God’s Hands and Feet in Latin America – Oblate Missions

God’s Hands and Feet in Latin America

Meet Father Nick, Missionary Oblate

My name is Fr. Nick Harding, and I am a Missionary Oblate priest.

After more than a decade as a diocesan priest, I joined the Oblates in 2007 and was promptly assigned to the La Morita mission in Tijuana, B.C., Mexico. I had traveled the world to find my true calling, and I realized it was right across the border, with some of the poorest and most beautiful people in the world.

Our Tijuana mission is a neighborhood of about 200,000 people. Homes are made of scrap wood and metal. A drug war has engulfed the region for the past several years, resulting in the murder of 1,000 local residents annually. The survivors live in constant fear for their safety.

In addition to caring for the spiritual needs of the people of Tijuana, the Oblates also help provide healthcare for the poor. A medical clinic established by the Oblates is a lifeline for local residents. The numbers of people served there annually are staggering:

  • 1,031 people consulted with the social worker.
  • 2,380 patients were treated for mental health issues.
  • 2,818 patients visited the dentist.
  • 9,333 patients were treated by the doctor.
  • 59,965 people were provided with food.

When I wasn’t providing for the physical needs of people, I spent much of my time in La Morita traveling to the Oblates’ 15 chapels, where we celebrate Mass more than 20 times a week. The chapels are made of discarded building material. Leftover office chairs, tattered and speckled with paint, serve as seating. Cracks between the plywood walls offer the only ventilation on hot days. The jagged gravel serves as both the church floor and as kneelers for the faithful.

I remember one particularly difficult day when I was Pastor of San Eugenio Parish. I had a funeral for a two-year-old boy who died in a home accident. On the same day, I also had a funeral for a 35-year-old woman who died of leukemia, as well as a funeral Mass for a 38-yearold man who died of meningitis. The quality of healthcare, and access to it, is not remotely comparable to what is available right across the border in San Diego. These people would probably not have died if they lived just a few miles north.

I ministered in Tijuana for eight years before deciding that at age 64 I needed a new challenge.  So I was sent to minister in the Andes Mountains of Peru. My new home became a region that has snow-capped mountains all year long, a major climate change from the desert-like conditions of Tijuana.

In 2019, I returned to the United States and became a missionary in my home country. This was rewarding work, but I still felt called to the foreign missions. So earlier this year I arrived in my current mission — Cuba.

I am joined in Cuba by three other Oblates. One of them is Fr Roger Halle, OMI who is also an American. As Oblates we evangelize humbly by simple presence with the Holy Eucharist, apostolic community and contemplative prayer along with adoration. We find ourselves as representatives of God, lifting up all the people among the complex reality of this island nation.

The Oblates began ministering in Cuba in 1997. Much of our work during the early years was focused on restoring parishes in rural parts of the country. The government still limits the scope of our ministries. Evangelization is very difficult. The Church needs to be Iglesia en salida (Church that goes out), but legally is restricted. At Sunday Masses there are about 25 people in attendance, mostly elderly. But things are slowly changing.

I have not taken this journey alone. God has been by my side, a constant source of strength. My brother Oblates have been a source of inspiration. And friends like you have been my co-missionaries, offering prayers and financial support so that I can work among the poorest of the poor.