The Salesian Lay Missioners (SLMs) is a Catholic association of men and women, seeking to answer God’s missionary call in their own lives by dedicating themselves to works of education, evangelization and human development among poor youth. SLMs share in the tradition, prayer, work, family spirit, community life and educational method of the Salesians of Don Bosco, while living in the community with Salesians and other missioners. SLMs work on various projects to provide an educational experience for young people and are committed to be, above all, Christian witnesses.
In November 1981, Fr. Dominic DeBlase, SDB, then Provincial of the New Rochelle Province, began the process of establishing a lay volunteer program to provide generous young people the opportunity to collaborate with Salesians, both in the home and foreign missions. He sent Fr. A.J. Louis to the Fourth Annual Conference of the International Liaison of Lay Volunteers in Mission to investigate what other groups were doing and to learn from their experience in establishing a lay volunteer program. After learning of the strengths and weaknesses of other programs, the obstacles they met and overcame, as well as the success stories of other groups, Fr. Louis began the work of establishing what we now call the Salesian Lay Missioners.
Before recruiting the first lay volunteers, Fr. Louis visited Salesian houses in Africa and South America, to see first hand some possible mission sites where he could send the lay missioners. Then the difficult work of convincing Provincials of other provinces, as well as Directors of local communities that would receive the volunteers, began. It was important that a firm foundation was established so that the expectations of the volunteers and the receiving communities would be met.
Salesians Worldwide Commit to Lay Involvement
Having found support for the proposed program in mission lands, Fr. Louis next spoke with members of the Salesian General council. While supportive of the concept, the members were cautious in declaring support for the program, advising a watch-and-see position before being willing to issue guidelines for provinces to follow. However, Fr. Vigano, the Superior General, wrote to Fr. DeBlase encouraging him to be fully supportive of the program.
Further support of the Lay Missioners program came with the publication of Fr. Vigano’s treatises: “The Lay Element in the Salesian Community” (1980) and, “The Advancement of the Lay Person in the Salesian Family” (1986). With the publication of these documents, it was clear that the Salesian congregation was to commit itself to more inclusive ministry with the laity serving as an integral element of any Salesian work.
The Salesian Family Strenna of 1986 further reinforced the direction the congregation was moving when all Salesians were encouraged “To foster the Vocation of Lay Persons to Work Among the Young according to the Spirit of Don Bosco.”
First Missioners Commissioned
After months of preparation the first missioners were commissioned for service in 1982. During the first six years, nineteen lay missioners served in Santo Domingo, Bolivia, Columbia and Peru.
In 1987, Bro. John Cussen, SDB became the Director of the Salesian Lay Missioners Program. Under his leadership, the orientation/formation program expanded. The extended preparation of the missioners before going on mission helped them in their transition into a new country and culture. During 1988, seven Lay Missioners replaced or joined others already working in Columbia, Bolivia and Santo Domingo. The next year, two missioners were sent to Proyecto Salesiano Tijuana to assist the members of the Guadalajara Province in Mexico in their work with the young people in the shantytowns of Tijuana.
In the following years, Lay Missioners joined Salesian communities in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Japan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and St. Petersburg, Russia. Additionally, the program accepted lay missioners from other countries to work in the United States. Missioners from Mexico, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovenia began service in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida and Alabama.
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