Deacon Donald Martínez, or Deacon Don as he’s known around town, used to just get up and take a walk for “oh…10, 20 miles” whenever he needed some distance from his stressful job managing a large grocery store.
A person can get a lot of thinking done walking 20 miles.
“Oh yeah, you sure can,” said Deacon Donald Martínez, thumbing through the biblical readings for a noon service, just one he leads each week in the chapel behind Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Taos.
“I try to prepare a little bit beforehand so I don’t go in there with an empty mind, even though many times you prepare and go in with an empty mind anyway,” he said.
But in those times especially — with a calm and clear head, whether on foot or in the parish office — a person can learn a lot more about themselves than they’d expect. He certainly did.
Martínez, or Deacon Don as he’s known around town, used to just get up and take a walk for “oh…10, 20 miles” whenever he needed some distance from his stressful job managing a large grocery store. He also got some thinking in every summer during the Pilgrimage for Vocations, an annual trek of Catholics in New Mexico to pray for the people to go into the priesthood, a monastery or, as Martínez eventually would, the diaconate.
When Martínez’s eldest son implored him to walk the pilgrimage the first time, he turned him down. He didn’t participate the next year either. But finally, Martínez relented. (Actually, his wife, Celina, drove away while his back was turned, leaving him with a stunned look and a sleeping bag).
As happens with many peregrinos (the pilgrims), he walked again the next year. And the next. And the next. By the time two heart attacks forced Martínez, now 81, to slow down, he’d walked the pilgrimage for over three decades, longer than almost anyone else.
“You know how it is, some days you hurt. It’s not easy to walk 100 miles. One day, I got angry. I said, ‘God, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve been walking for 10 or 12 years and you’ve never called any of my children.’ ”
But in the quiet of the walk, he heard these words: “I don’t want your children. I want you.”
Martínez answered the call.
For his perpetual service to the community of Taos, the parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the faithful peregrinos, and for his unquestionable contribution to the spiritual rearing of so many people in Northern New Mexico, The Taos News honors Deacon Donald Martínez as one of the Unsung Heroes of 2018.
Following the Holy Family
Martínez grew up in Santa Fe in a “very strict Catholic family.” He doesn’t boast, but points out that he’s only missed Mass a few times in his life, so few “you can count them on one hand. And you don’t have to use all the fingers.”
“His dedication to his faith is just incredible,” said Roberto Lavadie, a woodworker and Guadalupe parishioner. “He cares for the people he serves. He’s always there.”
Martínez and Celina have been married for over 60 years. The two moved to Taos in 1960. They built their home on Ranchitos where they raised six kids because it was the only paved road in Taos, he said.
If people know the deacon for his service in the church, he’s know as much for his dedication to his family. Celina’s grandmother gifted the couple a statue of the Holy Family, his favorite devotion. “She said, ‘As long as you follow the example of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you guys will never have any problems.’ And it’s true. The Holy Family has been our example,” he said. They still pray to the Holy Family anytime they go away for a trip and have spread the devotion to the Guadalupe parish.
Celina ran the household and meticulously managed the family bank account while Martínez worked.
He had to ask for a job at the grocery store three times, but he was finally hired on the spot and asked to clean the upstairs bathroom. Over the years, he worked his way up. By the time he left Safeway, Martínez was managing over 200 employees.
Walking the pilgrimage
Martínez is among a few people, along with Fr. Ed Sevilla and Arcenio Córdova, whose names conjure from the depths of memory the sights, smells and sores of the early years of the Pilgrimage for Vocations. Martínez walked it so many years, he’s now the pilgrimage rector, the second-in-command of the yearly spiritual undertaking.
In the early 1970s, a group of boys and young men from Estancia turned down a fishing trip so they could walk to Chimayó. The first route from the north started in Ranchos de Taos and followed the banks of the Río Grande, according to a history compiled by local historian Ernestina Cordova. And in 1977, the northern route to the holy shrine started in Costilla and went south via the High Road — a path pilgrims still take every year, along with three other routes that all meet in Chimayó for a festive Mass.
During pilgrimage, the walkers enter a spiritual space found only in the steady steps of roughly 20 miles a day. They meditate, sing and pray petitions for the sick, their parishes and for the communities they walk through.
“When it got dark, that’s where you pulled out the sleeping bag. People would feed us on the side of the road. It wasn’t organized like it is now,” Martínez recalls.
Joseph Quintana walked several pilgrimages with Martínez. The weeklong trek and conversations with the older pilgrims, he said, “builds character, spirit, unity, teamwork…a lot of things that impact a youthful person.”
“I don’t feel the same thing every time I go,” Martínez said. “It’s going to be completely different. And it especially depends on how you’re living your life. Everyone has a different situation.”
One pilgrimage was especially different — when he heard the call to be a deacon.
Five years ago, two heart attacks forced the Martínez to give up walking, but not his love for it. “I know you’re hurting,” Martínez told the tired and sore pilgrims on the second day of the walk this June. “But remember this: it hurts more for those of us who can’t walk with you.”
By the time Martínez was 45, his job paid well but came with the steep price of relentless stress. A doctor and good friend said Martínez was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and that if he didn’t change his life, he wouldn’t be long for this world.
He lacked four years to retirement. But it was too long to go on the way he had. “I wanted to retire but I wanted to live, too,” he said.
The day he quit, Martínez went to the Guadalupe church, where he had been a parishioner and mayorodomo since moving to Taos. As it happened, the groundskeeper had also quit his job that day and the pastor suggested Martínez step in.
“I said, ‘Father, Don’t look at me. I don’t want to do no work at all.’ ” Then he said he’d think about it. And then he told the priest he’d work until they found someone else. But then he went through the steps of becoming a deacon (the only one out of an initial crop of 100 men). He still works nearly every day at the church, 37 years later.
In that time, he’s performed countless baptisms, weddings and funerals; prayed in the adoration chapel most mornings; and on snowy days wakes up a little earlier to plow the parking lot.
“He’s really been there,” said parishioner Ignacio Peralta. Though Martínez loves to talk, it’s been his “actions more than his words” that have stood out.
There’s certainly a lot of joy to his work as a deacon, though heart-wrenching days come with the territory. Martínez was a good friend to Fr. Michael O’Brien, the founder of the pilgrimage who, after his death, was accused of sexually abusing dozens of men when they were young boys in the church. Martínez had counseled people who’ve experienced the abuse and known some who’ve taken their lives because of it.
The Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal demolished the faith of many. Early on, the church “didn’t know how to handle it and they handled it very badly. There’s a lot of regrouping and recouping to do,” he said.
‘That caliber of person’
When he first heard the call to be a deacon, he wondered if God truly knew his heart, then why him?
“I wasn’t putting myself down or anything, but I didn’t feel I was that caliber of person, you know,” he said.
Before heading off to the sermon in the chapel, Martínez again mentioned the Holy Family and the aspiration for fathers to be like Joseph, mothers to be like Mary and children to be like Jesus, which he admits “is the hardest one.”
In his aspiration, Martínez has been an inspiration, a lifelong walker guiding the rest.
As with his job at the grocery store, joining the pilgrimage and becoming a deacon, some blessings take a little time before they’re ready to be turned over for a person to take as their own and let it be worked in the world.
“Time you always have,” he said. “It’s just what you do with your time that counts.”
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