THE OLDEST cathedral in the New World is located in the heart of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. It offers daily Mass at 5:00 p.m. I attended it twice during a recent trip to the island country. The same six people were there both times.

In Iguey, the most religious region in the Dominican Republic, there is a well-known shrine to the Blessed Virgin. I traveled there, hoping to see some faith in action. I arrived at 12:15, Sunday afternoon. The shrine was packed. I was elated.

A priest at the lectern was telling the story of Our Lady's miraculous appearance there in the 1600s. At 12:30, he finished his talk and announced that Mass would follow immediately. The shrine soon emptied except for a handful of people.

I arrived in the Dominican Republic three days ahead of a group from Food for the Poor. The Florida-based charity was visiting the Caribbean island country for the first time to assess the best ways to help the needy. I had wanted to get the flavor of Dominican culture, especially the faith life, before the others joined me.

A little more than 500 years after Christopher Columbus encountered the island that became home to the first Catholic churches, schools, universities, civil and ecclesiastical governments in the Americas, the local Church appears to be dwindling away.

The Food for the Poor group visited one desperately poor area after another. In the Dominican Republic, the infant mortality rate is 30 for every 1,000 live births. There is only one medical doctor for every 934 residents. Only 45 percent of the rural population have access to clean drinking water.

The lack of spiritual nourishment is equally dire. The Food for the Poor group visited a parish priest who said he is responsible for more than 210,000 people, the average priest-to-faithful ratio in the Dominican Republic. Some 626 priests serve 6,952,000 Dominican Catholics. The country's total population, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, is 7,610,000.

But a new religious congregation is one sign of hope amidst the island's material and spiritual aridness. Sister Lucia de Pozo, the dedicated young foundress of Las Hermanas del Amor Trinitario (Sisters of Trinitarian Adoration), and her Sisters, serve the poor of Santo Domingo's Mata San Juan. Her congregation is contemplative during the week and active on the weekends. Sister Lucia's beaming face masks the suffering she has seen working among her impoverished countrymen and women. But her intense love for the Church and the Pope sustain her.

The Sisters oversee the running of a two-room school that has few desks and no library or study room. They also hold intensive workshops to train women in domestic skills and men in trade skills. Sister Lucia's ultimate dream is to have a catechetical center to train catechists to evangelize the people, since there is no parish and the area's some 20,000 inhabitants have no way to get to a church. Apriest comes once a month to celebrate the sacraments—Mass, baptisms, marriages, etc.

Food for the Poor supports the school by donating industrial sewing machines for the women's vocational training class and providing food for a daily lunch program for 500 students. The organization is also providing desks, blackboards and other educational material for the primary school students.

Though many groups are working to meet the day-to-day needs of the world's poor, far fewer are dedicated to answering Pope John Paul II's universal call for the new evangelization. But Sister Lucia and her sisters are among them. They understand how deep faith nourishes hearts in mysterious ways. And as much as they strive to bring material aid to some of the poorest people in the world, the sisters'primary focus is helping them to make their pilgrimage through life with at least a minimum of human dignity. Their message hinges on teaching the people to know and love Jesus Christ so that, one day, they will share in his eternal glory.

For more information, write Food for the Poor, Dept. 14197, 550 Southwest 12th Ave., Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.