A sad and celebratory farewell

The people of St. Martin de Porres say goodbye to the Dominicans by celebrating thier 60-year legacy at the parish

COLUMBIA – St. Martin de Porres Parish bid a fond and poignant farewell Sunday to the Dominican community that has served the Columbia congregation faithfully and well for over 60 years.

It was Dominican Day, and over 400 people turned out in the drizzly, damp weather to honor the order that founded the parish in 1935. The celebration began with a procession from St. Martin’s Church to the Allen University auditorium a short distance away. There, Father Alberto Rodriguez, Prior Provincial for the order’s Southern Province celebrated the Mass.

In his homily, Father Rodriguez reflected on the sadness the Dominicans feel about leaving St. Martin’s. “Sometimes it is hard to understand the will of the Lord,” he said. “We have to go because the Lord has other plans for the Dominicans and for this community.” But he expressed confidence that the people of St. Martin’s will continue the mission the Dominicans began. “This community was established to be a sign of help in the middle of this city. It is now the moment for all of you to address this task in a more personal way. You can do it because you are not only connected with one another but with the Lord.”

It is partly because of the parish’s success that the Dominicans are leaving, said Sister Mary Laura Lesniak, the parish administrator. With fewer people joining the order, they must go where the need is most intense, Sister said. “They have to take a look at which communities could stand on their own and which needed their help the most,” she said. Dominicans also like to live in communities of at least six members, Sister said. At present, the Rev. Bruce Schultz, sacramental minister, and the Rev. John Keefer, chaplain at Providence Hospital, are the only priests assigned to Columbia and Sister Carol Bongaarts, the school’s principal, is the only Dominican religious at St. Martin’s.

Parishioners also have mixed emotions about the Dominicans leaving. “I’m going to miss them,” said Carol Waldo. “It’s a sad time for all of us – but we’re up to the challenge.”

“After 60 years, the Dominicans leaving will definitely leave a void. But here at St. Martin’s, we’ve always had a sense of community and togetherness,” said J. P. Griffin. “We’ve got a big job to do, and if we don’t look to anyone else to do it, in 60 years, we’ll be stronger than we are today.”

The Dominicans first came to Columbia at the invitation of Bishop Emmet Walsh, Father Schultz said. Bishop Walsh had been approached by a group of African American Catholics who were attending St. Peter’s church. The custom of the time relegated black churchgoers to the back pews for Mass. They asked Bishop Walsh if they might have their own church where they could worship freely. The bishop agreed and recruited the Dominicans to set up a mission church in the Waverly neighborhood. They brought with them a tradition of preaching, education and working with the poor that was well-suited to their new community. The parish was originally called The Most Holy Rosary but soon became known as Blessed Martin de Porres. The name was changed to St. Martin de Porres after his canonization in 1962, Father Schultz said.

Shortly after their arrival, the brothers saw a need to improve the education of the neighborhood children and invited the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters of Iowa to start a school there, Sister Carol said. The sisters opened the school in September 1936, and 46 members of their community have served there since then.

Through the Dominicans’ nurturing and guidance, both parish and school have prospered. The parish roster now includes 400 households and has a strong stewardship program. The school of 192 students was recently re-accredited by the diocese of Charleston and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and has started an educational endowment fund.

The sisters and the brothers have devoted themselves to serving the larger community as well, Sister Mary Laura Lesniak said. “People are used to coming to the parish at all hours to pray or for advice,” she said.

“One of our charisms is working with those who are poor or at the margin of society,” Father Schultz said. “We feel very comfortable with people living on the edge.” To help needy members of the community, the parish runs a soup kitchen on Sunday afternoons and serves sandwiches on weekday evenings.

Now it will be up to the parish to carry on these ministries. They have been working with the Dominicans on the transition since August which should make things easier, said sixth-grade teacher Donald Sweeper. “I think the Dominicans have well-prepared us for their departure so I don’t foresee that drastic a change,” he said.

When they leave Columbia, Father Schultz and Father Keefer will be heading for different areas of the country. Father Keefer will be going to Denver where he will be a sacramental minister and prior of the community. After a six-month sabbatical that begins May 1, Father Schultz will go to New Orleans where he will be working at Xavier University and doing some preaching at African-American churches. Sister Carol, who will remain at St. Martin’s until the end of the school year, says she’s not sure what she will do after that.

Wherever they go, the Dominicans will not forget St. Martin’s, Father Rodriguez said. “Even though we leave, we remain in you and among you. Our love and our prayers for one another will keep us bound in the love of Jesus.”