“It Rains in the Classroom”: How Mission Tradition Is Persevering to Teach Children in Colombia - Mission Tradition

People in the poorest areas of Colombia have traditionally leaned on their Catholic faith to guide them through life’s hardships. But as dangerous ideologies invade these regions, it’s becoming common to meet Catholics who no longer practice the faith and believe that their safest path to happiness is to make more money.

That’s why Mission Tradition is sharing the traditional Catholic faith by operating St. Dominic Savio Rural School in Anolaima,Colombia. The school’s chaplain, Fr. Jesus Valenzuela, FSSP, attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary and was ordained in 2019. After spending two years at his first assignment in Guadalajara, Mexico, he moved to our Colombia mission nearly one year ago.

Mission Tradition staff recently spoke with Fr. Valenzuela to get an update on his work in Colombia. Here are highlights of that conversation. We hope his story will inspire you to support Mission Tradition.

Mission Tradition: Father, where are you from originally?

Father Valenzuela: I’m from Mexico, from a town called Delicias in Chihuahua. I moved from Delicias to El Paso, Texas when I was 14 and then joined the seminary in Nebraska at the age of 21.

MT: Did you attend the FSSP apostolate in El Paso?

FV: That wasn’t established yet, so I started with a diocesan priest who offered the Latin Mass regularly. That was my first step towards my vocation as a priest.

MT: What can you tell me about the history of the mission in Colombia?

FV: The apostolate started as an initiative from one of our European priests, Fr. Angel Alfaro Rivero. He was sent down here to Colombia to find opportunities for the establishment of an FSSP community. But as time went by, Father opted for establishing a school for poor people because this is a very rural area. The opportunities for the people around here are very scarce, so he wanted to do something different to help the overall community. He started with one classroom with seven students. And then after a while, the school started to expand because of the number of parents in the area who wanted a Catholic education for their kids. And after a few years, they built a whole school with 15 classrooms.

We now have 240 students. We have three kindergarten grades, and then there’s another stage called Transition. And then after that, we have the whole elementary school from first grade through fifth grade, and then we have middle school and high school. So we have all grades in our school for a total of 240 students.

MT: Are you in charge of all this?

FSSP Colombia, Traditional Latin Mass in Anolaima, Colombia

FV: Thankfully, no! I’m just a chaplain for the school. I take care of all the spiritual needs of the students. You know, hearing confessions, organizing Masses, and helping our students with spiritual problems. Father Elvis Ruiz Silva, FSSP, who’s a Colombian priest with the Fraternity, is in charge of the school and the whole apostolate.

I teach all religion classes. So I teach once a week, all grades from the lowest level all the way to eleventh grade in high school. That’s 10 to 15 classes.

MT: What are the biggest financial needs of the Colombian apostolate right now?

FSSP Colombia, procession through Anolaima

FV: Part of our mission here is to provide not just education but also something that helps the whole region because this is a rural area that’s very agricultural. There’s a lot of farming here. But unfortunately, the people have stopped growing food. It’s very poor so they go for the money. They grow things for exportation, and meanwhile the local area lacks food. And so part of our mission here is to instill in the students a sense of trying to help their community, their region as a whole, and to help them develop a love for that community.

For example, we have a new program where our elementary school students go to other low-income schools and teach them how to grow food and take care of animals. They teach them about cooking and other things they’ve learned here in the school. So their knowledge doesn’t stay here, it goes out to the whole region. And the whole region gets to know the FSSP as well.

Our schools are very different from the schools in the United States. If you go to a school in the U.S., it’s very well equipped. They have everything! But here, we can work with scraps. We work with whatever we have. Right now, we’re trying to build a multipurpose gym for the kids to have sports and other events as well as to work on their farming activities.

Saint Dominic Savio Rural School in Anolaima, Colombia.  15 classrooms

We’re also trying to develop a new wing for the school because we’re running out of space. The students almost don’t fit anymore. And we need space for offices and other types of work. We would also like to expand the chapel and fix the many leaks we have in there.

MT: Is your school so crowded that you have to turn away students?

FV: Yes, in some grades we have had to tell families, “We’re sorry, there’s not enough room. Try again next year.”

MT: So the supporters of Mission Tradition can be the ones who make a good education possible for Colombian children! If they help you expand your school and maybe hire more teachers, then they can change the life of a child in Colombia.

Classroom Saint, small alter

FV: Oh, definitely! Some of our students aren’t Catholic. And quite a few others are Catholic but their families are not practicing. When they come to our school, they don’t yet have a sense of duty towards God, or they’re just troubled kids. But then they step into a Catholic atmosphere. How do we start the day? Everyone prays a morning prayer and then goes to their classes. At noon, the bell rings and we pray the Angelus. In religion class, we always start and finish with a prayer. In every classroom there’s a mini altar dedicated to a patron saint. So they have that presence in their lives.

So, with all these little things we do and all these events, students start to develop a Catholic identity and they improve in many ways. That’s why many of the parents like our school because we’re not just Catholic in name, but also in practice. We actually try to keep up with the students and get involved with them. And during the breaks in the school day, there’s a priest with a loudspeaker calling out, “Confessions! Confessions!” We’ll hear the confessions of all the kids. It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s helping many of the kids to get a sense of the importance of being Catholic and loving God. We adopt the philosophy of Don Bosco and we try to implement it in our school teaching system.

MT: Father, what effect are you seeing on the families of these children?

FV: I think the families are experiencing many positive effects. Quite often, they receive the faith from their children. Many of our professors tell me, “Father, it’s great to see how the students go home and say, ‘Mom, we have to go to Mass,’ or ‘Mom, we have to pray.’”

FSSP Colombia, Student and family at Saints Alter in their home

The kids catechize their own parents and families. You would think this is impossible, right? Because so many of the kids come from broken family backgrounds that are just unbelievable. But overall, the parents seem to think, “Well, this is a Catholic school, I can trust the education of my children to these people.” And through their children, they start to see the importance of practicing their faith and taking their lives a bit more seriously.

Also, the parents get involved here in the school. For example, we’ll send home a Lenten message for them and invite them to gather at the school, and then we’ll give them a catechetical lesson. So our school doesn’t just care for students, but also transmits the faith through them to their parents.

MT: How has attendance been at your Masses?

FV: Well, it’s been very hard to increase because of the situation with Traditiones Custodes. We’re not a parish. We have a chapel in the school, and that’s about it. The bishop is not supportive. In the local parishes, they tell the priests not to let us celebrate Mass there. And some of the people have even been told not to come to us. So we’ve been very limited. But more people are starting to learn about the traditional Mass. We’ve started seeing some increase in attendance at our Sunday Masses, and people seem to want to learn more about the traditional Mass.

MT: I know you need to buy equipment for the students as well as teaching materials. Can you tell me where you need the help of our donors?

St. Dominic Savio School, protecting equipment from the rain in the classroom

FV: Our school is run mostly on charity. Families in this area simply don’t have much money. We try to keep the expenses as low as possible but also try to cover for the basic needs of the school. But that’s not enough because there are always extra things we need. For example, we need new desks for the students. We could also use new chairs for our professors because every time I sit on one of them, I think, “Man, this is awful!”

Also, we need classroom materials such as posters on different topics, especially the sciences.  And we need better science labs so that we can do more activities that will encourage the academic growth and skills of the students. We should also invest in some computers for upcoming projects.

CCDSD Full Classroom with protective plastic over windows.

Even more significantly, some of the rooms here in Colombia are built so that part of the room is exposed to the open air. And sometimes when it rains, it rains in the classroom too. So the students have to put a plastic cover over the windows and scoot their desks over to the other side of the room.

MT: I understand your chapel only holds about 70 students, so it can’t fit the whole school on the big feast days.

St. Dominic Savio School Chapel holds 70.  FSSP Colombia would like to enlarge the chapel to host all the school students for Mass

FV: Right, exactly. Once a week, we have our students come to Mass on a school day. But we have to do it by grades because not everybody fits at once. Sometimes, we have a big feast day such as Our Lady of the Rosary or Corpus Christi and we want to do a big procession. But it’s very difficult because the whole school doesn’t fit inside the chapel. So we can’t have Mass for the whole school.

The other Catholic churches in the area won’t let us have Masses there—they’ll only let us in for Eucharistic Adoration or other devotions, but not Mass. This is why we need to expand the chapel. We would like it to hold at least 300 people, which means it would need to be about four times its current size.

MT: Can you estimate how big you could see the school getting in the future?

FV: I know that there have been discussions about opening a new grade for kids who are three years old. But right now, we don’t have the space or the staff to add on grades. If we can get enough funding to expand, we could envision accepting 280 more students someday.

MT: Like those of us in the U.S., you’re up against some harmful ideologies that are corrupting families in Colombia. How is that battle going?

FV: One of the big ones is the rejection of marriage. Here in the area, people don’t get married, they just get together. If I ask a young man, “I notice you have a serious girlfriend. When are you going to get married?” he might tell me, “Oh, maybe in 20 years. We’re just going to live together first.”  

There’s also the popular idea that you don’t have to practice your faith to be a good Catholic. There’s a lot of ignorance in this area. There’s also a lot of Eastern spirituality that’s creeping in. And of course, there’s materialism. People here are generally very poor, and many of them only dream of making a lot of money. They want to base their lives on how much stuff they have or how many places they’ve visited.

We’re also fighting the homosexual agenda, the liberal agenda, and even the socialist mindset. These evils may be worse in the U.S., but here it’s catching up. Harmful media is everywhere. Most of the kids here don’t read—they just watch YouTube and do TikTok and all those stupid things. So these “influencers” are their main sources of information. We try to tell them, “Don’t listen to this person online who didn’t go to school and knows nothing about life. It doesn’t work like that!” But we’re fighting a very powerful and harmful culture.

MT: What has been the impact of your agricultural education programs?

FV: The program I mentioned where elementary school kids visit nearby rural schools to teach them the importance of growing food is called the Mary Help of Christians program. The children are learning that growing food is something they can do for the good of their neighbor and the whole community, and to help Colombia. That’s one big fruit of the program.

Another fruit is that people in the area are seeing that our school is really involved in the life of the community. Some people have thought that our school has lots of money and is a school for “rich people.” That is false. Through our outreach, they’re starting to see that what we teach here doesn’t stay here—it goes out to the whole community to benefit their lives. And our students get that sense of helping others and helping their country rather than just thinking about making money. 

MT: Overall, Father, what are the most urgent needs in the Colombian apostolate?

FV: Our most urgent needs are around building infrastructure, especially building a new wing for the school and expanding the chapel. These are our most important projects. The cost of this construction would be about $100,000.

Whatever happens, we’ll just try to keep our work going. Providence always has its ways of providing. The thing about the people here in Colombia is that they really care about their schools. And so the parents often ask, “How can we do a fundraiser for the school? How can we help with this project?” And the school itself has other activities. For example, for the Feast of Corpus Christi, we had a big event at a local gym. People from all around the city came and bought things from us and watched our presentation. These kinds of events help us raise money.

CCSDS Parent meeting.  The parents do everything they can to support the school, its students, and staff

Whatever happens, we’ll just try to keep our work going. Providence always has its ways of providing. The thing about the people here in Colombia is that they really care about their schools. And so the parents often ask, “How can we do a fundraiser for the school? How can we help with this project?” And the school itself has other activities. For example, for the Feast of Corpus Christi, we had a big event at a local gym. People from all around the city came and bought things from us and watched our presentation. These kinds of events help us raise money.

The parents are very involved in the work of the school and the education of their kids. If we can’t raise enough money, our work will carry on somehow, but we won’t be able to do as much as we would like. For example, we won’t be able to expand our chapel or play sports with the kids on the grounds.

MT: If you could say one thing to the donors of FSSP Mission Tradition, what would it be?

FV: My friends, you are making a big difference by helping the children here in Colombia, not just to give them an outstanding education, but also to help them love and live the Catholic faith. This is influencing their families and the whole region around our school. The effect of this school is not just intellectual—it’s more spiritual than anything else. By helping our school, you’re helping this whole region. Please continue your support. Thank you for all your hard work and sacrifice.

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You can help Fr. Valenzuela and his fellow priests transform a whole region of Colombia by teaching schoolchildren the traditional Catholic faith!

Our Colombian mission needs to add more classrooms so that it can teach up to 280 more children and expand the chapel so that it can fit the entire school.

No gift is too small as any gift you send will bring us closer to meeting these needs.