In 2022, we added the communities of Bayamon and Yauco in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to our mission commitments. For several decades, Dominican missionaries from the Columbian Province had helped sustain the strong Catholic faith there as begun centuries earlier by Dominican friars from Spain and the Netherlands who had founded numerous churches, chapels, and schools. But due to being stretched in an impossible number of directions with frequent natural disasters and resultant dwindling resources, the Columbian missionaries were forced to withdraw their presence from the area a few years ago.
Recently our Order’s Master General asked if any of the four U.S. provinces could take their place and the Central Province answered his plea; finding the needs of the impoverished and disaster-wracked area overwhelming, however, they, in turn, asked the remaining U.S. provinces to help form a collaborative mission, each assigning at least one missionary friar to serve there. Fr. Mark Francis Manzano, O.P. answered the call to represent our Western Province and began serving in Puerto Rico in July of 2022. He is now in permanent residence there, after having made several trips to Bayamón and Yauco to learn first-hand about the living conditions and needs of the parishioners. He saw first-hand the disastrous effects of Hurricane María (2017); a series of earthquakes (2020) which rocked the southwestern region of the island; and most recently Hurricane Fiona (2022). Each of these left in their paths significant flooding, power blackouts, and a horrendous wake of destruction of roads and countless homes, the repairs of which have barely begun.
Even before the latest natural disasters, 43.5% of Puerto Ricans were living below the poverty line. In 2018 their median household income was $20,296, less than half of West Virginia ($44,047) and Mississippi ($44,717), the states with the lowest US income. The child poverty rate is currently at 58%, nearly triple the 18% average for the rest of the United States’ children. Their drinking water system serving 70% of the island has been found to have elevated levels of bacteria, chemicals, and lead. Enrollment in schools has declined by 40% over the last decade and they have had to close 184 public schools due to the economic crisis. Puerto Rican youth from the ages of 16-24 have higher rates of non-participation in school and in work as opposed to other ethnic groups living in the United States. Roughly 640,000 Puerto Ricans on the island receive food stamps. Puerto Rico’s Medicaid and Medicare rates are about half of what U.S. states receive.
The number of Dominicans serving there is still small—currently, there are just fourteen Dominican friars on an island of three million—and the demands are still large. The Dominican’s regular ministries include teaching apostolates at the Universidad Central de Bayamón as well as at several parochial grade and high schools. They also see to the pastoral needs of three parish churches, a mission site, and eleven remote chapels which includes serving, along with the Dominican Sisters of Fátima, many who live in the surrounding rugged foothills of the area at least once a week. The repair and maintenance of all those churches and schools and their own housing are also their responsibility, and on an island which suffers continuously from the overlapping effects of the earth shaking, winds raging, and oceans overflowing, their responsibilities are overwhelming and never-ending.