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Sharing faith by ‘boot, boat and burro’

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SAN DIEGO — Father Tony Stanonik recently celebrated his 39th anniversary of priestly ordination.

He was ordained for the Diocese of San Diego on July 9, 1982. But he has served for more than 22 years in Nicaragua. He requested and received permission from the bishop of San Diego to serve as a missionary. He sees himself as “an outreach of our local Church,” essentially on “loan” to the bishop of Bluefields, Nicaragua.

Since 2003, he has been pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish in the Diocese of Bluefields on the Caribbean coast.

Father Stanonik spoke with The Southern Cross during his annual summer visit to San Diego, a trip that includes fundraising for projects for the Nicaraguan parish.

Question: What did the Catholic faith mean to you as a youth?

Answer: I was baptized Catholic, but wasn’t in the practice of going to church.

It was in high school that I was searching for answers to questions like: What is the meaning of life?

We were studying (American poet Henry David) Thoreau, maybe in 11th grade, and his line “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation” really hit me between the eyes. That’s the way most people live? That’s horrible. What a waste!

I started going to church, and the Mass really captivated me. There was some powerful mystery at work there, even though I didn’t quite understand it. I decided to go through catechism for first Communion and confirmation. For some people, it’s the adolescent rebellion to not want to go to church, but for me it was to go to church.

What did you find attractive about the priesthood?

My experience in high school was a pretty profound moment in my life. It was pretty clear to me that, if I was going to get into this faith stuff, it was sort of an all-or-nothing decision. Priesthood seemed to be the “all” end of that possibility. In some ways, that’s the very nature of love. If you love only halfway, what is that about?

How did you end up in Nicaragua?

I was feeling called to be a missionary in Cambodia. But a friend suggested that Nicaragua might be a good fit for me. I decided to go down there for three or four weeks to see what it was like.

That was in November of 1998. A week after I got there, Hurricane Mitch blew in and destroyed everything. Experiencing that tragic loss of life and property – not just the crops were washed away, but the soil was washed away – I thought, “Lord, if You need me here …”

How is being a pastor in Bluefields different than in San Diego?

The big difference is it’s not one church; it’s 25 chapels. Just getting around is a big part of the challenge. I travel by boot, boat and burro.

From St. Martin de Porres Parish in the town of Bluefields, I go up to Pearl Lagoon to visit the communities along the edge of the lagoon. From there, I go further north up the River Wawashang, where there are 14 villages at last count. Some of them are right on the river, but others require a couple hours’ journey inland.

I also take the ferry from Bluefields out into the Caribbean Sea for about 50 miles, because there are some islands out there, too. The trip takes about six or seven hours.

What have you learned from your parishioners in Nicaragua?

The faith of the people just touches me deeply.

It’s a lay Church. It’s the delegates, who lead Sunday services, and the catechists who really keep the community going on a daily, weekly basis.

They are people with seemingly so little, but what a wealth of love, of family, of faith! What a generosity of spirit! It’s humbling to be with them, and I just feel very honored to walk with them on their journey.

Support St. Martin de Porres Parish through the Diocese of San Diego’s Office for the Missions at (858) 490-8250 or missions@sdcatholic.org.

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