Mayela Baez Briones is a Catholic sister, traveled missionary, master’s degree recipient, musician, and teacher. Now this accomplished alumna of Catholic Extension’s U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program can add another role to her résumé: Catholic school principal.
Learning to lead
Sr. Mayela began her leadership journey in her home country of Mexico, earning a bachelor’s degree in primary education, followed by a master’s degree family sciences. Then came the experience of a lifetime: a five-year missionary placement and scholarship to study in the United States.
She and two other women from her order arrived in the U.S. in 2015, along with 30 other women religious from Latin American countries. Sponsored by Catholic Extension and a generous grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, they started intensive training to learn English and immerse themselves in American culture.
Over the next five years, they would take courses in applied leadership and serve in mission areas across the country. At the end of their studies, Sister Mayela and ten other sisters in the program earned a master’s degree.
Sister Mayela’s group was assigned to the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, to help the 1,100 Hispanic parishioners at three parishes become more involved in various ministries.
They reached out and invited people from the parish and the broader community to classes. They hosted retreats and trained people to participate as lectors and altar servers.
The preparation for serving at Mass was mostly spiritual, but when one woman wanted to lector and could not read, one of the sisters taught her how.
Sister Mayela led adult faith formation and the choir. She soon learned how to help communities grow and bring people together. She told the Arkansas Catholic:
It’s a slow process, a long process. It’s a matter of helping the Hispanic community to see themselves as part of the greater, broader parish, but also helping the broader parish to accept them, welcome those who are new.”
Real transformation would no doubt take time, but within months the ministries began to grow. The pastor, Father Mauricio Carrasco, quickly noticed the increase in participation from the Latino community.
“It’s amazing to see because these are some folks that are very afraid to serve because they don’t think they’re worthy or they don’t think they have the preparation,” he told the Arkansas Catholic.
For Sister Mayela, interacting with the young people of the parish came naturally. She felt called to bring the Hispanic young people together with the established youth group for confirmation.
Since the sisters were in an immersion experience themselves, they could relate to those they were helping integrate into the wider community. Their role was one of accompaniment as much as spiritual guidance.
They’re really meeting them where they are at.”Father Mauricio Carrasco
Prepared to Be Principal
Sister Mayela is now the principal of Escuela por Cooperación America, a Catholic school in Guadalajara, Mexico.
She says her experience in the U.S. not only helped her develop pastoral leadership, but also helped exercise her creativity.
When the pandemic hit last spring, she re-tooled her community-building and leadership skills. With the introduction of remote learning, she found that trust in her staff’s ability to lead was essential. She used the skills she gained in Little Rock to support educators as they teach online.
She now accompanies her school community in adapting to their new “normal” as a result of the pandemic. She works with families facing unemployment and lost wages as tuition is due. She is present in virtual classrooms to motivate and congratulate students from afar.
The perpetual student and teacher, Sr. Mayela remains optimistic as ever:
“Covid-19 is an opportunity to make new my mission as a religious sister and as a director.”
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