- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - Jesus Mata Martinez’s story is one of those tales of a long and winding road that happened to end up in Fort Wayne.

The tale begins in central Mexico, in a little town of 5,000 called Tierra Nueva, where, at age 5 or 6, the son of active Roman Catholic parents was fascinated by church.

“One day, nobody was home, and I set up a table and books, like I was pretend-saying a Mass. And I had to have somebody to talk to, so I got all my dogs, and then all my neighbors’ dogs, and I tied them to chairs. There was about eight dogs,” the 34-year-old says with a smile. “I actually was preaching to them, saying, ‘God loves you, and God loves you, and you.’”

A natural path would have been for Mata Martinez to become an altar server, but his parents were too poor to afford the required vestments. About five years later, his parents moved to Matamoras, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, and then to Arkansas, leaving him behind in Mexico with relatives.

By his early teens, he says, he drifted away from the church for a while, going to college to study accounting and starting work in the field.

But something didn’t add up.

He kept thinking about a choir retreat he had been invited to attend when he was about 16. He’d had this “moment” during a group prayer.

Everyone was holding hands and singing, and he says he felt a sense of joy and the presence of God “right here, in my heart.”

“That’s when I first felt this was what I felt I was missing in my life,” he tells The Journal Gazette (http://bit.ly/1qJwD3B ). “And I wanted to keep experiencing it, and other people to experience it as well. I remember I thought, ‘Why didn’t I respond to this before?’ “

By the time he was 22, Mata Martinez, who plays guitar and sings, was serving as a church choir and youth group director.

He ended up contacting his confirmation sponsor, a priest in the Society of the Divine Word in California, and told him he felt called to the priesthood.

The man suggested he come to the United States to study at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.

Two years later, in 2004, Mata Martinez did just that. He got his degree, spent time in Texas as a hospital chaplain and was sent to be a youth minister in a small town in Argentina.

In May, he was ordained in Techny, Illinois, and was later called to serve at St. Patrick Catholic Church at 2120 S. Harrison St.

Since August, he has been one of three Divine Word priests stationed there and is the second Mexican-born priest serving St. Patrick’s large and growing Spanish-speaking congregation.

People there are excited to have him, especially young people, to whom Mata Martinez says he wants to minister.

On a Facebook a page where he communicates to parishioners, one posting reads: “Padre muy padre!” - more or less the Spanish equivalent of “Woo hoo, Father!”

“I am reaching out to young people because that is something I want to do, work with them to grow spiritually, you know, and have self-esteem,” he explains.

“Many times, (young people) have not felt love, mercy and compassion,” he said. . “Kids feel left out.”

In the spring, Mata Martinez took part in a Mass at St. Patrick as a deacon. Afterward, a woman came up to him, looking puzzled, as if racking her memory.

“I have a question for you,” she said.

“I have a question for you, Rosie,” he replied.

The woman, Rosa Maria Moctezuma, through moves and marriage, had taken her own long and winding path to Fort Wayne.

She was the person who, so many years ago, had organized the retreat in Mexico that had haunted Mata Martinez and proved so influential on his path to the priesthood.

Now, he would become her church’s priest.

Regardless of the path, God always leads, Mata Martinez says.

And, he adds, “God is always waiting for you.”

___

Information from: The Journal Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net

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