The Salvatorians were happy with their old formation house. It had charm, character, smack dab in the heart of Franklin, and close to Sacred Heart School of Theology, where many of the men attended seminary.
However, the Society of the Divine Savior, founded by Fr. Francis Jordon in 1881, had a unique problem. It was growing in vocations and needed room to accommodate the men in varying stages of formation.
Tucked alongside Miller Valley, in the heart of Milwaukee, at 937 N. 37th St., the Salvatorians have settled into life in their new Holy Apostles Formation House. The house is an answer to prayer for U.S Provincial Salvatorian Fr. Joseph Rodrigues, who was trying to find space for new candidates.
“We had decided in May to purchase a new home, and it was providential for us that the Sacred Heart Fathers had owned this building before us,” he explained. “We needed no renovations because they had done something we had talked about doing years ago, and that was finding an apartment complex that would provide different units so the guys could have private living space here as well as communal areas to eat, pray and recreate together.”
The Holy Apostles Formation House has capacity for 20 men and is home to three professed Salvatorians and 13 men in various stages of priestly and brotherly formation. In addition, three novices live in a separate community house in St. Francis.
Diverse group inhabits home
The men are as diverse as the countries from which they come, said Fr. Rodrigues, who explained those in U.S formation come from Mexico, Haiti, Nigeria, Honduras, the United States and the Philippines.
“We have a former Trappist monk, an Army sergeant, interior designer, professional musician and arts executive, nuclear medicine technologist, missionary, airline flight attendant and supervisor,” said Fr. Rodrigues, adding, “And they have many diverse hobbies, such as dancing, reading, music, hiking, body surfing, rock climbing and spending time with friends.”
Each of the men, who range in age from 25 to 60, strives to emulate Fr. Jordan’s vision to form a religious order, global in scope and inclusive of all people of all nations. In addition to attending school at Cardinal Stritch, UW-Milwaukee or Sacred Heart, the men minister in the community and find the central location brings them closer to the people in need.
While the travel time to Holy Apostles is longer for those attending Sacred Heart, Salvatorian Br. Benjamin Babb enjoys his short commute to UW-Milwaukee where he is working toward his master’s in literature and cultural theory.
Before entering religious life, he managed a small business and worked in the restaurant industry. While in his early 30s, Br. Babb realized he was called to a religious vocation, but wasn’t drawn to a contemplative, cloistered or monastic order. He found the Salvatorian order to be a good fit, and he realized early on that he was not interested in a sacramental vocation, but instead felt called to be a religious brother.
Residents open arms to new neighbors
“Living in the city is helpful in finding ways to express my call by engaging in society and ministry in the city,” said Br. Babb, who could make his final vows in 2014. “It is life giving for everyone, no matter what stage of formation. I enjoy helping with St. Ben’s prison chaplaincy, and helping at the UWM campus by working with freshmen and sophomores to improve their writing skills, and helping out at the Guest House in Milwaukee assisting in the computer lab for guys who need help finding jobs.”
Fitting into the neighborhood has been pleasant and welcoming, said Br. Babb, who, while moving in, met several people who said they were happy the Salvatorians would be their neighbors.
“Some of them were afraid of who would move in, but it means a lot to them that we are a religious community as the neighborhood can be kind of marginal with some crime,” he explained. “The homeowners are reassured and it is a good thing, eliminating some uncertainly about who would be living next to them. It is unique to have a religious community in a town where there isn’t anything like this and it’s mutually beneficial as we can help each other. Living in the suburbs might be comfortable and quiet, but it is not the most effective way for us to live. We are more in touch with the community now, and feel like we can belong here.”
For Daniel Salinas, a neighborhood resident for 24 years, the arrival of the Salvatorians brings a sigh of relief.
“It was a big relief to know that a decent neighbor was moving in and would interact positively with the community. The neighborhood breathed a huge ‘Thank God,’” said Salinas. “I met with one of the men, Br. Benjamin Babb, and love knowing someone like him is living in the building.”
Life’s answer found in childhood faith
After trying to get ahead, to be number one and falling into dark times, the financially savvy Honduran-born Mario Lainez returned to the roots of his childhood and remembered the sweet voice that spoke to his heart long ago.
“I was working in financials, insurance and real estate and thought money was the answer for my happiness, but it was never enough,” he admitted. “I went through a really bad time and lost almost everything I had. When I got back on my feet again, I saw that I was going to the same place I was before and realized that this life would never be enough for me. I would never be happy with the car I had, the house I had, the clothes I had, so I began to think about what I wanted to be when I was a little kid and not affected by life.”
He realized God called him to the priesthood at an early age, and he remembered his desire to serve God was strong, but it seemed that each time he attempted to follow that path something stopped him.
“When I was 40, I prayed and told God that when I had a bad time, he gave me everything I wanted and now I wanted to give him something, so I began looking into religious orders,” he explained. “I accidentally walked into the Salvatorian booth at a vocations fair and planned to stay there just five minutes. I stayed two hours and while there, they gave me a biography of Fr. Francis Jordan. I read it and that was it – I never felt connected until I read this.”
As a child, his grandmother helped him by telling him to think of hugging the cross when times were tough. Fr. Jordan mentioned living under the shadow of the cross in his biography, and that phrase reminded Lainez of his grandmother’s teaching and his call to the Salvatorian order.
Moving to the larger home was daunting at first, as Lainez was comfortable in the quiet St. Francis location, but he realized God would never move him from a good situation to a bad situation, so he went with a positive attitude.
“It was difficult to live with new people, but we are here and sharing our lives and stories, our anger, fear and happiness with each other and somehow, we all understand each other,” said Lainez, in his third year of formation. “It has been great and has taught me to trust God more. We are also much closer to the people and our ministries. We are near people with real problems who need help, love and care. I am blessed to help teach CCD and help with the Sunday liturgy at St. Adalbert Parish and then I travel once a month to Indiana to help with reflection of the Masses at a Polish Salvatorian parish.”
Stories of conversion are common
The stories of conversion and desire to serve God in the Salvatorian order ring home to Fr. Rodrigues, who recalled the pull to the priesthood despite his own intentions.
“I always tell others that for me, God was like the annoying telemarketer,” he said, laughing. “I would tell him I wasn’t his type, but he would call again. For a while, I thought I wanted the American dream — the house, the picket fence, the family and the money. But one day, I got the feeling that it was God’s last call for me. I felt him say to me, ‘You can do what you want. I will always love you, but I won’t bother you anymore.’ That did it; the minute he said he wouldn’t bother me, I wanted to hear from him and suddenly I realized that I wanted to serve him.’”
Nearly filling Holy Apostles with priest and brother candidates after a period of desert in religious vocations is exciting and curious for Fr. Rodrigues, who believes many more men and women are considering religious life for a variety of reasons.
“Men and women are looking more deeply into the meaning of life and it is hitting harder to them, given the complexities of the world,” he said, adding, “Given what is going on in today’s world, these men who are coming to the Salvatorians truly want to make a difference. They want to serve, influence, guide, and have an effect on the world – and religious life is a way for them to make an impact in a very meaningful and significant way. They do not want to do it alone, but with a community of dedicated, compassionate men who are real.”
The name Holy Apostles is fitting for the formation house as the apostles are the patrons of the Salvatorian Society, and the apostles were the first teachers of the faith. The Salvatorians seek to become apostles in modern time to make Jesus known to all people.
“We have the Divine Savior, Mary, St. Joseph, who is the patron of our brothers, and the apostles, who are patrons of our society,” said Fr. Rodrigues. “It goes back to the fact that all baptized are called to be apostles and we really model that diversity. It’s nice now that we have a number of guys from here and other cultures to create this international community. Universality was part of our charism and the founder was part of unifying the world. It is a challenge to live together with diversity, but the guys are wonderful as they are a great example of what living in a community can be.”