To honor two amazing women who he admires – Saint Teresa of Avila from Spain and Sister Sandra Ann Silva from California – Father Frank Latzko is willing to walk 500 miles. He would probably walk farther, but 500 miles is the distance of El Camino de Santiago.
Two years ago, Father Frank first made this 500-mile pilgrimage across the Pyrenees in northern Spain, ending at the Shrine of Saint James, for a host of reasons: He wanted to rediscover his commitment to the priesthood, raise money for a water project in Haiti, and spend contemplative time with one of his favorite saints – Teresa of Avila. He admired her inner serenity, simplicity and devotion to the poor.
Although outfitted with the right hiking boots and feeling physically fit after taking practice hikes around the neighborhoods of Chicago with his 20-pound backpack, Father Frank struggled on the journey. As someone who admits to being “bad with directions, unathletic and not outdoorsy,” he experienced loneliness and helplessness as he ambled for two months along the path, staying in hostels along the way. Prayers to Saint Teresa flowed mightily.
But the trek also brought moments of grace. “As you walk, you learn how little you need,” he said. “You also learn that you’re stronger than you think.” He added after a pause, “Taking that trip was a transformative moment in my life.”
Returning to his parish, Saint Teresa of Avila, in Chicago, Father Frank brought stories of his adventures, funds to buy wells in Portau- Prince, Haiti, and a new sense of gratitude. He had completed El Camino de Santiago – mission accomplished – or so he thought.
Then in May of this year, Father Frank traveled to Watsonville, California, with Catholic Extension to meet Sister Sandra Ann Silva, SHF. She works with Our Lady of the Assumption Church and has a ministry devoted to a poor, isolated community of immigrants – the Oaxacans – from Mexico. Drawn to Watsonville to help pick strawberries and other crops, the Oaxacans speak their own dialect, Mixteco, and are seen as outsiders, even among other immigrants from Mexico.
In her quiet, unassuming way, Sister Sandra goes door to door to meet the people of Oaxaca. With a basket of beans, toothbrushes, blankets and Bibles, she visits them in their ramshackle homes, many of which have no plumbing and are shared among families. Most of the Oaxacans were baptized, but few have had faith formation. Many have not gone to school.
Sister Sandra offers help, including, pastoral care as well as classes in religion, sewing and childcare. She not only strengthens the faith of this marginalized group, but also is serving as an advocate and helping them integrate into society.
When Father Frank witnessed Sister Sandra’s remarkable ministry, he was stunned. A powerhouse of a sister was helping a group of forgotten people living in extreme poverty. He’d heard about Catholic Extension, but had no idea of the extent of its work. Suddenly, the notion of bringing the Church to those on the fringes of society became more palpable. “Catholic Extension extends the faith to places we don’t even know about or would care to know about,” he said.
Sister Sandra’s missionary work opened Father Frank’s eyes. “She went into an area with desperate needs,” he said. “Not many would want to be a part of this area. It’s not an easy place, and the cultural differences are difficult. But Sister Sandra is building a community, bringing people together around a faith. She is single-hearted, tireless and a dynamic witness of Christ’s ministry to the poor.”
To process the power of his Watsonville visit, Father Frank knew what he had to do. He had to return to El Camino de Santiago for more contemplation, gratitude and fundraising. This September, Father Frank will again lace up his hiking boots and walk for a cause. He knows the difficulties that arise along 500 miles of trail, but he contends they are small compared to what the Oaxacans in Watsonville face. Planning again to walk 12 to 15 miles each day for a few months, Father Frank will hold even more intentions in his heart this time.
His parishioners at Saint Teresa of Avila also will experience this journey. Some are traveling to Spain to accompany Father Frank, while others plan to do “mini-camino” walks in Chicago – anywhere from 5-10 miles – to experience a pilgrimage, honor the work of Sister Sandra, and contribute funds to the well-being of the immigrants.
Father Frank describes himself as a simple, non-descript, non-media kind of guy. He’s not one to ask for much – except when someone else needs help. He is now encouraging others to join in the fundraising. “God gave me a great experience,” he said, “and I’m trying to respond to what He put in my path.” Even if that path is 500 miles long.