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Companion dioceses work to rebuild Puerto Rico

By Dan Webster

The companion dioceses of Maryland and Puerto Rico are committing to several years of hard work to rebuild the Caribbean island after two killer hurricanes last fall delivered devastation and privation.

Churches and individuals in and outside the Diocese of Maryland responded to the call to raise money for its “Rebuild Puerto Rico” fund. More than $20,000 for immediate emergency needs was raised the month after Hurricane Maria. So far, $47,000 has been given.

Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton and the Rev. Margarita Santana, canon for Latino ministry for the diocese, presented the first of these funds last October to Puerto Rico Bishop Rafael Morales when they visited the island territory.

The Diocese of Puerto Rico now operates two centers for emergency relief and supplies, one at the Diocesan Center near San Juan and the other at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Ponce.

Sutton sent the Rev. James Snodgrass to the diocesan convention in Puerto Rico last December, where he read a letter from Sutton. For Snodgrass, it was a return trip to the diocese in which he’s still canonically resident. He and his wife, Patty Parsley, spent 5½ years as missioners in the rural, mountainous region of Aibonito. They founded a retreat center and new mission congregation before moving to Baltimore in 2012.

Sutton asked Snodgrass to assess the damage done seven weeks earlier. Damage was extensive to vegetation, landscape and buildings — huge trees uprooted, wooden structures demolished. When the sun set, some places had electrical service, often provided by generators; many places were surrounded by darkness, some lit by a candle or abandoned. Snodgrass recalled the words of John’s Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On an island with a high density of automobiles and 9 percent of the population living in urban areas, driving without traffic signals, especially at night, was harrowing. In some places, foliage had reappeared, debris had been collected along the roadsides, and businesses had reopened. In other places, especially among the very poor, destruction lingered.

During the 110th Asamblea Diocesana (diocesan convention), Morales, newly consecrated in July, delivered a hope-filled address to the delegates. He thanked all who had responded to emergency needs, encouraging all to pitch in and reach out, and he outlined his vision and priorities for the diocese for the foreseeable future. He proclaimed a new Christian year, which began with Advent, as “El Año de Discipulado” (the Year of Discipleship). He concluded, “Nuestra iglesia es dinámica, misionera y evangelizadora” (“Our church is dynamic, mission-oriented and evangelizing”).

It was said that this diocesan convention was one of the most upbeat, well-organized and harmonious in recent memory.

After the convention, Morales told Snodgrass his top priority was to complete the retreat center, Centro Espíritu Santo, in Aibonito. The project would entail building a church and overnight facilities. Morales and Sutton have discussed this project, and how, as companion dioceses working together, it can happen.

Morales agreed to a proposed parish-based mission work project in Aibonito, sponsored by St. John’s Church, Havre de Grace, Md., and led by Snodgrass, priest-in-charge there. The group members will stay in a church-owned house, pray daily and cook their own meals, repair damaged houses in the surrounding neighborhood and plant trees. The group expects to go in early March.

The experiences of this initial group will help the Diocese of Maryland advise other church groups interested in going to the island to help in the restoration and rebuilding effort. The Rev. Rafael Zorrilla, canon to the ordinary, oversees all groups coming to Puerto Rico. He told Snodgrass that he’s overwhelmed by requests from church groups around the United States wanting to come and help. He asked the Diocese of Maryland to develop a screening process and recommend which groups should come. Those groups would then be partnered with churches in Puerto Rico. Together, they would work out travel and work project arrangements. He stressed that groups coming to Puerto Rico need someone who speaks Spanish.

When Sutton visited Puerto Rico in October, he saw a statue of Jesus at Misión la Santa Cruz. He said it reminded him of the words of Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.”

The hands on the statue were missing. Sutton said he hoped that the Diocese of Maryland would become the hands of Christ together with its sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico.


The Rev. Dan Webster is the former canon for evangelism and media in the Diocese of Maryland. He was recently named interim dean at St. John’s Cathedral, Albuquerque, N.M.


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