Soon after arriving in the United States in 2011 as a 19-year-old immigrant with his mother and one of his older sisters to join his father and four other siblings already living in California, Edgar Alberto, OFM, was homesick for his native El Salvador. He wanted to board the next plane home. But his father made him a proposition – give it 12 months, and if he still wasn’t happy in his new surroundings, he was free to rejoin his other siblings back in El Salvador.
He took his father’s advice – unaware at the time that it would not only lead him to Franciscan vocation, but also to a new life and the start of his 11-year journey to American citizenship that culminated in an emotional ceremony on Oct. 19, 2022 at the Everett McKinley Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago, Illinois. Among a group of 70 other immigrants, Edgar took the Oath of Allegiance and became a naturalized citizen of the United States. He said it was a day of joy, pride and blessings that made all of the challenges, fears and struggles worthwhile.
“Thanks be to God! It is a blessing that I came to this country. It wasn’t always easy, but my journey to citizenship would’ve been tougher without the help and support of the friars, my family, and friends,” Edgar said during a phone interview from the St. Joseph Friary at the Interprovincial Post-Novitiate Formation House in Chicago, Illinois, where he lives as a simply-professed friar with the community.
A phone call to his father was one of the first things he did after the ceremony. “I thanked him for the love and care he has given to me and to all of my siblings, and for what he did to help me make the right decisions. My citizenship is not just for me and my family, it’s for all immigrants who want to be accepted, and who want to be a part of this country and contribute to making it better,” said Edgar, who credits the fraternity in Hyde Park, and the one at St. Anthony Friary in Butler, New Jersey, where he served in a summer internship, for literally helping him at every turn.
During the three months leading to his naturalization test (in which candidates are required to correctly answer six of 10 civics questions randomly selected from a list of 100 potential questions), Edgar couldn’t make it through dinner, or from one end of a hallway to the other, without friars waiting at every corner, firing question-after-question about American history.
“I had to be sharp. They were relentless with the questions, but it was fun when they tested me. I think they wanted me to become a U.S. citizen as much as I wanted this. My friar brothers wanted me to succeed – and even though I felt well-prepared, I was very nervous that I wouldn’t pass the test,” said an exuberant Edgar. “Words can’t describe how much I appreciate the friars who have been with me during this journey (he mentioned several friars by name, including Joseph Rozansky, OFM, and Kevin McGoff, OFM). They challenged me to know more about this country, the people, the language and culture. It was a great sense of relief, not because I made it, but because ‘we’ made it. It was a team effort. I put my heart, soul and strength into it because I didn’t want to let the friars down.”
The friars may have been elated with the results of Edgar’s civics exam, but there were a lot of disappointed brothers, who, when waiting in line on the big day, learned that only one person would be permitted to accompany Edgar into the naturalization ceremony. As explained in an email by Joseph, who serves as guardian of the interprovincial friary: “Most of the community had traveled downtown for the ceremony, but when we got to the courthouse, we were told only one of us was allowed to go inside with Edgar. That someone was Tyler [Grudi, OFM]. He had already gone inside! The rest of us had to return home.”
Added Joseph, who also serves as a member of the vocation team, “Since his arrival in Chicago, Edgar has been dedicated to the process of preparing for American citizenship. He enlisted the help of the brothers to learn about American history and government, and to improve his English. His hard work paid off!”
“We got to the government building early because our whole house was going to come and cheer Edgar on. Another brother encouraged me to accompany Edgar when we were told that only one guest was permitted entry,” explained Tyler. “I had just moved to Chicago and didn’t know Edgar super well, but was honored to represent the fraternal community at the ceremony. The judge (who presided at the ceremony) gave a very heartfelt speech – telling everyone that they are welcome in the U.S., that their diversity and unique backgrounds are gifts to the nation, and that they should always remember their right to vote and sit on juries.”
“I am extremely proud of his hard work and what he has achieved,” said Joshua Richter, OFM, one of Edgar’s classmates. “We have been together since postulancy. As Franciscan formation takes him around the country, I have seen him dive deeply into experiencing U.S. culture. He is always interested in learning about the history of whatever city he is in. We are blessed to have him as a Franciscan brother and the country is blessed to have him as a U.S. citizen.”
The hard work began when Edgar accepted his father’s challenge and made the commitment to live in America for one year. “Being in a new country, having to learn a new language – everything being new and unfamiliar – was a little tough for me to face and embrace. At first, I didn’t feel comfortable here. But I studied English, worked different jobs, and made new friends. I decided to stay because I liked it here. Through all of the difficulties, this country welcomed and accepted me as I am,” said Edgar – especially in one of his first jobs as a human billboard for a local restaurant.
“One day, I just started dancing – and people were giving me money, so I kept dancing,” he recalled. “What struck me was complete strangers making me feel comfortable and accepting what I was doing to support myself. It was one of the things that happened that made me want to stay,” added Edgar, whose resourcefulness helped him advance through the ranks, first as a dishwasher and then as a waiter. He also worked in roofing construction and landscaping, and at a golf club.
Edgar’s vocation journey was less of a straight path than his arrival in the U.S. What made his departure from El Salvador even more difficult at the time was leaving behind 18 months of service as a volunteer missionary with a religious order, going door-to-door in small towns and cities to evangelize and spread the Gospel news. “It was something that I was drawn to and really loved doing,” he said.
In California, Edgar continued practicing his faith, but he wanted more than just attending Sunday Mass at the local church. He yearned to help people. He inquired about vocation with a parish priest, who put him off week-after-week. “I was disappointed, saddened – even discouraged. But I accepted what God was telling me. I understood if God thought religious life wasn’t for me, so I just continued going to school and working different jobs,” explained Edgar.
Two years down the road came a turning point, when his mother grew ill and he had to quit school to care for her. She recovered 18 months later, so Edgar took her for a three-week visit with his sister in Durham, North Carolina – which is where he met Mario Gomez, OFM, and Christopher Van Haight, OFM, at Immaculate Conception Church. It was his first encounter with Franciscan friars.
“That’s when the question of religious vocation came alive again,” said Edgar, the youngest of 12 children, four of whom his parents adopted. Mario suggested he connect with the friars of St. Barbara Province when he returned to California, but Edgar’s three-week stay in Durham became three months after his mother had a relapse. He used the opportunity to join the friars at Immaculate Conception in prayer and ministry life, often having dinner with them at the friary and learning more about Franciscan vocation.
After a “come and see” weekend with the friars at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts, an interview with Gonzalo de Jesús Torres-Acosta, OFM, and a meeting with Basil Valente, OFM, Edgar had reached a crossroads in his discernment: he wanted to be a Franciscan friar. A paperwork snafu, however, delayed his acceptance as a postulant, so Basil suggested that he consider spending 2017 in a year of service with the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry.
“I was hesitant and mostly saddened because I wanted to be a friar right away,” said Edgar, who nevertheless took the opportunity and worked as a Franciscan Volunteer Minister at St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “It changed my life! I became more in love with what the friars do. It was me. It’s what I grew up with in El Salvador. When I was a child, my mother would make food for the poor and elderly. After setting up a big table, I would go into the streets and invite the poor to our house. Then I would serve the food and sit and talk with them. I would walk some of the older people back to their homes. Serving as an FVM at the Inn was already a strong part of my [fabric]. It’s what my mother taught me and my siblings.”
By then, he also had serious thoughts about becoming a U.S. citizen and began studying for the civics test. But when he entered the postulancy program in 2018 in Silver Spring, Maryland, he put the 100-question study guide aside to focus on Franciscan life, prayer, and fraternity. In 2019, Edgar moved to the Pre-Novitiate in Old Mission Santa Barbara in California, where a year later he made his first profession of vows. In August 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, he was assigned to the post-novitiate in Hyde Park.
Edgar, freshly-minted U.S. citizen, is currently enrolled in classes for a high school equivalency diploma. He also is taking pottery classes at a local arts center, fulfilling his passion for art and creativity. While achieving his citizenship was even more satisfying because he says he shared this special experience with the 22 brothers he lives, prays, eats, and has fun with every day, Edgar now hopes to serve in ministry this summer at the U.S.-Mexico border to make it easier for migrants coming into the U.S., just as the people – friars, family and friends, and complete strangers – were there to help him at every turn during his journey.