By any other Name
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"; William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet
“Would you come up to the front of the class and tell everyone your name? It really is quite peculiar.” First day of school introductions, I think, have made most every child uncomfortable since there have been schools and first day introductions. My mother had already been fidgeting in her desk chair that first day of school in Kaukauna; but now it was even worse than imagined, as she had been directed to come up in front of everybody. She crept up to the front of the class, eyes down, turned toward the others and blurted out, “Mercedes LaBorde”. The teacher made her repeat the name and sound it out phonetically “Mer-sa-deez”. Finally, she was allowed to go back to her seat and try to disappear into it.
My mother told me that she never liked her name. Incidents, like this one from her youth, certainly didn’t help. I found out about it when my brother Tom told my mother that he and his wife Patti intended to name their newborn daughter after her. “Don’t you dare!” she snapped back. And then she shared the story above. My mother passed away on Christmas Eve, 1979; she never reconciled with her own name.
The year before I was ordained as a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Green Bay, I was assigned a deacon mentor – someone who was already ordained who would provide some additional real-life guidance as to what life as a deacon would be like. My assigned mentor was Deacon Paul Umentum, who also the point person in the Diocese for organizing an annual work group to go down to the Diocesan mission in Elias Pina in the Dominican Republic. The group visited each year to build a concrete-block chapel somewhere in Father Mike Seis’ assigned mission territory, so he had an actual church building to celebrate Mass and sacraments in when he was able to get to that area on his monthly rounds.
Deacon Paul started wearing me down to accompany him on one of these mission trips immediately at our first visit. He made strong points about the deacon’s call to service of the poor. I countered with practical arguments like the financial cost and the reality that it would take more than half of my allotted vacation time from work. It took him five years, but finally I ran out of excuses. And so, I found myself with nine other people – half lay and half deacons, on a plane bound for Santa Domingo. From there we rode a cramped bus about four hours to Elias Pena which is literally right on the Haiti/Dominican Republic border.
We were headquartered in Elias Pena, but each morning after breakfast and prayers we hopped into an open-bed truck full of building supplies and tools, and drove another 90 minutes to the worksite. While the area of the building site had the name of La Carerra, there was nothing that would have identified it as a village as people in the States think of a village. It was simply a loose collection of several very modest homes that typically consisted of an open middle section where meals were prepared and a bedroom to each end separated by a curtain.
A local contractor had prepared the site by pouring a cement slab. Our task was to construct the four walls from cement blocks and also to build and place the roof trusses. The work was dirty, heavy and difficult. The mornings were relatively cooler, but the temperature rose as quickly as the sun so that it was well into the 90’s by midday. It was wise to drink as much water as possible.
The locals were excited and a bit curious about the project; there was usually a small group that gathered throughout the day to check our progress. They supported our efforts by providing very nourishing noon meals that consisted mainly of rice and beans but there was always enough seasoned broth to make it flavorful. Sometimes they changed things up and served us beans and rice. Daisy, the unofficial village matron, kept us well-fed, often piling more on your plate if she thought you weren’t eating enough.
The dirt road was busiest in the early morning as local children rode their burros, laden with plastic water bottles, the half mile down to the bottom of the hill to an aqueduct that brought water from the mountains. There was a small concrete block school in the village, but the children only attended two of the 17 days we worked there because, like Father Mike, the teacher also traveled a circuit.
Every evening after dinner we went out into the barrio where Father Mike had spread the word that there would be a Mass that evening. A couple of times we celebrated Mass in a chapel that one of the previous work crews had built. I noticed that each chapel had its name modestly painted on the side of the building. On other evenings we were simply in an opening of a plantain or banana grove, once we were even in someone’s front yard. No one could afford musical instruments, so when everything was ready for Mass, there was the spontaneous outbreak of song accompanied by rhythmic clapping. Our group of ten gringos, none of which spoke Spanish, did our best to blend in by keeping the correct beat with our clapping. I know that I didn’t do well at blending in, or with keeping the correct rhythm, but they were some of the most spiritually uplifting and joy-filled Masses that I have ever attended.
The spiritual highlight of the trip came on the afternoon that we finished the chapel. Padre Miguel had enough confidence in us to schedule a Mass in our new chapel ahead of time and arrange for four baptisms to be celebrated. We’re not sure where everyone came from because many more people showed up for the Mass than we had seen during our time there. They came by foot, by truck, by motorcycle and even on horseback. Everyone was dressed in their best clothes except our work crew. We were still sweeping the floor and a work crew from Haiti was still finishing the sheet metal roof, when Padre Miguel arrived. It was a joyous scene, and I am convinced that even the Holy Spirit was clapping along.
The next morning, as we gathered one last time for breakfast and prayer I asked Father Mike what the name of the chapel that we had built would be? “Nuestra Madre de Mercedes (Our Mother of Mercy),” he replied. Beautiful. I knew that it was no coincidence that I was there.