Jairo Maldonado knows the childhood moments he would relive. And he remembers them with such detail that it makes you want to visit his family in Colombia and smell the toasting coffee beans yourself.
“The farm, those are the dearest memories,” he says as he talks about his father’s parents’ farm near Abrego. He’d spend weeks there in the summers with them, whom he called Nonna and Nonno.
“Like the Italians,” he grins as he explains their nicknames.
The only grin that’s bigger is the one that appears when he talks about snacks and their frequency, appearing an hour or two after every meal. Nonna was fond of sharing bread, roasted corn, bananas warmed in the oven and homemade cheese so soft it could be cut with a spoon.
“But you have to do stuff. You have to work. It’s not like you’re relaxing. It’s … ‘Do this; do that. Go here. Take care of these animals,’” he remembers of the farm days, which included midday trips to the clear lake to swim. “You have to be good. And the snacks? Your reward.”
Evenings were his favorite time. He’d venture outside with Nonno to get coffee beans.
“This type grows under trees … in the forest,” he explains.
When they returned, they’d toast the beans. The smell permeated the entire house, but was most pungent in the large kitchen, where cousins, aunts, uncles and sometimes his parents were gathered, too.
“They would start telling stories about fantastic things. It was night and I’d had coffee, so I was alert and listening to stories about gold being buried and places that were cursed. I loved it. I remember laughing,” he says.
At that farmhouse, he was also watching. He watched his Nonna and Nonno pray the rosary together every night. He watched them care for each other. And, for him, it drew him closer to faith and family.
They’re lessons he draws on now as a new priest. Jairo Maldonado became Father Jairo in June at his ordination, and NC Catholics recently sat down with him.
NC Catholics: Tell us about your family.
Father Jairo Maldonado: I have a gigantic family. Eighty-two first cousins. My mom is Roquelina; her siblings call her Roque. My dad, Daniel, is a retired farm worker. I have two sisters. Elizabeth is older than me. I am the second child. I have my sister Mairena, and then Juan Camilo. One of my uncles is a priest back home in Colombia.
NCC: How did you spend your time growing up?
JM: I always liked to draw. Charcoal. Pencils. I did some oil painting. I liked history and reading. In high school I read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. And some Colombian novels.
NCC: When did you begin to think seriously about a vocation to the priesthood?
JM: In high school I started serving at the altar and being involved at church. I went to the local seminary for retreats. I thought I would become a diocesan priest. One of the seminarians there had a cousin who was an Augustinian friar. A group of us went to see this friar and his monastery. They were wearing this black habit. They treated each other like brothers. And that made a great impact.
NCC: What did you decide, and why?
JM: I didn’t know what to do. I was accepted the same day in both places [diocesan and religious.] Starting date was the same. My parents were fonder of the idea of me staying local.
NCC: You chose religious life but didn’t tell your parents right away. They thought you were going to the diocesan seminary. Was that difficult for you, at age 17?
JM: I felt great pressure. Before this, I would never do anything to disobey my parents, but the time came. I ran away.
NCC: How did you plan that without them knowing?
JM: I convinced my younger sister to watch out for our mom while she was cooking breakfast. We took the suitcase through a window so my mom would not see it. My sister took it to my friend’s house. At some point my parents took my little brother to my grandma’s and I said, “OK bye.” And that was our farewell. They didn’t know. I knew. I went to my friend’s place, and to the bus. When I was about to get on the bus, I called my parents. My dad was upset. I said, “Dad I am leaving for Bogata.” And he said, “Who gave you permission?” I could hear him telling my mom. They hung up the phone. It was sad. I called my older sister, who was married and already out of the house. She was supportive. I got into the bus and cried. It was like, “Oh my gosh, what am I doing?”
NCC: What was it like when you arrived after the 13-hour bus ride?
JM: I forgot completely that I had escaped from home. My parents and I didn’t talk for like three months. But then we started talking. They never were against my vocation. They just wanted me to be nearby.
NCC: What happened next?
JM: I was there five years. I discerned that it was not my vocation. In a religious community there are some limitations to where you can go. But it was a great experience. At age 22 I went to work teaching. Then the opportunity came to study English abroad with friends. I came to the states … to Wilmington, Delaware, [and then to] New Jersey.
NCC: How were your parents feeling at this point? They didn’t want you to leave your town years before. Now you’re in another country!
JM: My mom was like, “pursue happiness. Go for it. And you have to visit us once a year.” I began discerning for the Diocese of Raleigh, and went to St. Charles [Borromeo Seminary.] God leads us where he wants us to be. I never imagined being here. I never planned it. And here I am!
NCC: How do you feel as you begin your work as parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh?
JM: It’s like when you get married, your first priority is your spouse and new life together. For us, when we become priests, our parish and parishioners become our family. Our first priority.
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