Over the course of the summer, seminarians from the House of Formation came to the Newman campus to experience a weekly, immersive Spanish program.
The program was led by Sonja Bontrager, assistant professor of Spanish, and Cinthia López, lecturer in Spanish at Wichita State University.
This Spanish immersion program for seminarians began in 2018, with the academic portion housed at the Wichita ASC Center with a team of instructors teaching different levels. In the summer of 2020, due to COVID-19, the program was moved onto Newman’s campus inside the Bishop Gerber Science Center. This year it was on Newman’s campus again, this time in Eck Hall.
For the entire time they were on campus for the program — from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, the instructors and seminarians spoke strictly in Spanish.
On a given day in the program, the seminarians engaged in various activities beginning with reading the Bible, studying the Magnificat discussing scripture and even singing songs.
The seminarians were taught Catholic Social Teaching by guest speaker Sister Lois O’Malley of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph. They also made Spanish dishes in the kitchen. They learned to cook la tortilla española (Spanish tortillas), prepared pan con tomate (Spanish tomato bread) and tres leches (milk) cake. The group even assembled their own paper maché piñatas to celebrate the birthdays of seminarians Peter Bergkamp and Koby Nguyen.
Additionally, the seminarians also have Spanish-speaking host families that they spend time and eat dinners with on a weekly basis.
Bontrager said she is extremely proud of the seminarians and their effort as learning a new language is no easy task.
“Their commitment and tenacity are impressive — anyone who has tried to live and work in a new language knows that it is exhausting and often humiliating. The seminarians work so hard and are highly engaged in learning — they even speak Spanish during their breaks. It is a joy and honor, and I know that Cinthia López and I are both very grateful for the opportunity to work with them,” Bontrager said.
Lopez served as an adjunct professor this summer for the seminarian Spanish program and will continue teaching at Newman in the fall. She said the most rewarding aspect of this experience is that she learned new things, was able to connect with the seminarians and get to see them learn even when it is challenging.
“I am a native speaker and professor Sonja is a wonderful teacher and her Spanish is very good. I’ve said this before but I think the connection that we share with each other and the students is special because she has more experience than me. I learned from her and she learned from me, and we all learned together with the students,” Lopez said.
She continued, “I know it’s hard when you start doing something different, that is not your culture and not your language, but I say, if you really want it you are able to do it because that’s the more important thing. So I think if they want it that’s what makes the difference.”
Meet a few of the seminarians
Joseph Mick is originally from Newton, Kansas. He said seminary has always been in the back of his mind but it wasn’t until his sophomore year at Benedictine College that he applied. He then spent two years at Newman with the House of Formation and just finished his first year in seminary in Chicago.
Prior to the program, Mick had only three years of experience in Spanish, so before the program this summer he used Duolingo to practice. Mick said the program has been hard but rewarding and worth the struggle.
“It was very challenging at first. The mental work of trying to think in another language for several hours every day was very exhausting. In the past with seminary, we’ve gotten to do more ministry and more active stuff which is very rewarding. However, the reward for this is kind of delayed in the sense that we’re not seeing the fruits of it right now. We’re kind of the ones being ministered to by our host families and by the professors,” Mick said. “It has gotten easier as the weeks have gone on with it being less mentally exhausting as I’ve gotten more used to thinking in Spanish and speaking in Spanish.”
Mick’s host family is a husband and wife with two kids from St. Anne’s parish. He said his favorite part of the program has been being able to spend time with them and learn from them and about their culture.
“On Sundays, I go to Mass with them and then spend Sunday afternoon with them, and then we go for dinner on Monday night. My favorite part of the experience is just getting to speak with them and learn a lot of new words. They teach me a lot about their culture and their experience in Mexico. It’s been very good, and something that’s just really stood out to me from the program,” Mick said.
Nicholas Samsel was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. He attended Newman and joined the House of Formation his sophomore year. He graduated in 2021 and will begin his fifth year in seminary this fall. He said being part of seminary is where he feels he belongs.
“I knew that God was calling me to the seminary. There was just a great feeling, great sign and peace for me with the idea of becoming a priest and going to the seminary,” Samsel said.
Going into the program, Samsel felt confident as he had taken three years of Spanish in high school which helped him already know a “decent amount of Spanish.” He said the program has been great so far and has really made him more comfortable when speaking Spanish.
“It’s been a really good experience so far. I can tell I’ve gotten a lot more confidence in my ability to speak and be out there among the Hispanic community in Wichita,” Samsel said. “My ability has gotten much greater, I know more words, I have a better grasp on the language and I have more confidence in being able to speak it.”
Samsel’s host family is parishioners from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Wichita. They are a married couple with four children. He said he really appreciates the family’s hospitality and enjoys the time and experiences spent with them.
“It’s been a really cool experience for me, being invited into this home with my family. Though it’s been awkward and uncomfortable because I can only speak Spanish at best like a first-grader some days, it’s been a beautiful and affirming experience to be with these people,” Samsel said. “My Spanish isn’t great, but it’s functional enough to have this relationship with them and that’s just how accepting this family is. I never met them in my life, yet they have taken me in as if I am one of their kids and the love I’ve experienced from them has been amazing.”
Samsel credits the program for helping him grow as a person and strengthen his ability to speak Spanish. It’s his hope that the Spanish program experience will help him connect better with others when he is a priest in the future.
“Seeing my growth in Spanish and in myself, I realized how I can give myself to others which is key to the heart of service of a priest. What God has done and worked on in me and caused me to grow, I can take that and give it out to others so that they can be drawn back to God,” Samsel said.
Peter Bergkamp is from Garden Plain, Kansas. From a young age, Bergkamp said he has always felt a calling to be a priest but as he got older he ignored it. After graduating from high school, Bergkamp attended Kansas State University (K-State) where he studied agronomy.
Eventually, he made the decision to go to seminary.
“I just kind of wanted to live my own life but I always had that feeling that drew me towards the seminary and priesthood. Despite me having a lot of good experiences and awesome friends at K-State, I wasn’t at peace. So after three years, I realized I needed to just say ‘yes’ to start the process or else I would never know,” Bergkamp said.
Going into the program this summer, Bergkamp said, he felt very limited as he only took Spanish for one semester in high school and didn’t retain much. He said even though it’s been challenging he is grateful for the eye-opening experience.
“It’s been a good learning experience as I’ve been forced to pick up the language in a new way. I’ve been able to learn quite a bit in just three or four weeks. It’s been a humbling experience for sure,” Bergkamp said.
Bergkamp’s host family is a married couple of St. Anne’s parish. He said he was surprised but also grateful for their love and hospitality.
Bergkamp said the Spanish program experience helped him gain a new view and knowledge for people he serves and will serve.
“This experience will allow me to have a little bit more empathy for the people I’m serving. We all might be a little bit different, but when it comes down to it we’re all humans. It’s universal to interact with each other even though we might not know each other’s language, we can still communicate with each other in some ways. So it’s been a great experience,” Bergkamp said.
Although the program has helped Bergkamp grow in his Spanish, he said having this experience has made him realize how important knowing other languages can be.
“I wish I had more experience learning a new language in my past. I could just see how helpful it could be even if I wasn’t a priest,” Bergkamp said. “You can learn more about humanity by learning a new language.”