Based in Buffalo's West Side in the parishes of Holy Angels, Holy Cross and Our Lady of Hope, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate dedicate themselves to community service in countries around the world in the example of the order's founder, St. Eugène de Mazenod. In the Diocese of Buffalo, several young men have taken an interest in joining religious life with this order.
Oblates established their first congregation in the United States at Holy Angels Parish 200 years ago. In all the areas they serve, a major part of the Oblates ministry is service to the poor. In Buffalo, the Oblates serve a diverse population, including immigrants and refugees on Buffalo's West Side
Brian Bernhardt, 19, is a second-year pre-novice living in Buffalo as he studies to join the Oblates. A native of Bloomington, Ill., he made the decision to enter religious life immediately after graduating from high school in 2014. Today, he is taking classes at D'Youville College in Buffalo and lives with five other pre-novices. His first experience with the Oblates was unlike those of his housemates, since he did not grow up in a parish staffed by members of his current religious order.
"Some of the guys I live with grew up in parishes where the Oblates serviced, but I'm not one of them," Bernhardt said. "My initial contact with the Oblates was actually from a letter in the mail. There was a campaign for our mission in Vietnam. I was in high school and discerning the priesthood and the possibility of religious life, but I had never met an Oblate before and that was my first experience with the idea. After praying about it, I contacted the vocation director in our area."
As he began to meet more and more Oblates in his formation, Bernhardt continued to pray. Soon after joining the order, he moved to Buffalo.
The Oblates have four regions in the country staffed by a regional director. The Diocese of Buffalo is included in a division that includes the northeast and southeast United States. The area's vocation's director, Father Daniel Nassaney, OMI, is based in Tewksbury, Mass. According to Father Alejandro Roque, OMI, an Oblate who serves in formation in Buffalo after moving from Florida, said becoming an Oblate begins with a program called "Come and See." In Buffalo, these take place in the fall. There are currently six men in the formation program in Buffalo, and the order is expecting eight to 10 more next year.
"It is for young men ages 17-18 and up, although they generally are between the ages of mid-20s to their 30s," Father Roque said. "There was a young man who turned 18, and one who is 40 years old who will be finishing this year That's the vocation program, either by meeting people, or reading online or in books about the missionary Oblates who are historical figures, and they may become interested."
As part of the formation program, the prospective Oblates must have a college degree, and the order is connected with D'Youville College. In college, students can study philosophy and need a certain amount of credit hours. It is free of charge for young men who are coming to study for religious life. They study for up to four years at D'Youville, or fewer for men who have a college degree. Father David Muñoz, OMI, parochial vicar of the three parishes, assists the order with vocations in Buffalo.
Bernhardt noted that many of the other men who are studying did not come directly out of high school, and could have had successful careers outside of religious life. One was previously an engineer, and many decided to give up their professions in order to become priests. In his own family, Bernhardt's father is a doctor, and some of his other family members also pursued careers in the medical field.
"I was really drawn by the Oblates' service to the poor in many areas," Bernhardt said. "It's not necessarily material poor, but in many places around the world that is the case, and I thought that was very inspiring, the stories I heard. As I've grown more and more into my understanding of the Oblates and met more and more Oblates, I've seen the witness of it."
Bernhardt also liked the idea of the Oblates working with different cultural groups, such as immigrants, who tend to be on the peripheries of society. In his house, he has a priest from southern Africa and Father Quilin Bouzi, OMI, the pastor of Holy Angels, Holy Cross and Our Lady of Hope, is an immigrant from Haiti. Father Roque came from Cuba as a 9-year-old boy.
Father Roque left Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro came to power because of the quiet efforts of the Catholic Church and U.S. government in Havana, who wanted to help Cuban children. After laity got involved, they got more than 14,000 children out of Cuba, including Father Roque in 1962.
Today, his vocation stems from adapting to life in a new country without his parents. As a teenager, he read books by Dr. Thomas Dooley, who opposed communism and helped refugees in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
"I decided I wanted to be a missionary Oblate like the ones Dr. Dooley worked with." Father Roque said.
Bernhardt called it a blessing to take part in the process of studying to be an Oblate which has provided him with both a wealth of experience and the chance to see life from diverse points of view.
"I don't know if anyone could say you have a résumé that qualifies you for the service that God calls you to, but it gives you a good source of purpose," Bernhardt said. "Although a lot of times I am in my academics, as we need to get the philosophy and studies which are important, it gives a really humble grounding for how to live and how to realize how fortunate we are."