Interview with Fr. Pablo Hughes, OMI By Will Shaw
EDITOR’S NOTE: With the news that the Oblates are leaving Puerto Rico, I contacted Fr. Pablo Hughes, OMI, one of the Oblates who spent time as a missionary there. Fr. Hughes reminisced about his years there and some of the men he worked with. With some regret that time did not allow me to contact other Oblates who served in Puerto Rico, here are some of Fr. Pablo’s memories
“I spent basically my first 25 years as a priest in Puerto Rico, from 1975 to 2000. As a scholastic my first experience was in the summer of 1968 where the first seeds of the mission were sown, when I received a call from the then bishop of Caguas, Mons, Rafael Grovas, who I still clearly remember, he said, ‘Pablo I want you here in Ceiba!’ How could one refuse!” That’s how Fr. Paul (Pablo) Hughes describes the beginning of his years as a Missionary Oblate and his love of Puerto Rico.
When Fr. Hughes first arrived in Puerto Rico, the men serving there were Fr. John (Jack) King, Fr. Jim Sullivan and Fr. Leo Guilmette, who set up the mission and would become his mentors. Fr. Hughes learned from all three.
Fr. Jim Sullivan had come to Puerto Rico after serving in Brazil. “Fr. Jim gave us a powerful way of doing ministry, he said, the way any foreign mission succeeds is utilizing three elements, “Review,” “Plan” and “Dream.” Each week in your staff meeting talk about and review what had gone on the week before, plan specifically what you want to accomplish in the coming week and future, and assign who is responsible for what, finally, have a dreaming session about what you would like to be doing in the future. It forced us into a disciplined attitude about ministry,” said Fr. Hughes.
Fr. Jim Sullivan also told Fr. Hughes that when going from the U.S. to another culture, such as Puerto Rico, you’ll need five years to learn and understand the people, the culture and all its customs.
According to Fr. Hughes, Fr. King is the one who gave the mission a very theological and missionary thrust. His organizational skills were instrumental in setting up and organizing the mission. In addition, it was Fr. King who invited a group of IHM Sisters from Michigan, to become part of the team. “To me, it was really amazing to collaborate with men and women as a team. It gave a whole new dimension to missionary work by incorporating the gifts and perspectives of both male and female missionaries,” said Fr. Hughes.
From Fr. Leo Guilmette Fr. Hughes came to realize that Puerto Rico, as a U.S. territory is part of the U.S. yet by virtue of its culture, history and language is part of the Latin American reality as well. Fr. Guilmette described it as, “...sort of like playing two pianos: you must ally yourself with the U.S. reality and the Latin American reality playing both at the same time.” It helped Fr. Hughes realize the distinctiveness of the Puerto Rican mission, where he found himself in meetings and organizations in both the U.S. and Latin America, with their very different perspectives. He found it could be confusing on one hand, but on the other, it could also be very enriching.
Fr, Hughes spent his first 15 years assigned to a parish in the Diocese of Caguas, an area where Catholics were in the minority. The diocese and the Oblates put a great deal of emphasis on adult education, building a foundation of lay leadership for the future. This focus on educating adults in the faith is a ministry Fr. Hughes would continue in future missions in Colombia and Guatemala.
Fr. Hughes takes considerable pride in his collaborations with Catholic Sisters. He feels strongly that it gave the mission work a powerful added dimension. “That whole feminine, masculine dynamic, with all its problems, concerns, and tensions gave a really enriching experience of missionary work. I find it so difficult when I go somewhere and don’t see that, I think this is one of the reasons why the Church has problems because it lacks that masculine-feminine dimension,” said Fr. Hughes.
Does Fr. Hughes miss Puerto Rico? His memory is very vivid, “When I left in 2000, I remember giving the Provincial a call, it was the first time I really cried on the phone. I said my time is up in Puerto Rico. I just found it so difficult to leave. After I made that decision, I didn’t feel like I wanted to go back to the states and a whole different way of living. I still wanted to work in the Latin American area and that’s what I did, my next mission was in Colombia.”