California parish helps Catholic sisters displaced by Puerto Rican earthquake

In the wake of a series of damaging earthquakes in Ponce, Puerto Rico, a southern California parish has come forward to help a resilient group of sisters who, despite their destroyed home, have been distributing supplies and providing much-need ministerial care in their community.

Catholic Extension has long supported these sisters, the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima. In the past few decades, we have helped to build and repair their convent and supported their ministry, helping them reach out and bring spiritual nourishment to their community, more than half of whom live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.

This is how they advanced their life-saving ministry, and how the parish Mary, Star of the Sea in La Jolla, California, is helping them endure the aftermath.

Lives changed forever

In the early hours of the morning on January 7, 2020, members of the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima awoke to their motherhouse violently shaking and crumbling around them. A magnitude 6.4 earthquake had hit their town of Guánica, Puerto Rico.

Sisters rushed to rescue others trapped in their rooms. Many of the elderly sisters had to be carried to safety as their home fell around them.

We thought we were going to die at that moment. But God said, ‘No, not yet.'”

Sister Judith, Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima

Though they survived, their beautiful motherhouse was badly damaged, and uninhabitable; their lives forever changed.

The sisters, accustomed to living together as a community, had no alternative but to separate, with the elderly sisters moving into a retreat center run by the Diocese of Ponce. The other sisters moved into tents and trailers near the grounds of their damaged house.

They created a make-shift chapel, and brought the Eucharist, to keep it safe and ensure that it remained central in their lives.

“That moment changed the lives of the Sisters of Fatima forever, because it made us notice how fragile we are, and that God is the only one that can do everything,” one of the sisters, Sister Judith Maldonado, said.

Traumatized and homeless, the sisters were determined to carry on. Despite having little resources, their community needed them, now more than ever.

The beating heart of Puerto Rico

The sisters are trusted, with deep ties to the community. Bishop Ruben Gonzalez of Ponce described them as the “beating heart of Puerto Rico.” They know who to call to ensure those most in need would receive basic goods and support necessary for survival.

After the earthquakes, the sisters worked with the diocese and community to make sure these vulnerable people—many of whom were left homeless, as well—received the help they needed.

We guide all the help that people bring to the most needy families.”

Sister Judith

A local technical college opened its doors to the Diocese of Ponce to use as a distribution center, where the sisters worked to help coordinate the distribution of much-needed supplies to the community.

Still, people approached the convent with supplies.

“People bring stuff to us, even though we are refugees in our own convent.” Sister Judith said. “We guide all the help that people bring to the most needy families.”

All the while, knowing another earthquake could strike at any moment, they wore whistles in case they were buried under the rubble and rescuers needed to find them.

A faraway parish brings help and hope

Although they are 5,000 miles apart, there is a significant connection between Mary, Star of the Sea and the sisters.

Just before quarantine measures were put into place, the parish’s pastor and deacon participated in a Catholic Extension priest immersion trip, a program sponsored by Lilly Endowment Inc. that invites pastors from urban or suburban dioceses to visit Extension dioceses throughout the United States and its territories.

They reminded me of the Gospel value of joy.”

Father Pat Mulcahy, Mary, Star of the Sea

Father Pat Mulcahy and Deacon Jim Vargas visited the Diocese of Ponce, where Catholic Extension has been building up faith communities for nearly 100 years by building churches, supporting salaries for priests and women religious, and countless ministerial programs. There they met the sisters, living and working among the destroyed motherhouse and new living quarters and the emergency supply distribution center.

The spirit and resilience of the sisters, and their endless positivity even in their incredibly difficult situation, made a lasting impression.

“They reminded me of the Gospel value of joy.” Father Pat said. “Joy is not something that comes from a momentary pleasurable thing that we do. Joy is a way of life.”

Deacon Jim echoed this sentiment. “The joy is what is palpable,” he said. “That joy is grounded in the faith, that not only the Sisters of Fatima have, but the people in general.”

Making a difference for years to come

Not long after the visit, the parish had to adjust to its own new reality, as so many have done in the wake of COVID-19. Unable to attend Mass in their historic Spanish-Mission style church, this close-knit community turned to virtual Masses to keep their faith and connection strong.

Upon hearing that the communities they visited had endured yet another earthquake, Father Pat and Deacon Jim launched a fundraising campaign to help the sisters serve their Puerto Rican community—who are suffering from more than the earthquakes.

The island is still recovering after the total devastation of Hurricane Maria, which destroyed neighborhoods and killed thousands of residents. At that time, it was the Church, so ingrained in the community, that rose up to meet the needs of the people.

We’re hoping that we can provide more tangible support for them. It will make a tremendous difference in their lives.”

Deacon Jim Vargas, Mary, Star of the Sea

Father Pat and Deacon Jim saw firsthand how the sisters responded in the wake of the earthquakes. In the following months, even adapting to social distancing measures amid the coronavirus pandemic, these sisters have served thousands of people in this faith-filled region.

“It isn’t just the earthquakes that they had in January, but it was the hurricane of almost three years ago, Hurricane Maria, which struck them so heavily,” said Deacon Jim. “The struggles are made even more difficult by the pandemic. And so we’re hoping that we can provide more tangible support for them. It will make a tremendous difference in their lives.”

The parish wanted to ensure the sisters have the support they need to carry out their life-saving ministry.

In a small way, I wanted to honor them and all the nuns who have served faithfully and selflessly.”

Jean Colarusso, Mary, Star of the Sea parishioner

The parish wanted to ensure the sisters have the support they need to carry out their life-saving ministry. One parishioner, Jean Colarusso, even offered a generous $50,000 matching gift challenge, which doubled each parishioner’s gift.

“I have a deep love and admiration for the religious sisters, and I wanted people to realize the importance of these women and their role in caring for a community such as Ponce, Puerto Rico,” she said. “In a small way, I wanted to honor them and all the nuns who have served faithfully and selflessly.”

Even while separated by the coronavirus, the parish came together and raised $110,000 for the Sisters of Fatima.

The sisters are so grateful for the generosity of Mary, Star of the Sea.

“God gave us the gift of living, to keep working for the families and for the salvation of our souls and the souls of others,” Sister Judith said.

With the gift from a parish far-away, but in solidarity with their suffering, they will be able to continue this ministry for years to come.


Catholic Extension’s Parish Partnerships program continues to grow, seeking new opportunities to build relationships with parishes around the country who are looking to help their fellow Catholics in the poorest parts of the United States.

We’re looking for new parish partners right now. If you would like to get your parish involved, reach out to Natalie Donatello at (312) 795–6057, ndonatello@catholicextension.org or complete the form below.

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