August 15, 2019

Sr. Marie-Paule Willem, FMM’s early memories are of World War II and the Nazi invasion, fleeing with her family as the bombs fell around them. Later, she served in South America in the 1960s and 70s serving the “disappeared” people sent to death camps, where she too narrowly escaped with her life. Today, she works in Las Cruces, NM, advocating for women in detention centers. In spite of all the pain she has lived and witnessed, she knows that love is still a greater force than all the hate and fear she has ever encountered.

Sister Willem believes God’s love can heal all wounds, even the deepest ones. This conviction allows her to be a transformative presence in the Doña Ana Detention Center weekly where she serves about 60 women who are going through some of life’s worst situations.

She once accompanied a detainee giving birth. The woman’s limbs were shackled, and it took Sister Willem 50 minutes of begging to convince the guard that just one limb should be unshackled to allow the mother a few minutes to hold her child before the baby would be whisked away.

Using poetry and heartfelt meditation, she gathers with these detained women to help them find hope, dignity and self-confidence. She tries to put herself in their shoes and imagine what they are confronting. She keeps them connected to their families and prepares the women for their eventual release.

In a neighborhood in New Mexico where she now lives and serves, there are no street lights. It is fitting that the only thing illuminating the town is the lit cross on top of the church. The light of the cross draws people to San José Mission just as much as Sister Willem’s radiant smile and steadfast commitment.

Using poetry and heartfelt meditation, she gathers with these detained women to help them find hope, dignity and self-confidence. She tries to put herself in their shoes and imagine what they are confronting. She keeps them connected to their families and prepares the women for their eventual release.

In a neighborhood in New Mexico where she now lives and serves, there are no street lights. It is fitting that the only thing illuminating the town is the lit cross on top of the church. The light of the cross draws people to San José Mission just as much as Sister Willem’s radiant smile and steadfast commitment.

As Catholic Extension’s 2019 Lumen Christi (Light of Christ) Award Recipient, she offered remarks earlier this year at an award presentation:

“There is nothing love cannot face. We can always expand our hearts!”

She views human misery as a consequence of what happens when we reject love. Yet, she believes that we are not helpless actors in history.

She teaches us that war, persecution, human sin and suffering cannot extinguish the light of Christ. Most importantly, she teaches us through her example how ordinary people can become a light of Christ that brilliantly shines for others.

“It is paramount to discover that God’s grace is in us and in our lives and that we have a mission to accomplish at this time in history and in this part of the world.”

This mission requires us to “look at life as God sees it, look at this world and our society with Christ’s eyes and learn how to tell my brothers and sisters that they are important and that together we can overcome struggle and difficulties.”

The Lumen Christi Award honors individuals and groups that demonstrates how the power of faith can transform lives and communities. You can read about this year’s nominees at lumenchristiaward.org.

Support Our Work

Please type numerals without commas or dollar signs.