On December 12, 1931 the first four Spiritans from the American Province arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, or Borinquen Island (the Taino Indian name), and were assigned to the parish of Arecibo. More than 40 Spiritans were rotated through Arecibo over 50 years later and helped found more than a dozen parishes, an elementary and high school, and a campus of the Catholic University. Review a detailed history of Spiritans in Puerto Rico.
The flexibility and the spirit of cooperation with the growing local church is evidenced by the number of works where Spiritans endeavored to preach the Gospel. No other religious community has evidenced such willingness to build and move on with such an authentic missionary spirituality.
A second parish was founded in Hato Rey, where an extraordinarily beautiful church was built and dedicated to the Holy Spirit, along with a second building, an elementary/high school. Sixteen Spiritans contributed their efforts and eventually the parish was divided into four. Holy Spirit parish and the school were eventually returned to the dioceses. Spiritans and Fr. Edward Wolfe also established the Pontifical Mission Societies in Hato Rey. Today a Spiritan from Puerto Rico, J. Orlando Camacho Torres, directs these societies.
Parishes Evangelized and Strengthened
Juncos, 1947, a church and attached rectory near el Yunque, the rain forest. When returned to the diocese of Caguas, the parish had seven outlying chapels.
San Fernando en Toa Alta, in Dorado and Toa Baja, 1942-1962, 14 Spiritans. Three newly founded parishes were returned to the Archdiocese.
Río Grande, 1948 to 1960, six Spiritans, serving black descendants of West African slaves. One of Fr. Grossman´s altar boys, Mons. Ruben González, is now the Bishop of Caguas.
In Barceloneta, 1961, returning 1990, nine Spiritans. Pastor Fr. Tom Sharkey helped acquire a church hall and was famous for his efforts to visit every home of every family, within the first three months of his arrival as pastor.
Jayuya, 1945 to 1979, 13 Spiritans. A mountain parish led by Fr. Joseph Wehning, who served them for years and was known as Jayuya Joe.
Orocovis, 1952 - present, 17 Spiritans. Formed an elementary school in the parish of St John the Baptist, and Fr. John Costello oversaw the construction of a rectory, an activity hall and the establishment of a coffee cooperative in a second parish. Fr. John Tomala constructed a huge church adjacent to the main chapel. We continue to administer the parish of Our Lady of Fatima.
José Obrero, 1958 to 1961 with 3 Spiritans. Known as the "fanguito", or mud hole, due to its extreme poverty.
Salinas, 1960 to 1980, 13 Spiritans. A main church and nine outstations, each with a chapel. Fr. Geraldo Seifried, aka, Salinas Joe, was Pastor for more than twenty years. Fr. Victor (Walter) Masterlerz, who died while serving Salinas, was beloved by the community.
Santa Ana, Our Lady of Carmen and Sacred Heart, 1961. The Spiritans were responsible for the three new churches. Fr. Eberhardt founded the parish and elementary school of the Holy Spirit in Levittown in 1966.
The island parish of Vieques, 1974, 7 Spiritans. The challenges were isolation, lack of fresh water and tensions due to the military’s use of the island for practice invasions.
Puerto Rican Vocations
In 1975, Fr. Neil McQuillan was named Vocation Director, and one year later the congregation opened a formation program within Regina Cleri Seminary in the diocese of Ponce with five candidates. Fr. John Sakovich, a lay graduate from Holy Ghost Prep, was named the first Director of Formation. The following year, due to limited space in the diocesan seminary, the program moved into a convent in the nearby Capuchin parish of Santa Teresita in Ponce and our candidates continued to study in the Ponce seminary. However, because of major limitations in the diocesan program, it was necessary to move the program to Bayamón, where the students attended the newly opened Dominican School of Theology.
Fr. Patrick Sheils, a retired confrere from England, who had been Rector of the Rome House of Studies, was the first Novice Master, but the program failed to function as hoped and Fr. Sakovich was sent to Duquesne University to prepare himself for the next novitiate class, and Fr. Neil McQuillan assumed the directorship of the formation house.
One innovation was the organizing of one hundred mile walks around the Island to raise consciousness of the need for priests and missionaries. For several years, we had about 100 young men walk during the course of a week from one Spiritan parish to another. The trek took us right over the central mountain range. These activities were covered by the press, radio and television and helped make us more known around the island.
Later candidates from Brazil joined our own students in our novitiate program. Fr. Antonio Larangeira was invited to accompany the students from Brazil since Fr. John was unfamiliar with their culture. During the year, Fr. John died suddenly of an aneurysm while playing basketball with some of the novices, and Fr. Antonio was asked to continue as Novice Master. Under Fr. Antonio´s leadership, a Formation Guide was written and established for the Foundation of Puerto Rico and our program began to flourish. We eventually had all three levels of formation functioning at capacity, for which it was decided to build a larger residence for first level students.
The new seminary was dedicated on February 2, 1990, and had room for 14 students. Unfortunately, the same day as the dedication, we received word that one of the members of our first missionary team to Brazil had died during surgery for a stomach condition that he suffered. With the declining number of candidates, the building was never used at full capacity. At present it is being leased as a medical facility for the chronically ill. Providentially, it is the income from this rental that has kept the Foundation out of debt and able to function.
The novitiate became international, and when Fr. Antonio returned to his loved Brazil, Fr. Victor Cabezas, former provincial of the Spanish Province assumed the role of novice master for several years, until the lack of candidates here forced the moving of the novitiate to Trinidad/Tobago, where our last candidate did his novitiate.
Mission “Ad Extra”
Students in different classes were sent for mission experiences to Mexico, Guadalupe, French Guyana and finally Brazil. Eventually three young members of the Foundation received their first missionary assignments to Brazil, where they worked as a team in a parish outside of Sao Paulo. A year later a second team was sent to a parish in Ceilandia, just outside Brasilia, the Capitol.
Sending our younger members abroad meant many sacrifices in Puerto Rico. Parishes had to be returned to the dioceses, but we all agreed that the young members needed a solid experience of mission ad extra, so that when they came back to Puerto Rico, their ministry would be realized with a sense of the universal mission of the Church.
At the beginning of Fr. Jose’s administration, a new International Mission was opened in Santo Domingo with a Puerto Rican, Fr. Jonas Rivera, born in Delaware, assigned to the pioneer team. Later, Fr. Carmelo, our last priest ordained, was sent to Tefé, the mission that he requested, in the Amazon, where he just completed his first term of three years. He was just chosen to open a new parish in Manaus, Brazil, where they hope to open a house to receive candidates to the Congregation.
In the meantime we needed help, which was given by two confreres from Nigeria. One was sent with Fr. Neil McQuillan to a rural parish in Arecibo, which we administered during approximately ten years. The other joined the team at the Sanctuary of the Holy Spirit. When the Nigerians completed their commitment with us, they were replaced by confreres from Haiti. Unfortunately, the Haitians were not able to integrate themselves as effectively as the Nigerians, and they returned to Haiti before they could be replaced. The parish had to be returned to the diocese. Fr. Neil was sent to replace Fr. Oswaldo who was asked to substitute as the director of the formation house in Mexico City, then was called to serve on the General Council.
So at present we continue to work in the Fatima parish of Orocovis and the Sanctuary of the Holy Spirit in Dorado. There remains only a remnant of the many members from the American Eastern Province, who have labored in Puerto Rico.
Fr. Tosello Giangiacomo is retired and helping in Orocovis. He was the founder of the Arecibo Campus of the Catholic University and eventually became President of the entire University, which he directed for more than two decades. Fr. Edward Caron is retired and living in the Sanctuary and continues to help the parish of Dorado, celebrating a Sunday English Mass. Thanks to a generous bequest made through Fr. Ed’s efforts, we were able to purchase a beach house which is now available for the fathers on their free days and for meetings. Finally, Fr. Neil McQuillan is Rector of the Sanctuary, a part-time lecturer at the Arecibo Campus, as well as a published author on the problem of sexual abuse of minors.
All of us in Puerto Rico wonder about the future. We pray for young people that they will accept the call to a religious missionary life, but we are working hard with the lay people who frequent the Sanctuary. Brother Irving is accompanying a group of lay missionaries, founded by Fr. Jonas, who organize projects and raise funds for our missions. Fr. Orlando was named Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies and is doing an admirable job in spite of difficult roadblocks.
We have pages on the web: www.espiritanos.com and www.santuario-del-espiritu-santo.com. We even have a non-profit project of selling canceled postage stamps on eBay: Holy Spirit Missionaries Puerto Rico, with proceeds going toward the support of our overseas members.
Thus in spite of the absence of candidates, there is an optimism in the group, which had decided in a recent meeting to redouble our efforts at recruitment, while continuing our mission animation programs aimed at the laity. We place our trust in the Holy Spirit and are confident that although Spiritans will come and go, as we have since our arrival in Puerto Rico, the Holy Spirit is the constant and faithful overseer of all authentic Christian ministry and in particular that of the Spiritans.
By Cornelius (Neil) T. McQuillan, C.S.Sp., Psy.D.
In 1931, the first Spiritans, Fathers William Duffy, Christopher Plunkett, (who was later named Provincial back in the States), Joseph Boyd and Regis Guthrie, set about learning Spanish and found Arecibo to have a large church (now the Cathedral of San Felipe) in rather poor condition and with no rectory. The parish covered 125 square miles and 18 outlying barrios, which had only three chapels. Of the 50,000 inhabitants, 18,000 lived in the small city.