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Many priests throughout the history of the Church in America have felt the call to be a missionary in this country: Bishop Simon Bruté of France, St. Junipero Serra of Spain and St. Damien de Veuster of Belgium.
Add transitional Deacon Nicolas Ajpacaja Tzoc of Guatemala to the list of missionaries to America.
The 35-year-old transitional deacon did not move to Indiana with his family as a youth or young adult. He chose to come in his late 20s, with a specific purpose.
“I wanted to be a missionary,” he says. “The people that I read about that impressed me were missionaries from Spain. It’s a mission to work in [Hispanic] ministry [in the United States].”
His 2,500-mile journey from Totonicapan in Guatemala to Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Saint Meinrad has had its twists and turns. From seminary, to teaching, to moving to a country where he did not speak the language, and to seminary again, Deacon Tzoc has pursued his call to serve the Church as a missionary to Latino Catholics in the U.S.
‘She was serving. … I wanted to do the same thing’
Deacon Tzoc first felt a call to serve in the Church in the sixth grade when he attended his cousin’s first profession of vows as a Franciscan sister.
“I asked what she was doing,” he recalls. “She was serving the people, working in an orphanage. When I heard about service and what she was doing, I wanted to do the same thing.”
After his confirmation at age 16, Deacon Tzoc was selected to be involved with a special Catholic youth group in Guatemala.
“I got to be more involved in service then,” he says. “I got to know my faith more, I got to know priests and bishops. We traveled around the country, did youth ministry and encounters and retreats. We had meetings like NCYC [National Catholic Youth Conference]. I really got to see people living their faith in different ways and doing different ways of serving.”
He also got to see the leadership of Augustinian Father Valerio Baines Sanz, who worked with the group and also served as pastor of Deacon Tzoc’s parish.
“He supported us in so many ways,” says Deacon Tzoc. “He really listened, and he helped people. Our parish had 90,000 [people], but still he made time for us. He told us to follow Jesus in [our] own way. Out of the 25 of us, 15 went on to pursue a religious vocation. He was a role model for me.”
Still feeling called to serve others after his stint with the youth group, Deacon Tzoc entered Asuncion Seminary, which is affiliated with Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala City in the same way that Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary is associated with Marian University, both in Indianapolis.
He obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the university in 2007.
But despite feeling the call to serve since the sixth grade, Deacon Tzoc decided not to continue on to priestly formation.
“[It] didn’t fulfill my expectations, especially in academics, at that time,” he says.
Perhaps as a foreshadowing of his future call as a missionary, Deacon Tzoc wanted to study abroad. The school he applied to that would accommodate his desire to venture from Guatemala required a degree from outside the seminary before he could be accepted.
So he attended Universidad Rafael Landivar in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, working toward a psychology degree, while also working for a government scholarship institute and teaching at a high school.
Deacon Tzoc went on to study abroad—but not as he initially expected.
Through a friend in Guatemala, Deacon Tzoc met a priest from the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky. From the priest, he says he learned that in the U.S., “it’s a mission to work in [Hispanic] ministry. The need [he] told me about for Hispanic ministry here touched my heart.”
He felt a call to the priesthood again, but this time he looked outside of Guatemala, sending applications to Germany and Spain. He also applied to Saint Meinrad, where the Diocese of Owensboro sends its seminarians.
“The better one for me would have been Spain because I wouldn’t have had to learn a new language,” he says, with Spanish being his second language and K’iche, a native language in Guatemala, being his first. “But there’s something about the mystery of a vocation. I told myself I would go wherever I was accepted first. My first letter came from America.”
When he arrived in the U.S. in 2011 to become a seminarian for the Owensboro Diocese, he “had no idea how it would be, no relatives here, knew no English,” Deacon Tzoc recalls.
Before starting at Saint Meinrad, he was required by the Diocese of Owensboro to spend his first year at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., learning English.
By 2012, he was studying at Saint Meinrad in the far southwest corner of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to be a priest for the western third of Kentucky.
As he studied at Saint Meinrad, though, something changed for Deacon Tzoc.
“He got to know other seminarians and priests in the archdiocese and saw the need for ministry among the Latino community in Indianapolis,” says Father Eric Augenstein, archdiocesan vocations director. “And he also saw an organized effort and intentional focus on reaching out to and ministering with the Latino communities of the archdiocese that he wanted to be a part of.”
After about two years, says Father Augenstein, Deacon Tzoc “felt that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis was a better fit for him” than the Diocese of Owensboro.
By the summer of 2013, Deacon Tzoc became a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, continuing to study at Saint Meinrad. He spent his first year as an archdiocesan seminarian completing a pastoral year at Holy Family Parish in New Albany.
Father Daniel Atkins, pastor of Holy Family, was impressed.
“He has a passion for the vocation of lay people in the Church,” he says. “He has this sense of, ‘Let’s go out into the field and work together. I’ll take one oar and you take the other.’ ”
Deacon Tzoc’s trilingual skills came in handy in helping Father Daniel Staublin, pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour, minister to a large community of Guatemalan Catholics.
“He was able to help with both our Spanish and English Masses,” says Father Staublin. “Both Anglos and Latinos responded very well to him. I’m just very happy we’ll have another [priest] in the presbyterate to help. It’s nice to have another priest fluent in Spanish for our growing ministry in the archdiocese.”
Father Augenstein also noted Deacon Tzoc’s gift for working with both English and Latino Catholics.
“One of his greatest skills is being able to navigate a variety of groups of people— different cultures and languages and backgrounds—as if it’s the most natural thing,” he says. “He is able to move between English and Spanish, Anglos and Latino people, and communicate back and forth, back-to-back naturally.”
As Deacon Tzoc approaches his ordination, he looks forward to beginning his life as a missionary priest at his first assignment: as associate pastor at St. Simon the Apostle Parish and helping with Hispanic ministry at St. Lawrence Parish, both in Indianapolis.
And he looks forward to starting his life as a priest in general.
He says he finds “the sacramental life, my ability to celebrate the sacraments” attractive, as well as “serving others, being able to be with others in difficult times—and joyful times.”
Father Staublin witnessed Deacon Tzoc’s desire to be with others.
“He very much wants to be with the people,” says the priest. “He has a very easygoing kind of demeanor to him, a calming presence. I think that will serve him well. He commanded respect from people in a very quiet way.”
Father Atkins agrees.
“He made many, many friends while he was here at Holy Family,” he says. “He definitely sees himself as a servant-leader.
“He’s very caring of people, very savvy in terms of relationships. He picks up on emotional, physical and psychological cues when he’s talking with people. He doesn’t miss much when he’s in a conversation with someone.”
The combination of a desire to be a missionary with his passion for people will make Deacon Tzoc a blessing to the Church in central and southern Indiana, says Father Augenstein.
“He’s able to bring together people from different perspectives, different ideas and different backgrounds to find some common ground,” he says. “He’s a bridge builder.”
(For more information about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit www.HearGodsCall.com.) †