests she supported) … dedicated their life to serving 24 hours a day. … In our country the priest is so important, like a spiritual doctor.”
The experiences of manifesting her faith so tangibly stirred her heart to do more in service to the Lord and his poor. She laments the deep poverty in her country where economically “the situation is so bad” and even college graduates struggle to find work.
After she and her husband returned to Carrollton, where they had lived previously after fleeing civil war in the late 1970s, Baldizon helped arrange for the priest to come to Carrollton on his vacation time for four short visits from 2002-2005 where he led Bible study and prayer meetings and preached. Eventually he met Father Duvan Gonzalez and was invited to serve in the archdiocese. After his three years serving and learning English in Georgia, he plans to study in Rome.
Baldizon also brings over other Nicaraguan priests for month-long visits periodically. She said the community is quite appreciative of Father Williams, who has been very welcoming of the priests and “very positive, helping us, letting us bring the priests” from their culture.
Father Canales is the youngest of nine children and was raised in a Catholic family who prayed and attended Mass together. As he grew up, the spiritual hunger he saw of so many moved him to say yes to his vocation. In his six years as a priest, he’s found it’s a “call to freedom, to love and to serve others.” He believes the poor need spiritual support as much as they need material goods and that both aspects of their lives must be served. “We have to bring the two together to attend to the total human being.”
The spirit of mission in North Georgia has impressed him.
“The Archdiocese of Atlanta has a great archbishop because he has the heart of a pastor, of a father, and the heart of a priest that allows him to be led by the Holy Spirit,” he said. “It is a rich experience to see how the Archdiocese of Atlanta with its priests and archbishop are striving to make Jesus present in the hearts of the faithful. I was gladdened to attend the Eucharistic Congress because I saw the love this archdiocese has for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.”
Baldizon this spring went out after work in Carrollton with Father Canales to visit the sick, inactive Catholics, and others in their homes.
“We were busy as I used to be in Nicaragua, every single day after work. And I wasn’t tired. I felt so wonderful” and energized, she said. “They were so happy he was there—families that didn’t come to church. … You feel like the Lord is visiting your house.”
Parishioner Gyla Gonzalez thinks her pastor, Father Williams, “is wonderful” and appreciates his learning Spanish and ministering to the Hispanic community while also enabling them to bring Father Canales. Also a Nicaragua native, Gonzalez said that her faith had been shaky, but Father Canales served as “an instrument of God” to guide her back and put within her a deeper desire to serve the church. She’s also energized in her service to the larger community through Latinos United of Carroll County and the Hispanic Business Council. The second annual Latino Heritage Festival is was held Sept. 16 to celebrate the many Hispanic cultures present in Carroll County.
OLPH was enriched by Father Canales’s Bible studies, Saturday prayer groups and holy hours, which attracted as many as 60 on a weeknight, where he sings, prays and plays guitar.
“He sets an example, and he’s such a good shepherd” with his humble, loving spirit, she said.
His bond with OLPH remains strong and he has tried to return often on his day off to lead a holy hour there—with parishioners taking turns picking him up.
“It’s the best way to rest,” he said. At OLPH “it’s not only human relations but relationships born out of the love of Christ.”
He is now acclimating himself to St. Michael’s and to Gainesville, a city with approximately 39,000 Hispanics, according to the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
He hopes to spiritually renew the faithful by walking in solidarity with them, understanding their reality, serving along with all his brother priests.
“I hope that Christ gives us the strength to make present the love of God in the hearts of all those in need,” he said.