First ordained priest from Honduran mission visits diocese

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — As a young man growing up in Honduras, Father Daniel Velasquez didn’t have a lot of interaction with clergy. So the notion of becoming a priest wasn’t something he had considered.

But when the Fall River Diocese began staffing his home parish of St. Rose of Lima in Guaimaca back in 2000, he found tangible role models in Father Gustavo Dominguez, I.V.E., and Father Paul Canuel — the first two priests assigned to the mission parish by then-Bishop Séan P. O’Malley, OFM, Cap.

“I met Father Dominguez and then Father Canuel,” Father Velasquez recently told The Anchor. “As I got to know these priests, I started thinking about becoming a priest.”

Around the same time, Father Velasquez also became acquainted with the rector of the seminary in Juticalpa, Honduras through a mutual friend.

“He always seemed to be so happy in his priesthood and in his work, that I wanted to know where this happiness came from,” Father Velasquez said. “As I got to know other priests in my parish and learned about the great necessity for priests (in Honduras), I felt a calling.”

That calling culminated with Father Velasquez’s ordination last year as a priest for the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, after years of study, prayer, perseverance and — most importantly — Spiritual support from Father Canuel and his successor in Guaimaca, Father Craig Pregana.

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Both Father Canuel, now retired, and Father Pregana, who left the mission in 2012 to become pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Parish in New Bedford, returned to Honduras for Father Velasquez’s ordination.

“Father Pregana and I had the honor of vesting him at his ordination,” Father Canuel said. “He was ordained by Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, S.D.B. He’s a Salesian priest.”

“He was ordained on June 29, the feast of SS. Peter and Paul,” Father Pregana added. “It’s the first ordination I’ve seen where everyone was dressed in red — because of the feast of SS. Peter and Paul. We’re usually vested in white.”

Having served as parochial vicar at St. Isadore’s Parish in Guinope, Honduras since his ordination, Father Velasquez recently came to visit his priestly mentors and he will celebrate his one-year anniversary with them during a special Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Church on July 2 at 11:30 a.m.

“He’s been celebrating weekend Masses in Spanish and a couple during the week,” Father Pregana said. “We’re having an anniversary Mass for him and people are welcome to come. We’re also inviting all the people who have been involved with the mission to attend.”

In talking to the 34-year-old Father Velasquez, it’s clear that the priests from the Fall River Diocese had a profound influence on him.

Although it was their example that initially led him to pursuing a vocation to the priesthood, Father Velasquez said it was his family that nurtured and supported him along the way.

“It was a little difficult for my family at first, because they never had a priest in the family before,” Father Velasquez said. “I told my mother, but she responded by supporting me and it brought her closer to the faith community. She was a single mother of seven children, and throughout my seminary training, my mother was really a key inspiration to our whole family.”

Just as he was about to enter the seminary, Father Velasquez said his younger brother, Emmanuel, was diagnosed with leukemia and eventually succumbed to the disease on New Year’s Day at the age of 16.

“It was kind of a challenge for me, because I also felt the need to be with my family through the grieving process,” he said. “I was supposed to begin my seminary training on January 25 that year. But after his death, I felt a strong connection to him through prayer and I feel like he somehow assisted me in my vocation.”

When the first mission team from the diocese arrived in Guaimaca 17 years ago, the goal was essentially to assist some of the poorest people on earth with their temporal needs and also to fan the flames of the Catholic faith in an area where anti-Catholic churches were common.

An unexpected but welcomed by-product of this mission effort is Father Velasquez.

“It’s important to be present, personally, to the people there,” Father Canuel said. “That was one of the ideas that Cardinal Séan P. O’Malley, OFM, Cap., had when he established the mission. He saw it as an opportunity for our teachers, doctors, priests and people to go down there — and some are still going down there — as volunteers and then, when they come back, they could share this experience of mission with others (in the diocese).”

“That perhaps is the fruit of real missionary work,” Father Pregana agreed. “Not only in terms of vocations, but in terms of what the Sisters still do there with education and health care. I think there’s a lot of fruit that comes about from the missionary experience. And it continues to grow, although we’re out of it in terms of staffing the parish.”

When he first arrived in Guaimaca in 2004, Father Pregana said Father Velasquez was already studying in the seminary.

“It was nice to have a seminarian in the parish  — here I think it’s more common,” he said. “Every parish hopes that it sets a trend when you have a seminarian, but you don’t know what kinds of seeds get planted.”

To that end, Father Pregana sees Father Velasquez’s extended visit to the diocese this summer as an opportunity to reciprocate.

“I was telling Father (Velasquez) that it’s good for young people to see a young Hispanic priest like him in New Bedford, so they know they can aspire to serve as well,” he said. “And maybe not even serve here, but serve where their parents came from — not that I want to send off our vocations. But it would be nice either way to have some.”

Among the many things that have moved Father Velasquez during his visits to the diocese, he is most impressed by the enthusiasm and joy of the Hispanic population and the large families that attend Mass together.

“There are always a lot of children, a lot of people, and a lot of joy,” he said. “They are always joyful. I have visited a lot of the areas in the diocese and I’ve pretty much had the same experiences throughout. I love the joy of the community when they come together, seeing the joy of the children — I love children.”

While he’s more than happy to minister to the people in his native land, Father Velasquez said he wouldn’t mind an opportunity to serve the people here in the diocese as well as a means of “paying it forward.”

“I think it would be a response in thanksgiving for all the work and support that the Diocese of Fall River has put into the mission in Honduras,” Father Velasquez said. “The priests and nuns from the diocese have all been a great inspiration to me, so I think this would be a way of paying it back.”

Having considered himself blessed to have answered God’s call, Father Velasquez likewise prays that he might inspire others to do the same.

“I know there are a great number of young people in the Hispanic communities, and I pray for them to have a moment or encounter with the Lord, as I did, so that they can give their lives in service to the Church,” he said. “I pray that they not be afraid, so that they can get to know the Lord, so that He may also touch their hearts. It’s all about service, and there’s a great joy in that service.”

The first anniversary of Father Velasquez’s ordination will be celebrated on Sunday, July 2 at 11:30 a.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Church in New Bedford. All are welcome.

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