Seminarians immersed in Spanish

Seminarian Matthew Cooke interact via the internet with a Spanish teachers in Guademala a couple of weeks ago in the Bishop Gerber Science Center at Newman University in Wichita. (Advance photos)

The Diocese of Wichita’s Spanish immersion program for its college-level seminarians is “brillante,” according to Sonja Bontrager.

“Father Chad Arnold carefully created the program to engage the men in the community and with families,” the assistant professor of Spanish at Newman University in Wichita said. “Our part at Newman is to help strengthen the seminarians’ communication skills so that they are prepared to serve in parishes where Spanish is spoken.”

The program introduces seminarians to families living in the community, Bontrager said. “It’s an immersion experience with connections in the diocese to host families and includes visiting a variety of parishes to participate in events made up of many Hispanic parishioners.”

The seminarian students take part in baptisms, quinceañeras, rosaries, and adorations, Bontrager said in late July as the program was coming to an end. “They get a sense of the community.”

Father Chad Arnold helped design program

Father Arnold is the director of Vocations for the Diocese of Wichita, and the assistant director of the St. Joseph House of Formation, the diocesan college seminary located on the St. Joseph Parish campus in Wichita.
Bontrager has helped coordinate the immersion program as it has evolved over several years.

“The men have been dedicated and energetic, joyful, and committed to speaking Spanish together in and outside of class,” she said. “I hope that by the end of the program, they are confident in their Spanish communication skills and that they will continue to practice and grow in the years to come.”

In addition to their bookwork, Bontrager said, the seminarians listen to guest speakers who visit the House of Formation or visit virtually about their experiences working in the Hispanic community, in parishes, and ministries such as Catholic Charities.

“For example, this weekend they are hearing from a priest who’s going to share about his own journey learning Spanish and how he has worked a lot on his own,” Bontrager said.

The seminarians attended class from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday during the summer session that concluded at the end of July.

Sister of St. Joseph assisted

A Sister of St. Joseph, Sister Lois O’Malley, helped Bontrager this summer in a one-room schoolhouse setting in the largest classroom at Newman, to allow for social distancing. The room is in the Bishop Gerber Science Center.

Sister Lois presented in Spanish the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ seven topics on Catholic social justice teaching, one of which was the topic of Life and Human Dignity.

“We try to design activities and lessons within them that the students can participate no matter what their level is in Spanish,” Bontrager said. “We don’t have any true beginners in our group this year.”

The group consists of Jesús Bañuelos, Matthew Cooke, Caleb Kuestersteffen, Tomas Nolla, Seth Arnold, and Miles Swigart, all seminarians for the Diocese of Wichita, and John Stang from the Diocese of Dodge City.
“They range from those who’ve had two years of Spanish to a native speaker who’s working on vocabulary that is not often used socially or at home,” she said.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays the Spanish students connected via Skype with instructors at a language school in Guatemala.

Students taught from Guatemala

“Each student has an individual teacher they work with, so those are the times that they get level-appropriate instruction specific to each seminarian’s particular needs,” Bontrager said.

The seminarians typically began the day interpreting the Gospel readings from Magnificat magazine, she said, because they will use those readings in their roles as priests.

“As we read it we work on pronunciation, we look at the grammar,” she said, for example identifying which of the two kinds of past tenses Spanish has to use. “Or figuring out which kinds of words are more typical in church settings and which might be more typical in conversion.”

The seminarians also study grammar, for example, a particular verb tense or two, and have some written work.
“We’ve incorporated quite a bit of music,” Bontrager said. “One of the songs not only contains many grammatical elements to study, but is also popular in Spain and Latin America. So it’s one they’re likely to hear. We do a number of other pieces.”

The students cooked together – in Spanish, she said, preparing ingredients and working on instructions that provided not only extra vocabulary but the fellowship that comes from collaborating on a project.
In previous years the students studied at the Adorers of the Blood of Christ motherhouse in Wichita. The coronavirus pandemic prevented them from doing that this year.

Bontrager loved the summer program

“It has been an absolute joy to work with the seminarians and to collaborate with Sister Lois,” Bontrager said.

Tomas Nolla, who will be studying at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, in the fall, said the summer class was his fourth semester with “Profesora Bontrager.”

The five hour class days were daunting, he wrote via email, but often easier than some of his 50-minute philosophy classes.

“I’ve wanted to learn Spanish for a while, but could never devote the time needed to do so. This summer has been a grand opportunity for me to really dive in and go all out. It’s also been great for getting to know some of the Wichita seminarians who go to other schools, like Miles Swigart and Seth Arnold.”

He issued a “shoutout” to John Stang, a seminarian from the Diocese of Dodge City, who was part of the summer immersion program.

“Overall it has been a blast,” Nolla said.

Kuestersteffen comments

Caleb Kuestersteffen, who will be studying at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago in the fall, said the immersion also included community prayer in Spanish and Mass in Spanish.

The students were welcomed by local Spanish-speaking families they were assigned to for some meals and other family events, he said via email.

“We have also been able to join weekly with local rosary, Bible reflection, and charismatic groups – with the occasional wedding or baptism ceremony thrown in. Each Friday is spent in conferences and hearing reflections from local priests and community members who share their experiences within Hispanic ministry in our diocese.”

Adjustments have been made because of the pandemic, he said, and other events they might have participated in have been postponed or their attendance was limited. “We supplemented those days with more films in Spanish that explore important themes in the history and culture of South and Central America.”

A future trip may unite this year’s participants with the teachers from Guatemala they worked with virtually via computer, Kuestersteffen said. The teachers of Proyecto Lingüistico Quetxalteco school worked with the students for one hour on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

“This virtual instruction has been the biggest unexpected delight of the summer,” he said. “I am able to hone in directly to whatever I may need that day, be it a specific grammar element, or just conversational practice at my particular level – all with the same native speaker who lives 2,000 miles away.”

Kuestersteffen said his Spanish is more fluent as a result of the practice and he is more conversational.
“What I think is more important is my growing connection to native speakers right here in the diocese. It is one thing to be proficient in grammar or vocabulary, it is entirely more impactful to feel welcomed into a community that I knew so little about before. It takes no small amount of humility and trust to engage with another in a language that is different than your own, but the benefits in care and friendship have far outweighed any discomfort I might feel.”

That connection has a special place in priestly ministry, he said. “I have no doubt that the blessings planted this summer will continue to bear fruit throughout my life as both a seminarian and – God willing – a future priest.”

Cooke comments

Matthew Cooke, who will be studying at Mundelein Seminary in the fall, said the work was difficult but that he needed it.

“I had many days where my brain would simply shut off,” he said via email. “On those days I reminded myself why I am taking this summer in the first place – to minister to the Hispanic community here in Wichita.”

He added that when the going got difficult he put himself in the shoes of those in the Hispanic community “who have the same problems and difficulties…when they were learning English.”

Cooke said he has noticed a great improvement in his comprehension, speaking, and reading.
The class will allow him to be a flexible as a priest to serve the needs of all the faithful, he said.

“In our diocese there is an ever-growing Hispanic population,” Cooke said, adding that the language skills learned and the understanding of culture will be useful in his future service to the diocese.