At the Lord’s service: Luis Duarte

Story By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Photo By Frank J. Methe, Clarion Herald

On May 18 at St. Louis Cathedral, five seminarians of the Archdiocese of New Orleans will be ordained as transitional deacons – the final step before ordination to the priesthood. The ordinands are Sylvester Adoga, Luis Duarte, Dennis Obienu, Luis Valencia and John Yike. The Ordination Mass will be live-streamed at nolacatholic.org.

Luis Duarte

Age: 29

Hometown: Bucaramanga, Colombia

Diaconate internship: St. Clement of Rome, Metairie

Most looking forward to:  “Showing the people of God we have good men who want to be holy, who want to be saints. My main purpose of becoming a priest – to show the people of God that we can be holy.”

An ‘angel’ became his  encouragement

An “angel” named Dominga, who was in hospice in Colombia, dispelled any trepidations young seminarian Luis Duarte had about becoming a priest.

Dominga had cancer, one leg amputated and could barely see or hear, but “she was loving, she was smiling all the time and singing.”

Whenever Duarte greeted her with, “Hello, Dominga,” he received an instant embrace and laughter, and she asked who he was.

“I said, ‘I am Luis, I am a seminarian,’ and she just looked at me and thanked me for seeing her,” Duarte said.

Duarte was overcome with emotion. He thought, “OK, God, you want me to be a doctor of these souls. I am not going to be a medical doctor.’ … I discovered my vocation in Dominga. She was my archangel Gabriel. God spoke to me through her. In that moment, I found out it was my way. It was a beautiful experience.”

In high school at Colegio San Juan de Girón in Colombia, Duarte was well on his path to becoming a doctor, especially after an aptitude test showed his strength in science. All that changed when, as a senior in 2006, he was invited by a nun to visit a seminary for missionaries. The nun was a friend of Father Vicente Duarte, his father’s brother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Bucaramanga, but not someone with whom he had discussed faith or the priesthood.

“I went and a missionary priest asked, ‘Luis, would you like to be a priest?’ I said, ‘No, I am going to be a medical doctor,’” Duarte said.

The priest insisted that Duarte had the quality and aptitude to become a priest.

A few months later, he was invited to the Seminario Mayor Arquidiocesano de Bucaramanga. The rector asked the same question: “Luis, would you like to be a priest?” Despite saying he wanted to study medicine, Duarte interviewed for admittance to the seminary and was accepted.

“It was very providential, it was God calling me,” Duarte said. “I told my mother, and she asked me the same thing: ‘Would you like to be a priest?’ I said, ‘No, I am going to study medicine.’ In that moment, I had a rare feeling. In January, I had to get my papers to the university to study medicine, but I didn’t do that. On Feb. 4, 2007, I got into the seminary.”

As a 17-year-old, he felt inferior to his classmates who knew more about the faith. After three days, he wanted to go home. A priest he encountered asked how he was doing, and Duarte told him, “I am leaving. This is not my vocation.”

“In this moment, you are in deep desolation,” the priest told him. “Don’t make a decision. Wait two weeks more. If you have the same feeling, go.”

In that visit to the hospice where he saw Dominga, he was also impacted by the joy surrounding an 8-year-old boy with Down syndrome and terminal brain cancer. His heart was changed.

“I want to just preach the Gospel of God,” he said, “and say to the people that God is alive. That he is in our brother, especially those who are suffering or poor and in need. God is there. … Like Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say, ‘In the flesh of the poor, Christ is there.’”

Duarte learned the reverence Colombians have for priests and their Catholic faith when accompanying a priest who celebrated seven Masses in one day, walking two hours to get to several churches.

“When I saw the faces of the people, it was beautiful,” he said. “The people were happy to see the body and blood of Christ and to receive them. I wanted to offer that to the people of God.” 

Duarte said it was Dominican Father Sergio Serrano, the Hispanic Apostolate director for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, who invited him to finish his priestly studies at Notre Dame Seminary. Even though he was worried about not knowing the culture or the language, he decided to come.

“I was called by God, and he called me to be here, so I ask God to give me strength and fidelity to my vocation for me to give my life to the people of the church all the days to the end of my life,” Duarte said.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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