Mission team leads children’s retreat in Mérida

This and other mission activities are supported by the diocesan Mission Special Collection, to be taken up in parishes July 20-21, 2024


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The children soaked up the good news like arid soil absorbing the rain.

Some washed back up onto members of the mission team and sent them home refreshed, revived and refocused on their various ministries.

“It strengthened my faith as I saw how children and adults received the message of the Gospel and our testimony,” said Ilsi Palacios, a member of an eight-member mission team from the Jefferson City diocese that visited a boys’ boarding school in Mérida, Mexico, this spring.

The group led encounter retreats for the students of Escuela Hogar in Mérida and for adults at the parish as part of an emerging mission partnership between the school and the Jefferson City diocese’s Mission Office and Office of Hispanic and Cross-Cultural Ministries.

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight initiated the partnership as an opportunity to create sacred relationships in the Church through mutual encounter.

The partnership is supported by the Mission Office, which receives most of its funding from the annual diocesan Mission Special Collection.

The collection will be taken up the weekend of July 20-21 in parishes throughout the diocese.

The mission team included:

  • Carmen Garcia of Annunciation Parish in California;
  • Andrea Lagunas of Sacred Heart Parish in Columbia;
  • Deacon Enrique Castro, diocesan Director of Hispanic, Intercultural and Marriage Ministries, who also assists the pastor of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, and Yasica Buitrago, also of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City;
  • Deacon Amapro Orozco, Jose Almazan and his son, Alexander Almazan, all of St. Peter Parish in Marshall;
  • Mrs. Palacios of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Sedalia.

Escuela Hogar provides a stable, faith-based learning and living environment throughout the week to 38 boys ages 8-16 who are at high risk of having troubled lives.

In talks and activities throughout the week, the mission team reinforced the boys’ understanding that God intentionally created each of them for a specific purpose, loves them infinitely and wants to spend all eternity with them in heaven.

The children’s reaction was deep, genuine and infectious.

A home for learning

An entity now known as the Merida Foundation, founded by the late Rudy and Dorothy Lemke of Jefferson City, has been feeding hundreds of children and distributing eye glasses in and around Mérida and organizing mission trips there for nearly 20 years.

Deacon Castro and Jake Seifert, diocesan director of development and missions, visited Escuela Hogar while taking part in one of those trips two years ago.

That’s when they met Father Victor Cabes Chaves and Father Antonio Macias, the priests in charge of Escuela Hogar. Both are Missionaries of the Nativity of Mary.

Fr. Chaves was recently appointed bishop of Tenancingo, Mexico.

Most of Escuela Hogar’s students come from home environments hampered by poverty, substance abuse and dysfunction.

The school provides them education, housing and food six days a week.

After the Jefferson City diocese began assisting the school through the Mission Office, Deacon Castro began wondering if even could be done — “maybe some kind of evangelization.”

The deacon initiated a discussion between Bishop McKnight and the priests at Escuela Hogar.

“Our bishop really liked the idea of supporting them financially and also in the area of evangelization,” Deacon Castro recalled.

He drew together a mission team of people from five parishes, who speak fluent Spanish.

“We had to plan everything ahead of time and work together,” said Deacon Castro.

 The team organized two age-appropriate retreats for the students, and another for adults.

“We had talks, activities, games, prayer, Confessions, Mass” said Deacon Castro.

The adult retreat was for members of Iglesia los Sagrados Corazones (Sacred Heart Church), the parish that sponsors the school.

Powerful first encounter

The retreats were an intensely God-centered proclamation of salvation through Jesus Christ.

They focused on God’s love; sin and its consequences; Jesus as the center of the Christian life; and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The goal was help each participant want to learn more about and grow in their faith.

Deacon Castro said the retreats were an uplifting experience — “not only for the children and adults who benefited from what God was able to do through us, but also for all of us who benefitted from what God was able to do through them.”

For many of the children, it was a first encounter with a personal, loving God.

“In the first talk, we talked about how God loves us unconditionally,” said Deacon Castro. “He doesn’t love us just as a group but also individually, personally, you as a person, just as you are, unconditionally, regardless of what you have or what you do.

“We had some kids who have grown up in a really bad environment,” he said. “So, we’re talking about our Father’s love to kids who may not have a father, to kids who have probably never been praised by their father.

“Many of them had never experienced that love, and here they were, embracing God’s love for them,” he said. “That truly touched and transformed them.”

The team members brought diverse perspectives to the mission.

“Different parishes, different ages, and different movements in the Church,” said Deacon Castro.

Some are active in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, some in Cursillo, and others in the day-to-day ministries of their parishes.

Exchange of grace

Deacon Orozco, who assists the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Sedalia, said he went on the mission in response to his calling to serve God, “and because I really enjoy evangelizing.”

“An experience like this remains living and is never forgotten,” he said.

What stands out in his memories of the trip are the happiness of the children and adults, and the kindness of their welcome.

“The maturity with which the message and the friendship were received was incredible,” he said.

What stands out in Ms. Garcia’s recollections are the experience of living in community with the mission team, and the faces of the children they met at the school.

She was most aware of God’s presence and love “in the moments we had in Adoration with the Blessed Sacrament,” while dining with the children, and when the priests promised to keep the mission team in prayer.

She said standing face-to-face with children so much in need of love and resources helped her appreciate how fortunate she is to be able to spend as much time as she does with her own family.

So much joy

Mr. Almazan said he was happily surprised to find so much happiness among the children and adults.

“I was expecting to find children who were somewhat sad, suffering because of their situation,” he said. “But to my surprise, I saw so much joy in them.”

He’s convinced that he received more from the people there than he gave to them.

He felt singularly close to God during Holy Hour, surrounded by the children.

“Jesus calls us to be like children,” he said, “and seeing so much innocence from them, I felt Jesus calling me once again to be like a child, pure of heart.”

Mr. Almazan said seeing the boys in Mérida and their simplicity has made him want to be a better father “and to teach my kids that we need to be happy with what God gifts us each day.”

God’s embrace

For Mrs. Palacios, going on the mission was a response to her experience in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

“The Holy Spirit motivates me to go out, to bear witness to God’s love, and to proclaim that Christ is Lord and that He is alive,” she said.

She distinctly recalls the faces of the children and adults during the teachings and prayer moments.

“These were moments in which I witnessed their encounter with God,” she said.

During one of the reflection group sessions, after a prayer about the Father’s love, one of the children said that for the first time, he had hugged his two brothers, and at that moment cried tears of joy.

“The reaction of the children when they understood that they have a Father who created them in his image and who loves them was transformative for them and for me,” said Mrs. Palacios.

When the children exchanged the sign of peace, “I could see tears of joy and fraternity,” she said.

Reactions were similar among the adult participants in the parish retreat.

“God embraced them with His infinite love in a palpable way,” said Mrs. Palacios.

“Strong hugs”

Mrs. Buitrago brought back from the mission trip a deeper understanding of her mission as a follower of Christ.

“Even though we may think we have everything, we always feel that emptiness that only God can fill, and that is only achieved by helping and serving others,” she said.

God made her acutely aware of his presence at several moments during the mission.

“During the prayers and praises to the Holy Spirit the night before the retreat, the presence of the Holy Spirit was indescribable, something that can only be understood by experiencing it,” she said.

Seeing the children react to talks and activities revealing God’s love to them was also powerful.

“Additionally, God’s presence was manifested in the strong hugs of the children, showing their love,” she said.

“Now, I have more clarity about what God wants from me, and I feel a strong call to do something for my Church and my community,” she stated.

Pray unceasingly

Recollections of the trip bring forth a litany of intercession.

Mrs. Palacios asked for prayers for the Escuela Hogar’s students’ experience of God on the retreat will take root and bear fruit in them and their families — “that when any of them feel lost, they may reorient themselves by remembering the greatest truth: that God loves them and waits for them.”

Ms. Garcia suggested praying “that their daily bread not be missing, and that the support of charitable people be ever present so that they may be able to finish their education.”

Deacon Orozco requested prayers that the joy the children and adults experienced on the retreat won’t vanish “and that they may one day look back and remember it with joy.”

Mrs. Buitrago called for prayers for the children in Mérida.

“I pray for them to grow in knowledge of God’s love, that they become men and women of good for their community, and that they continue to grow in wisdom in the Holy Spirit,” she said.

“For the adults,” she added, “I pray that they continue to attend church and that the feeling of the Holy Spirit bears fruit in their lives and communities.”

Said Mr. Almazan: “We need to ask God to keep blessing them, and that he may fill whatever void may be present, whether it is a missing mother or father, and that they may be able to keep transmitting that happiness the same way they transmitted it to us.”


Looking back on the mission fills the team with gratitude.

“Whenever I think of this experience, it gives me so much joy and satisfaction to be a part of God’s work,” Mr. Almazan stated.

“The gaze of the children was etched in my memory,” said Mrs. Palacios. “That look of hope in God through adults and vice versa, which carries responsibility and commitment.”

Her concept of kinship is now greatly expanded.

“I value even more the fact of being part of a spiritual family, of going beyond serving only those related to me by blood, community, or nationality, but also by the bond of faith,” she said.

She did not leave these things behind in Mérida.

“They are still with me, moving me even more to be an ambassador of Christ to the little ones and with every person I encounter,” she said, echoing 2 Corinthians 5:20.