[This is the second in a series of articles profiling each of the seven men who will be ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Mission Church) on May 19.]
All his life, Deacon Baldemar Garza has been close to God.
As a young child in Corpus Christi, Texas, he served his parish, Christ the King, as an altar server. When his family moved to Santa Ana, California, he continued serving Mass at his new parish, Saint Ann.
He recalled that he often thought that perhaps God was calling him to the priesthood. However, once he graduated high school, Deacon Garza dismissed that call.
"I decided to make some money first," he said with a shrug.
Schooling was not easy for him, as he was diagnosed with a learning disability and had a severe stutter, but he was the first of his six siblings to graduate college. Upon finishing his studies, he worked several different jobs in retail, but did not settle into a career right away.
In 1991, when he was 24 years old, his parents divorced. Five years later, Deacon Garza moved back to Corpus Christi with his mother.
"It was back in Corpus Christi that I really had a conversion," he recalled. "For the first time I really felt God's love and mercy in my heart."
Moved with desire to serve God, he applied and was accepted to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. He was only there for six months when he realized that this was not the place for him.
"It was like God said, 'You aren't ready yet,'" Deacon Garza said.
However, his time in the seminary was not in vain. "They taught me how to pray the Divine Office -- something that has helped me my whole life long," he said.
Leaving the seminary, Deacon Garza once again settled in Corpus Christi. "I figured I could maybe work for two years, pay down my student loans and then check out religious orders," he said, adding that God had other plans.
Still looking for a meaningful career, Deacon Garza attended a job fair where he first heard about the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) Program. Curious, he applied and was accepted to work among the impoverished Spanish-speaking population in Denver, Colorado.
"That was one of the best times in my life," the 51-year-old said. "I was working with Hispanics, with Mexicans like me and my family, with newly arrived immigrants, with the poor -- and it was really meaningful work."
For three years Deacon Garza worked in Denver. While there, he got to know the Franciscan Brothers of Mercy, a new religious order that also was working with the underprivileged in Denver. He began working and living among that religious order and was consecrated to the Blessed Mother in 2005 -- one of the first steps in becoming a professed member of the order. Unfortunately, the religious order disbanded, and once again Deacon Garza found himself with a desire to serve God, but no clear vision of what that meant.
In October 2006, one of his friends, Father Dan Barron OSV, moved to the Archdiocese of Boston. He invited Deacon Garza to visit.
"That was all it took," said Deacon Garza. Within six months, he had moved to Boston and had decided to become a member of the Little Brothers of the Poor, a religious community that served the poor in Mission Hill.
For five years, he served the Church "living the hidden life of Christ in everything."
"I learned to see Christ in everyone, and most importantly I learned to listen. I learned to listen to those who thought no one was listening to them. Honestly, I thought I would be a Little Brother all my life," he admitted.
In 2010, after the death of his father, Deacon Garza once again heard God calling him to serve -- this time as a priest. He applied to Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary and was accepted. A few months later, he entered as a seminarian -- but there was one daunting problem: his speech.
"My whole life long I was terrified to talk," he said. "I never had been able to speak out loud, and the stuttering was really too overwhelming. I didn't think I would be capable of reading the Gospel, never mind giving a homily. It was all too much for me."
At the suggestion of his rector, he went to see a speech disorders specialist, who gave him exercises to strengthen the muscles around his face. Within six months, Deacon Garza was able to speak without stammering.
"My confidence went through the roof," he laughed. For the first time in his life, he was able to communicate effectively with others -- something that he credits to God and his rectors.
Deacon Garza suspects that his struggles with speech will help him when relating to parishioners.
"What I have gone through will help me to help other people who are struggling," he said. "Sure, maybe not everyone has a speech problem, but I have learned that everyone has struggles, and the same way that I could never have overcome them without help from God and from others, I can be the person who listens, who helps and who accompanies them in their journey through life."