Recording the Vincentian PanamaLaurence Tiblis
Recording the Vincentian Panama
Danielle Ferrari, CAMM’s video manager, traveled to Panama to capture the work of the Vincentians in that area. What she came back with was more than she had ever expected.
As told by Danielle Ferrari
The Vincentian Priests and Brothers have served the Panama region since 1914. Originally sent to Panama to minister to the English-speaking individuals around the Canal Zone, the Vincentian’s ministry has changed drastically over the past century.
The goal of this trip was to capture the story of Panama and share the ministerial work with our Miraculous Medal Family. For me, what came out this trip was a greater understanding and appreciation for the impact these missionary Priests and Brothers have on individuals and the importance of sharing our faith and beliefs with younger generations.
As I sat on the airplane ready to take off, I had butterflies in my stomach. While I enjoy traveling, I am someone who likes to plan everything, and on this trip, my agenda was in the hands of the Vincentian Priests we were visiting: Frs. John Carney, CM, and Joseph Fitzgerald, CM.
Upon landing in Panama City, we were greeted by Fr. Carney, a soft-spoken man. Donning a safari hat, Fr. Carney warmly embraced and welcomed us to his adopted country. Our first stop was for a lunch of chicken and rice, a staple Panamanian meal.
Fr. Carney has been serving in Panama for thirty-eight years. Even though we only spent two days with him, it was obvious he had a deep passion for the people of Panama and his work with them.
Travelling through the towns was an evolving journey. From Escobal, a small town of 2,400 people in the Colon Province metropolis to Panama City, we watched the scenery transform from greenery and forests to city. Rain came down in torrents then quickly cleared up, a typical seasonal forecast. By dinner, we arrived in a quaint little village lined with colorful huts, laundry hanging on clothes lines, dogs running throughout the streets, and a sky brilliant with colors as the sun set. The town had an authenticity to it that made me sigh, “Ah, this is Panama.”
We were invited to attend Mass in a small clay church where ten wooden pews were filled with locals celebrating their faith (Photo 1). Fr. Norberto Ábrego Bonilla, CM, celebrated the Mass and encouraged the congregants to stay after the celebration and talk to us. Fr. Carney served as our translator throughout the trip and assisted us in getting acquainted with the parishioners.
The locals expressed their gratitude in having Fr. Norberto celebrate Mass in the community. I was struck that something as common as the Mass was such a luxury to these people (Photo 2).
That evening, we enjoyed dinner with Frs. Bonilla and Eliseo Troetsch, CM, who shared laughs and stories about the Vincentian Priests and their roles in the community. It was the perfect start to our trip, and a beautiful way to become immersed into the culture.
After dinner, we embarked on the long journey back to Colon, where we would be spending the night. As we made our way to the city, I noticed the scenery changing once again. We were now entering a much more urban setting lined with varying levels of poverty. This poverty was familiar to me having experienced it in my hometown of Philadelphia: people sleeping on the streets, trash cluttering the sidewalks, abandoned buildings, windows covered with boards, and graffiti and barbed wire on door frames. It is an unfortunate reminder that while we were in a land vibrant with scenery and culture, poverty exists.
I woke up bright and early, eager to shower before we started the day. With only cold water available, it was a quick, “cowboy shower” as my Gram used to call it. We began with a visit to St. Vincent’s School, a local elementary school run by the Daughters of Charity. The students and teachers had prepared songs, dances, and stories for our visit. I was overwhelmed by these children, who greeted us with hugs and smiles (Photos 3 and 4). The first half of the day was spent learning about the good works the Daughters of Charity do for the community. Not only do they manage an elementary school, they also oversee a boarding school for young teenage girls, who wouldn’t ordinarily receive an education.
Later that morning, we made our way to the local soup kitchen, also managed by the Daughters. There were people of all ages gathering for a midday meal. I helped out in the kitchen preparing a meal that consisted of a bowl of rice, broth, and chicken. As we finished serving the guests, I was invited to the back room to have lunch with the staff. As I was handed my bowl, I realized I was getting the same meal I had distributed to the guests at the soup kitchen. In that moment, I caught myself thinking, “How can I eat the same meal I just handed out to the homeless?” It was a humbling experience, and provided a lesson I will never forget.
We ended our visit at St. Joseph’s Parish by meeting with the youth of Colon. They shared their stories and explained how they incorporated the Vincentian charism into their daily lives. These twelve young teenagers talked about how Fr. Carney and the other Vincentians have impacted their lives and faith (Photo 5). It was a reminder of how youth are proud to live out their faith by serving others. When our meeting ended, we headed to our next destination, the Balboa district of Panama City.
By day three, our team needed a recharge, figuratively and literally. At this point, we were visiting the seminarians and other Vincentian Priests at St. Mary’s Parish. Our gracious hosts warmly greeted us, and we were pleasantly surprised to receive home-cooked meals prepared by Formation Director Fr. José Delgado Flores, CM.
The day began with interviews of the current seminarians in the process of discerning their vocation. We captured their personal faith journeys and how they each felt called to be a Vincentian. What impressed me most was how the seminarians spoke of their love for serving the poor and their personal connection and inspiration with Vincentian priests, who follow in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul. A young seminarian in his fourth year of theology, shared, “I want to be a Vincentian Priest, because I want to share my life with the people, the poor, and the hungry.” This sentiment echoed across all the seminarians we interviewed.
Fr. Teodoro Rîos, CM, the pastor at St. Mary’s Parish, and Fr. José Pio Jiménez, CM, a retired Vincentian, both live with Fr. Flores and the seminarians. Both priests welcomed us and cordially engaged with our crew. Fr. Rîos expressed the underlying Vincentian calling in Panama. “Every place that is poor is special to the Vincentians. The Vincentians came to Panama because of the poor, and that is what makes the Vincentian’s mission so special. We are here to defend the dignity of the human person, whether they are poor or not, and that is what we do. To me, that is what makes being a Vincentian so special.”
Later that day, we gathered for evening Mass with Fr. Rîos, and then enjoyed pizza and beer. It was fun to see the seminarians and Priests truly enjoy one another’s company and to be part of their small close-knit family (Photo 6).
Day 4 began with an early departure to David to meet up with Fr. Joseph Fitzgerald, CM, for the final leg of our journey. Fr. Fitzgerald and a family of the indigenous Ngäbe greeted us. The family was ceremoniously dressed in their traditional, native garments.
We headed to the mountains of Soloy, where Fr. Fitzgerald lives with and serves the native Ngäbe population. We traveled up the mountains and through the jungle. It was a majestic site and was noticeably similar to scenes in the film, Jurassic Park. Before I left for the trip, The Miraculous Medal Shrine Director, Fr. Michael Carroll, CM, instructed me to, “make sure Fr. Fitzgerald stops at the spot [similar to where Jurassic Park was filmed], so you can get a picture. He will know the spot if you ask him.” Luckily, we were able to stop and take a photo of the mountains and jungle with our guides (Photo 7).
During our ride to David, we asked our hosts what we could expect. “Will I see any big cats?” I joked. Fr. Fitzgerald responded, “They’re here, but if we see them during the day then something is wrong.” I laughed saying, “You’re joking, right?” He replied, “Nope, not at all.” We also had concerns about other potential dangers. “Do I need to worry about anything? Snake bites?” “Well, snake bites are a reality here. But hopefully they won’t impact our trip.” Needless to say, our crew was nervous and the sound technician summed up what we were all thinking: “Wait a minute, I didn’t sign up for this!” We all laughed, but Fr. Fitzgerald told us that Theresa, one of the Ngäbe who accompanied us, was a snake bite survivor.
While it is uncommon, it is a still a potential reality. This spurred a deeper conversation concerning hospitals and medical treatment available for those living in the mountains. The Vincentians have been instrumental in setting up healthcare centers to care for pregnant women and those who are ill, so that people would not have to travel long distances to seek medical assistance.
When we arrived in Soloy, we were greeted by nearly fifty or more adults, teenagers, and children. Fr. Fitzgerald gave us a tour of his residence, a small hut with a kitchen, reading area, bathroom, and bedroom. To say the accommodations were modest would be an understatement. We visited with the youth group, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the teachers of the catechetic programs.
Fr. Fitzgerald serves the entire Soloy region. He travels for days by horse, foot, or truck, to get to some of the most remote areas in the jungle in order to celebrate the Eucharist with the communities. He explained that catechists are important because they allow the laity to celebrate the Word together even if the priests are unavailable (Photo 8).
The next part of our visit included lunch, where we enjoyed the vibrancy of the native culture. Toward the afternoon, we set off for Concepción in the Chiriqui Province of Panama, where we met more active laity and Vincentian followers. We visited Fr. Alcibiades Guerra Gonazález, CM, and once again were moved by the laity’s commitment to not only the Vincentian mission and principles, but following in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul and Jesus Christ (Photo 9).
The final day of our trip brought us to Volcán, a mountain parish in the Chirqui Province of Panama. It was a beautiful day, with a light breeze, which was a welcome break from the hot days spent in Colon. We met Fr. Edison Famanîa, CM, who served many of the communities throughout Volcán. We celebrated Mass in a beautiful open-window church, which the community built and personally funded (Photo 10). Catechetic programs were held after Mass, and we met with the laity, who were inspired by the work of the Vincentians and wanted to follow their example. One woman, Elena Diaz Morales, commented, “I began to work with the Vincentians in 1975 in the formation center. It was the only formation center in the area. People came to learn the history of the Church. When the program began, only men entered. I was the second woman to go through the formation process, and the Vincentians supported me. For me, the center was like a university. Now, with more lay leadership, we are able to assist the priests and visit communities to celebrate the Word together.”
That night, we had our final dinner with Fr. Fitzgerald. While our visit was brief, we bonded like close friends.
As I packed up my belongings that night, I felt a ton of emotions as I reflected on the adventures and people I had met that week. Each person, place, and experience had an impact on me, which I will forever remember and hold close to my heart.