Diaspora

Long Islanders' latest mission to stem poverty in Dominican Republic – Newsday

Construction of an aqueduct that was developed by Long Island Roman Catholic missionaries to bring fresh drinking water for the first time to the remote El Cercado region of the Dominican Republic. Credit: Church of St. Paul the Apostle
In the Dominican Republic near the Haitian border, religious workers from the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island have helped build aqueducts to give people clean drinking water for the first time.
They also have built a small factory that produces protein-rich peanut bars for malnourished children, and started a program to reforest mountains stripped bare decades ago by a Dominican dictator.
Now, 43 years after the mission was started by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, they are ready to unveil their latest project: a vocational technical school that will train residents in trades, including plumbing and electricity.
They hope the project will encourage residents who complete the training to stay and fill a need for tradespeople in the remote southwestern part of the country, instead of the alternative: seeking opportunities in the more prosperous areas of the Dominican Republic, or the United States.
“It’s another major step,” said the Rev. John Cervini, who served for 17 years in the mission in the city of El Cercado. “It’s offering El Cercado a new life, a brand-new life, for future generations.”
Sister Jane Reilly, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood who spent 31 years in the mission, called the school “the fulfillment of a dream.”
The diocese has sent priests and nuns to the desolate, mountainous region since 1979. El Cercado is about 15 miles from the Haitian border, while another town in the mission — Hondo Valle — is right on the border. The two cities are closer geographically to the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, than the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo.
While some parts of the Dominican Republic, including the capital, or resort areas such as Puerto Plata and Punta Cana, are advancing economically, the western border region remains mostly poor.
“This is the frontier of the Dominican Republic. It’s the place that most Dominicans never go to” unless they have relatives or were born there, Cervini said.
“It is the forgotten part of the Dominican,” he added. “It is almost like the Haitian part of the Dominican Republic.”
Residents and leaders of the community said the work of the missionaries has had a profound impact, giving hope in a region where opportunities have been historically limited.
"I think our communities have been transformed" on social, economic, educational and spiritual levels, the Rev. Francisco de la Rosa, pastor of the Catholic church in El Cercado, said in Spanish in a telephone interview. "It's been a blessing of God."
He noted that the community has produced five priests in recent years, a development he credits in part to the influence of the missionaries.
The area the mission covers is about the size of Nassau County, Cervini said, and also includes large rural regions. Priests often celebrate Masses under mango trees in the countryside.
Long Island and New York City have been directly affected by the crushing poverty in parts of the Dominican Republic. Hundreds of thousands of Dominicans have left the island for New York, settling in places such as Washington Heights in Manhattan and Copiague on Long Island.
Joanne Peterson, a social worker and native of Buffalo who has worked in the mission since 1983, said in a telephone interview from El Cercado that the poverty there has caused many families to split.
With few employment possibilities, many parents are compelled to leave for Santo Domingo or the United States to find a job, she said, adding that often, they leave the children behind to be raised by grandparents.
When some of the children get older, they, too, leave for the United States.
Cervini and others hope they can put a small dent in the sometimes perilous exodus — Dominicans have died during perilous trips in flimsy boats across the Mona Straits trying to reach Puerto Rico illegally.
"I see this as a way to create an infrastructure among the poor … where they can build a life there," said the Rev. Bill Brisotti, who has worked for decades with Hispanic immigrants on Long Island and in their native countries.
The technical vocational school will train teenagers during the weekdays, and adults at night and on weekends. Besides plumbing and electricity, the students can learn commercial sewing, carpentry, computer programming, hairdressing, and arts and crafts.
The mission already runs academic schools it built for grammar- and high school-age children. The high schoolers will now be able to get both academic and technical degrees.
"I have learned a lot," said vocational student Marbel Montero, 18, in Spanish, adding that the program has opened new career paths for her.
Montero is studying environmental conservation, among other areas, and said she hopes to go to college to earn a degree in the field.
Before the Long Island team helped build the schools there, many children would make it to fourth or fifth grade and then drop out to care for younger siblings while their parents were away for several days working in the fields, said Deacon Raymond D’Alessio, a Long Islander who has traveled to the mission 16 times.
“Their life was pretty dismal and there wasn’t much of a future for them,” he said. “It’s just incredible to see the transformation that has gone on with the local people.”
The schools are run in conjunction with the Jesuits, a Catholic order that oversees scores of respected “Fe y Alegria” (Faith and Joy) schools throughout Latin America.
Many of the mission projects are funded through donations from Long Islanders, Cervini said. One effort, led by the Rev. John Rowan, taps into graduates of St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, which initially was known as Holy Family High School when he served as principal.
The new school in El Cercado is named "Sagrada Familia," in English, "Holy Family."
One of the most critical projects was a series of aqueducts that brought clean running water to the El Cercado region for the first time, Cervini said. Previously, women often would have to carry water from a river in buckets on their heads for long distances. Usually the water was dirty. They had to boil it before use.
Eventually “when they turned the faucet on” in their homes, and “the water was pure drinking water coming out, it changed the lives of the women,” he said. “Her neck is healthier, her back is healthier, and the children no longer have distended stomachs from parasites and amoebas.”
The workers teamed with Peace Corps volunteers with engineering degrees to get the aqueduct project done, according to Cervini. That relationship was started by the Rev. Andrew Connolly, a priest from Long Island who died this month at age 92. A total of 30 aqueducts — many of them five miles long — have been built.
The focus of the mission team’s work is spirituality, Cervini said, and from that stems the “social action” projects that improve people’s lives. Besides building chapels and churches, the team also launched a reforestation program in which residents plant trees, including coffee, chocolate, avocado, lemon, mango and others bearing fruit.
Cervini, Reilly and Sister Babs Barry, who is also from the Brentwood order and spent 30 years in the mission, are all back on Long Island. Peterson and locals who became priests and nuns now run the mission.
The project regularly attracts visitors from Long Island and around the United States, including groups from the University of Michigan and the University of San Diego. Cervini said he hopes the support and visits continue.
“It’s an amazing place with amazing people,” he said.
In the Dominican Republic near the Haitian border, religious workers from the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island have helped build aqueducts to give people clean drinking water for the first time.
They also have built a small factory that produces protein-rich peanut bars for malnourished children, and started a program to reforest mountains stripped bare decades ago by a Dominican dictator.
Now, 43 years after the mission was started by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, they are ready to unveil their latest project: a vocational technical school that will train residents in trades, including plumbing and electricity.
They hope the project will encourage residents who complete the training to stay and fill a need for tradespeople in the remote southwestern part of the country, instead of the alternative: seeking opportunities in the more prosperous areas of the Dominican Republic, or the United States.
“It’s another major step,” said the Rev. John Cervini, who served for 17 years in the mission in the city of El Cercado. “It’s offering El Cercado a new life, a brand-new life, for future generations.”
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Sister Jane Reilly, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood who spent 31 years in the mission, called the school “the fulfillment of a dream.”
The Rev. John Cervini, right, along with Sister Babs Barry, center, and Sister Jane Reilly, reminisce Friday at the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood while looking at photos of their decades of missionary work in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Dawn McCormick
The diocese has sent priests and nuns to the desolate, mountainous region since 1979. El Cercado is about 15 miles from the Haitian border, while another town in the mission — Hondo Valle — is right on the border. The two cities are closer geographically to the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, than the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo.
While some parts of the Dominican Republic, including the capital, or resort areas such as Puerto Plata and Punta Cana, are advancing economically, the western border region remains mostly poor.
“This is the frontier of the Dominican Republic. It’s the place that most Dominicans never go to” unless they have relatives or were born there, Cervini said.
“It is the forgotten part of the Dominican,” he added. “It is almost like the Haitian part of the Dominican Republic.”
Residents and leaders of the community said the work of the missionaries has had a profound impact, giving hope in a region where opportunities have been historically limited.
"I think our communities have been transformed" on social, economic, educational and spiritual levels, the Rev. Francisco de la Rosa, pastor of the Catholic church in El Cercado, said in Spanish in a telephone interview. "It's been a blessing of God."
He noted that the community has produced five priests in recent years, a development he credits in part to the influence of the missionaries.
The area the mission covers is about the size of Nassau County, Cervini said, and also includes large rural regions. Priests often celebrate Masses under mango trees in the countryside.
Long Island and New York City have been directly affected by the crushing poverty in parts of the Dominican Republic. Hundreds of thousands of Dominicans have left the island for New York, settling in places such as Washington Heights in Manhattan and Copiague on Long Island.
Joanne Peterson, a social worker and native of Buffalo who has worked in the mission since 1983, said in a telephone interview from El Cercado that the poverty there has caused many families to split.
With few employment possibilities, many parents are compelled to leave for Santo Domingo or the United States to find a job, she said, adding that often, they leave the children behind to be raised by grandparents.
When some of the children get older, they, too, leave for the United States.
Cervini and others hope they can put a small dent in the sometimes perilous exodus — Dominicans have died during perilous trips in flimsy boats across the Mona Straits trying to reach Puerto Rico illegally.
"I see this as a way to create an infrastructure among the poor … where they can build a life there," said the Rev. Bill Brisotti, who has worked for decades with Hispanic immigrants on Long Island and in their native countries.
The technical vocational school will train teenagers during the weekdays, and adults at night and on weekends. Besides plumbing and electricity, the students can learn commercial sewing, carpentry, computer programming, hairdressing, and arts and crafts.
The mission already runs academic schools it built for grammar- and high school-age children. The high schoolers will now be able to get both academic and technical degrees.
"I have learned a lot," said vocational student Marbel Montero, 18, in Spanish, adding that the program has opened new career paths for her.
Montero is studying environmental conservation, among other areas, and said she hopes to go to college to earn a degree in the field.
Before the Long Island team helped build the schools there, many children would make it to fourth or fifth grade and then drop out to care for younger siblings while their parents were away for several days working in the fields, said Deacon Raymond D’Alessio, a Long Islander who has traveled to the mission 16 times.
“Their life was pretty dismal and there wasn’t much of a future for them,” he said. “It’s just incredible to see the transformation that has gone on with the local people.”
The schools are run in conjunction with the Jesuits, a Catholic order that oversees scores of respected “Fe y Alegria” (Faith and Joy) schools throughout Latin America.
Many of the mission projects are funded through donations from Long Islanders, Cervini said. One effort, led by the Rev. John Rowan, taps into graduates of St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, which initially was known as Holy Family High School when he served as principal.
The new school in El Cercado is named "Sagrada Familia," in English, "Holy Family."
One of the most critical projects was a series of aqueducts that brought clean running water to the El Cercado region for the first time, Cervini said. Previously, women often would have to carry water from a river in buckets on their heads for long distances. Usually the water was dirty. They had to boil it before use.
Eventually “when they turned the faucet on” in their homes, and “the water was pure drinking water coming out, it changed the lives of the women,” he said. “Her neck is healthier, her back is healthier, and the children no longer have distended stomachs from parasites and amoebas.”
The workers teamed with Peace Corps volunteers with engineering degrees to get the aqueduct project done, according to Cervini. That relationship was started by the Rev. Andrew Connolly, a priest from Long Island who died this month at age 92. A total of 30 aqueducts — many of them five miles long — have been built.
The focus of the mission team’s work is spirituality, Cervini said, and from that stems the “social action” projects that improve people’s lives. Besides building chapels and churches, the team also launched a reforestation program in which residents plant trees, including coffee, chocolate, avocado, lemon, mango and others bearing fruit.
Cervini, Reilly and Sister Babs Barry, who is also from the Brentwood order and spent 30 years in the mission, are all back on Long Island. Peterson and locals who became priests and nuns now run the mission.
The project regularly attracts visitors from Long Island and around the United States, including groups from the University of Michigan and the University of San Diego. Cervini said he hopes the support and visits continue.
“It’s an amazing place with amazing people,” he said.
Bart Jones has covered religion, immigration and major breaking news at Newsday since 2000. A former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in Venezuela, he is the author of “HUGO! The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution.”
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