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Mexican boy who wanted to be a priest serves in Spokane

Father Miguel Meija serves Our Lady of Fatima.

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

Who would have known that when Miguel Angel Mejía Díaz, a boy growing up in Metepec, in the State of Mexico, was asked where he wanted to go to high school, and responded, "I want to be a priest," what that choice would lead to?

Today he is involved in Spokane as the pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish and All Saints Catholic elementary school on Spokane's South Hill.

He is also the director of prison ministry for the Diocese of Spokane and a volunteer for Catholic Charities programs.

Father Miguel had a unique journey to be serving where he is today.

He was the oldest of six, two sisters and three brothers, from a culturally Catholic, but not particularly devout, family. His aunt lived next door with her family of five. Together they made a large extended family in the urban area where the homes were close to each other.

Because his mother worked hard in the market, he and four or five of the other children spent a lot of time with his "Abuelita Mami," his grandmother.

"She loved to knit and was a great storyteller. She had a big bed. We would all sit on it, and she would tell us great stories," Fr. Miguel said.

Later, when he was studying the Bible at the seminary, he realized that most of the stories she told were Bible stories.

At the age of 11, he told his mother that he wanted to be a priest, but neither of them really knew what he would have to do to make that happen.

She took him to the parish priest— an imposing man—and asked what he would need to do. They learned that one thing would be the priest's recommendation for him to go to seminary.

He told them: "Right now, you are too young. In two years, when you are old enough to enter high school, you can enter the seminary, but I don't know you and I will need to know you to write a recommendation."

After that, Father Miguel remembers that he and his mother began to go to the 6 a.m. Sunday Mass in the Church and sit in the front row where Father would be sure to see them. They went to the early Mass so his mother would be able to go to her work at 7 a.m. in a local street market.

Two years later, when he and his mother came back to the pastor to ask for the recommendation, the pastor replied, "But I don't know you." 

This time they asked, "How can you say you don't know us? Every Sunday for two years we have been sitting in front of you at the 6 a.m. Mass?"

With that, he relented and wrote the recommendation. So young Miguel began his journey to become a priest.

Miguel entered the seminary in Mexico as a first-year high school student, one of the youngest to enter- along with about 50 other young men.

"Twelve years later, only six of us stayed and were ordained. Of these, three are in the States. One of them is a Franciscan here in Spokane. Another passed away just before COVID. One left the priesthood and is a teacher in a university. Father José Millán, also a priest in Spokane, was from our same seminary although in a different class."

How did Father Miguel become a priest serving Catholics in Spokane?

It happened through the generosity of Father Kevin Codd when he was a pastor in the Spokane Diocese serving in Brewster.

At the time another seminarian in Mexico had a father who was supporting him through his field work near Brewster. This was difficult during the winter months when there was no work in the fields, so he asked Fr. Kevin to help him with tuition for the seminary. Fr. Kevin asked his parishioners to pay for the seminary tuition and they graciously agreed even though they weren't a rich parish.

"I didn't know English at the time, but my friend and I worked together to write a thank you letter in English to Fr. Kevin. He wrote back to us in his very good Spanish and later came to Mexico on vacation, met us and invited us to come to the United States and learn English."

After they finished high school and had begun their college, the two traveled from Mexico City to Walla Walla where Fr. Kevin was the priest at St. Patrick's Church.

Adjusting to the cultural differences, Miguel began studying English at a local community college before moving to Spokane, attending Bishop White Seminary, and completing his college education at Gonzaga University.

In 1996, Bishop William Skylstad sent him to Louvain, Belgium, to study theology, following in footsteps of other priests from the Spokane Diocese. He was then ordained for the Spokane Diocese in August 2000.

Among the blessings of his journey in becoming a priest and since, Fr. Miguel counts the opportunities he has had to meet a Pope three different times. 

Before his ordination, while at Louvain, he had an audience with Pope John Paul II in Rome. Then, in the late 1990s at Christmas, he and José Millán, both deacons and continuing their studies at Louvain, traveled to Rome together for the holidays.

They were invited into Pope John Paul's private apartment and chapel with about 25 others. The Pope was already there praying when they arrived. Because of his severe Parkinson's, the two deacons were asked to assist him at the altar as he celebrated the Mass.

After his ordination and more recently, he traveled in Rome with a bishop friend who invited him to meet Pope Francis. They went to where the Pope lived. Fr. Miguel met him and conversed in Spanish because the Pope is from Argentina.

"We had a short conversation, and he asked me why I, as a Mexican, was in the United States. I told him about my ministry in the Spokane diocese at Our Lady of Fatima parish," Fr. Miguel said. 

Fr. Miguel serves the people of Spokane in many ways.

Besides being the pastor of a parish with a school and working as the Catholic director of prison ministries, he is also involved in the Spanish-speaking cursillo movement in the Tri-Cities area, helping lay men and women develop an active Christian faith.

In addition to serving on the Catholic Charities Board, Fr. Miguel volunteers at the House of Charities main desk and sometimes has led funerals and prayer services for homeless people.

"Most of the time, I just have coffee and talk with homeless people there. I try to be present with them," he said.

Two aspects of his prison ministry are 1) responding to the spiritual needs of the prisoners and 2) working with families of the inmates.

"Often inmates ask me to visit their families and make sure they are fine," he said. "Once I contact the families, I try to help them as much as possible and keep in regular contact with them."

"What gives me most joy in my ministry is being a part of the school. I like the way our parish is laid out because as I go between the office and the church I can see the children in the school three times every day," he said.

Serving as a crossing guard, volunteering during lunch and being present at the end of the school day, he cherishes the daily reminders of the purpose behind his ministry.

"They know if they ever need me, I am there for them," he said.

In Metepec, as the 11-year-old boy who wanted to be a priest, Fr. Miguel certainly couldn't have predicted how his life would have developed.

"Now," he said, "I have been in Spokane more than 20 years, and this is my home. I can't imagine serving God anywhere else."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February 2024