Beacons of HOPE in Thailand
By Bro. Dennis Newton, SVD
Bro. Dennis, originally from Waterloo, Iowa, entered the high school seminary run by the Divine Word Missionaries in East Troy, Wisconsin, in 1966. After high school, and graduation from Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa in 1974, Bro. Dennis worked two years in Japan. He entered the novitiate and professed first vows in 1977. He worked at the Holy Rosary Institute in Lafayette, Louisiana, for six years before professing perpetual vows as a Divine Word Missionary. Bro. Dennis served for five years as Treasurer for St. Augustine Seminary in Mississippi and eleven years at Divine Word College in Iowa as Business Manager and National Vocation Director. He is currently Director of the Mission Office and Vice-Provincial of the U.S. Chicago Province headquartered in Techny, Illinois
Four years have passed since the first Divine Word Missionaries, Bro. Damien Lunders SVD and Bro. James Wilkins SVD, were assigned to a new mission in Thailand, the Mother of Perpetual Help Center in Nong Bua Lamphu. Their first full year was devoted exclusively to studying the difficult language of Thailand. Since then they have been engaged in active ministry in the northeast part of the country with the very poor and with persons living with HIV/AIDS.
The Diocese of Udon Thani, where the Center is located, is a new and very large diocese. It is located along the Mekong River which forms the boundary between Thailand and Laos.
HIV/AIDS is on the increase in Thailand in spite of aggressive efforts to make people aware of the consequences of the disease. Poverty in the northeast is crushing, in part because of the lack of industry. Young people continue to migrate to larger cities and neighboring countries to find work.
Bro. Damien has successfully sought outside assistance for various projects in Nong Bua Lamphu and God has blessed his efforts. After establishing the Mother of Perpetual Help Center, Divine Word Missionaries also established St. Michael Parish. It is the first Catholic Church in the civil province. Although the number of Catholics in the area is very small, an increasing number of people are coming to the church each month, some just to see what this new church is all about. The total population within the diocese is approximately 5 million, but there are only about 15 thousand Catholics. Ninety percent of the country’s 60 million inhabitants are Buddhist.
Divine Word Missionaries have also established a more permanent building for the Mother of Perpetual Help Center. After years of operating out of a small temporary building, the new Center has enabled expansion of services. Bro. Damien and the newest member of the team, Bro. Ronald Fratzke SVD, visit the sick in their homes and sponsor group meetings for those living with HIV/AIDS, giving the victims the chance to provide moral support to one another. Furthermore, the two missionaries have developed education and awareness programs for the youth in schools and villages throughout the diocese.
Recently four Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa’s Order) joined the staff at the Mother of Perpetual Help Center. Since Bro. Damien hopes to open soon both a shelter for the homeless and an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS, the Sisters’ experience of working with persons with HIV/AIDS in other countries will be invaluable. It was as a result of the visitations to villages where the missionaries assisted persons with HIV that the idea of an orphanage for homeless children originated. So many orphaned children have no one to care for them but aging grandparents or neighbors. The new home will accommodate up to forty children. The team also hopes to build a hospice for adults in the future.
Bro. Damien is indeed a beacon of hope to the people of Nong Bua Lamphu. His daily struggle to meet the needs of those who seek his help does occasionally leave him weary. He does not weaken, however, as he finds strength in Jesus, the Divine Word.