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Urban renewal


April 25, 2011

David Shields, a Marquette University priest, created the Casa Romero Renewal Center, which offers outreach programs for the Latino community.

The Rev. David Shields believes he has experienced a bit of divine intervention.

Without a debilitating disease that struck him about two decades ago, the Jesuit priest might never have come to Milwaukee and created Casa Romero Renewal Center, a bilingual retreat on Bruce Street that offers spiritual programs to the Latino community. "We say our mission statement is to form and renew individuals, and to strengthen the family and build the community," Shields says during an interview at the center. "That is the real goal. How can we build a stronger civic community, a stronger faith community and a stronger community in Milwaukee? Our goal is a better Milwaukee and a better society."

The center is home to more than a dozen inventive faith-based programs that focus on the Latino family and the journey of life. The La Quincea-era — Dreaming a Future of Hope program is a day-long bilingual retreat for teenage girls and their mothers to connect and build a stronger relationship. Another program ­— Canasta Liena — is a four-session retreat intended to strengthen the spiritual and communication bonds throughout the family.

"Between the first-generation and second-generation Latino, there is a real disconnect because the parents, when they think about what it means to be a teenager, think about life in the past (in their homeland) and the kids have never been there, and can’t go there because of the immigration system," he says.

Shields suffers from macular degeneration, a condition that has left him legally blind. He was stricken with the disease when he was working in western South Dakota with the Pine Ridge Reservation in the early 1990s. "So it became more and more problematic for me to exist out there with declining vision," Shields says. "I couldn’t drive."

After spending three months of sabbatical time studying Spanish in Guatemala in 1996, his superiors brought him to Milwaukee, where he worked at St. Patrick Parish at 7th and Washington streets. In the course of working with the Latino community on the South Side, it became clear to Shields they lacked a place to gather for workshops, retreats or conferences.

It was then that Shields had a vision for an abandoned, vandalized building, now home to the center. Although the 115-year-old building was a wreck, it still had strong bones, he says. "I would take people around and I would say, ‘We can do this here, that there,’" he says. "I had more than one person say they couldn’t believe they were looking at the same building I was. It was one of those things — some people saw this broken down, horrible building, and I saw the Princess of Aragon."

During the last decade, Shields and a group of volunteers have slowly created the center — a cozy, welcoming, three-story home featuring Latino decor, original cabinetry and decorative ceilings. The center features several large meeting rooms, a dining area in the basement and an enclosed courtyard area outside, where programs and gatherings can be held informally. "I would really like to say that I had a comprehensive idea. I didn’t," Shields says. "I’m Irish and a Greek major, and those are two mitigating factors right there for comprehensive ideas. I was just convinced the place needed to exist for the people to come. It’s now a casa."

Event: A Taste Of Latin America

When: Saturday, April 30

Time: 7-11:30 p.m.

Where: Tripoli Shrine Center3000 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee

Tickets: $30 in advance; $40 at the door





This story ran in the April 2011 issue of: