In a time when people need heroes, Buffalo's West Side has its own set of Avengers. Instead of colorful capes, these men wear black. A band of six Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate use Holy Angels Parish as a headquarters while they go out into the community to serve "where there is a need."
The Oblate community has chosen four cities to establish Domestic Mission Centers - Buffalo; New Orleans; Lowell, Mass.; Brownsville, Texas. Mission Centers are apostolic communities of approximately four to eight Oblates responsible for a particular institution, such as a parish, shrine or retreat center. Through community discernment and consensus, the Oblates will go beyond the institution by serving in a variety of other ministries - campus, prison, youth, homeless, immigrant groups, itinerant mission preaching, education, community organizing, vocation. These centers will continue to evolve to deal with their local communities.
"The idea of these mission centers is that we have a group of Oblates living together, working together, praying together, planning together using a ministry like the parishes here, but then trying to also go beyond the parishes to try to reach the neighborhood, the wider community, even more than Catholic," said Father Richard Sudlik, OMI, a member of the team.
Father Quilin Bouzi, OMI, serves as pastor of Holy Angels, Holy Cross and Our Lady of Hope parishes, the team's main institutions. Father Humphrey Milimo, OMI, and Father David Muñoz, OMI, assist him as parochial vicars. Father Sudlik, Father Alejandro Roque, OMI, and Father Stephen A. Vasek, OMI, help out at the parishes when needed, as well as serving the community.
Outside the parish, Father Sudlik leads Retrouvaille weekends, speaks at missions, practices social justice with VOICE-Buffalo Peace Keepers Circle and journeys with retreatants. Father Vasek is known for his preaching, which takes him around the diocese and often into Canada. Father Roque's main job is running the novitiate program. Next year they will see six men wishing to join the order living at Holy Angels and studying philosophy right next door at D'Youville College. Father Muñoz works with the Office of Cultural Diversity serving the Hispanic community. He recently spoke at Da Bounce urban rally.
Father Muñoz also works with a group of Oblate associates, a lay group of 40 who work alongside the team, helping out, again, where there is need.
"They learn the charism, the spirit of our founder (Eugene de Mazenod)," said Father Vasek. "They study that and they pray that. They come together on a monthly basis to do that, and then they take on activities in the community based on that, bringing his spirit into the world they live in. They are kind of like a right arm to us in helping us in the community."
The lay associates, who do not take vows but rather make a yearlong promise, work with African refugees, ministering to them so they feel welcomed. They also visit nursing homes. Often, they take it upon themselves to find a need they can serve. The lay associates are continuing the work of the Oblates in Florida even though the Oblates themselves have left the area.
The three parishes the Oblates staff are known for their minority population. Parishioners hail from Puerto Rico, Myanmar and all over Africa. Many are refugees fleeing from war-stricken countries and coming to a new country with a strange culture and unfamiliar language. Interpreters translate Mass to their communities. The sign of peace is said in seven languages.
"That's why we decided to stay in Buffalo," said Father Bouzi. "The West Side is changing. There are a lot of refugees, a lot of poor people living here on the West Side of Buffalo. We decided to work here on the West Side."
The Oblates still serve across the country, but have put an increased focus on mission centers.
"We work where there is a need," said Father Roque. "That's who we minister to as Missionary Oblates, those people on the sides because they are newly arrived; they don't understand, they're lost. That's our work. Our energies go there."
The mission center itself is as diverse as the neighborhood it serves. Two priests hail from the U.S., another two are from Puerto Rico, one is from Cuba and the pastor is from Haiti.
The message for the people of Buffalo is that the West Side of Buffalo is not dead.
"It is very much alive. There are a lot of things happening," said Father Vasek.
"The community is changing, but it's coming alive," said Father Bouzi. "We have a lot of young people in this community, which means there's hope."
Father Sudlik finds a challenge in reaching out into a community of non-parishioners.
"The West Side has a series of block associations and we are trying to connect with them to be present to them to see what needs they might present," said Father Sudlik. "We're used to people coming to us in the church. It's a little more difficult for us to go to them to find out where they are and who they are. That's what this group is about, trying to think of ways and challenge each other to get beyond the church door."