November/December 2014
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Building Cultural Bridges
A former Maryknoll priest associate helps unite diverse communities into one Ohio parish
By Giovana Soria

When Father Michael Pucke from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati was asked to become pastor of St. Julie Billiart parish in the city of Hamilton, Ohio, he had to think twice about it. He would need to be a bridge of reconciliation between the traditional Anglo-American community and the most recent and growing Hispanic community.

This would be a difficult task in a place where longtime parishioners were not accustomed to welcoming newcomers. However, recalling his missionary experience as a former priest associate with Maryknoll in Chile, he was encouraged to accept the new challenge.

"I'm sure Jesus wants a church without borders," says Father Pucke, who has served in St. Julie Billiart for the past seven years. "My experience with Maryknoll enriched me in how to accompany a community on its journey. I learned from the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers that we always need to think about the mission of Jesus."

Father Pucke, who was born in Cincinnati, is tall and eloquent and exudes a positive attitude as he works steadily to unite the parish's very different communities into one.

As a Maryknoll priest associate—a diocesan priest who serves temporarily in the Maryknoll missions—Father Pucke served in the parish of Our Lady of the Poor in the La Pincoya población (neighborhood) in Santiago, Chile, from 1985 to 1991. His pastoral ministry included family catechesis and training leaders.

"Those were difficult years for the missioners and the people, because the country was going through a complex political transition," says Father Pucke, who served in Chile during the last years of the 16-year military regime of Augusto Pinochet and the return to democracy with the plebiscite of 1988.

He credits three Maryknoll priests in particular as his mentors: Father Jeremiah Brennan, who died in 1997; Father Michael Bassano, who now serves in Tanzania; and Father Paul Masson, a member of the current Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers General Council.

One of the things that impressed him most was that Maryknoll missioners in Chile not only gave catechetical formation based on the Bible and doctrine of the Church, but also educated future leaders, who had not experienced any kind of leadership formation during the military dictatorship.

"The idea was to educate the parents so they could teach their children at home; the youth group also instructed the kids," says Father Pucke, who after finishing his missionary service with Maryknoll returned to Cincinnati, where he was pastor of St. Michael parish for 12 years before he came to St. Julie Billiart.

At St. Julie Billiart he discovered that 60 percent of his parishioners were of German, Italian and Irish ancestry and 40 percent Hispanic, most of them Mexicans, Guatemalans and immigrants from countries of South America. He also discovered that a history of ethnic division and eventual integration was repeating itself in the parish, which had been established by Germans as St. Stephen's in 1854. When Italians and Irish arrived, the groups clashed. The German parishioners donated $3,000 to the Italians and Irish so they could build their own parish, St. Mary's.

In 1989, St. Stephen merged with St. Mary and neighboring St. Veronica parish. The new community was renamed in honor of St. Julie Billiart, founder of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who long served the Cincinnati Archdiocese.

Now bringing together Hispanic and non-Hispanic parishioners at St. Julie, Father Pucke says, "One way is to overcome the myths that both ethnic groups have about each other, and another is to celebrate bilingual liturgies for Holy Week, First Communion and other family gatherings. Last February we organized a Night of Family Fun, an activity that united kids and parents from different nationalities."

Still, he admits that sometimes the fusion of the various Catholic parishioners leads to tension. "We are a community diverse in age, ethnicity and background," he explains. "The majority of Anglos are between 60 and 80 years old. Meanwhile the Hispanics are young parents. The culture is not the same and overall there is a language barrier, but nothing is impossible."

As a mediator, Father Pucke says his first priority has been to counsel both groups on the need to listen to the Church. "The voice of the Church is a strong voice in favor of the truth so that both can recognize the humanity of the other group," he says.

Fortunately, he says, his group of pastoral associates and many parishioners share the same objective. Coordinator of Religious Education Mary Pat Austing organizes activities to unite children and parents of both groups. Dina Beach, who is coordinator of the Hispanic ministry and a Comboni lay missioner from Mexico, helped the parish develop a good relationship with Bishop Eduardo Carmona Ortega when he was bishop of the Diocese of Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, Mexico. Father Pucke noted that the bishop has visited the Ohio parish and some St. Julie parishioners have traveled to Puerto Escondido.

"We wanted to understand better the culture of Hispanics, how they express their faith and the reality of the Diocese of Puerto Escondido," says Geri Brennan, who with her husband Mike has traveled twice to Mexico over the past two years. "What makes them escape from their towns and put themselves in danger in their journey coming to the United States?"

Mike Brennan adds, "Even though the parishioners of Oaxaca live in difficult conditions, the enthusiasm with how they show their faith ... enriches our spirit and inspires us to be better Catholics."

Such attitudes encourage Father Pucke to continue his mission as a bridge builder. "The dreams don't need to be small," he says. "My hope for my parish and for all the world is that they recognize the richness of each culture, and when we receive the Eucharist, it will be to advance the banquet of heaven, where there is no difference of race, color or language."

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