“Sister Marie-Paule has turned everything around,” said Irma Chavez May, a parishioner at San José Mission Church near the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico. “The church was in bad shape and not many people came. It is beautiful now and the number of people coming to Mass has really increased,” she added. “Now it’s hard to find parking on a Sunday. And after Mass, everyone stays to talk and eat cake. It’s so different now.”
Sister Marie-Paule Willem, originally from Belgium, has been a Franciscan Missionary of Mary for more than 60 years in South America and in the Southwest United States. Her contributions are vast, but she always focuses on social justice issues for the poor. She arrived eight years ago in the diocese, which shares a border with Mexico. More than 65 percent of its residents are Hispanics. She is parish administrator at San Jose Mission Church on the Rio Grande, which now serves 200 families and also works with Hispanics at Holy Cross Parish in Las Cruces, whose Spanish Mass is now standing-room only.
“When I arrived, it was so sad here,” said Sister Willem. “Everything was dull. There was so much to do to build up the community.” She said she built up everything: the liturgy, the buildings, the grounds which are now full of gardens and especially, the families. “Families are the source of life, power and the future,” she said. “Without families, we have no nation and no Church.”
“She came with a vision, enthusiasm and a passion for the Church,” said Irma’s husband, Robert. “She has helped with spirituality and mental health issues and getting all of us parishioners involved and connected. She has inspired people to become readers, musicians and ushers at Mass or to teach religious education.” A few years ago there were whispers that the parish would close, for lack of a priest and so few parishioners, but Sister Willem changed that. “She has built the parish from the ground up. If she weren’t here, this parish would not exist.”
She has launched a ministry program for women incarcerated at a local detention center that now serves 60 women weekly. She visits every week, prays with them and offers a sense of dignity and hope. Additionally, she works with immigrants, tutoring them and helping them prepare for citizenship.
At 85 years old, she is also preparing her parish to take over in case she retires, although she shows no signs of slowing down.
Her secret to motivating people is simple. “First I do it. People see me, and I say, ‘Help me.’ Then I step aside and they do it,” she said.