In his homily during a recent Mass with religious sisters in Chicago, Father Jack Wall said, “At Catholic Extension, we have come to know that you cannot go to the poorest places in the United States and not find the presence of the Catholic Church. And the face of ministry among the poorest of the poor so often is women religious. They are there with a profound joy in their hearts.”
Catholic sisters are known throughout this country for their selfless dedication and commitment to reaching out to and proclaiming the good news to the poor. Currently there are about 6,500 Catholic sisters serving in mission dioceses, compared with almost 40,000 in nonmission dioceses.
Over the past five years, Catholic Extension has provided $9.2 million to support religious sisters
who are working in some of the most challenging assignments — from ministering to remote Yup’ik Eskimo communities in Alaska to building community in the poorest colonias along the border in Texas, from providing social services and education to the poor in Alabama to giving shelter to pregnant and high-risk teens in Puerto Rico, from teaching the faith to children from broken families on a Montana reservation to helping released prisoners in North Dakota onto a new path.
That support for sisters includes a significant increase over the past four years, as Catholic Extension, with the generous assistance of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and others, launched an innovative major new initiative called the U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program that is helping the Church minister to poor immigrant communities across the country.
The ‘ministry of accompaniment’
Brad Myers, the senior program officer for the Catholic Sisters Initiative of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, said one question his initiative is always asking is: “What makes sisters so special?” His answer: “One thing sisters seem to do better than anyone else is that they accompany the people whom they are serving. The ministry of accompaniment is part and parcel of everything sisters seem to do, and they often live with the poor."
Myers points out that, especially under Pope Francis, the Church has reaffirmed the ministry and focus of Catholic sisters who have always been “going out to the peripheries,” have always had the “smell of the sheep” and have always been known for the works of mercy that the pope had in mind when he described the mission of the Church as that of a “field hospital.”
Sister Rita Schonhoff is the founder of Whole Health Outreach, a 26-year-old nonprofit that serves the rural poor in southeastern Missouri. Pope Francis’ consistent call to go out to the peripheries struck a chord with her. “We are at the periphery here,” she said. “and the pope has confirmed our sense that we want to be here and that we need to be here.”
Catholic Extension helped to launch and sustain Sister Schonhoff’s crucial health ministry in an area that has pockets of severe poverty. Sister Schonhoff, whom some people call the “Mother Teresa of the Ozarks,” is 79 and a School Sister of Notre Dame. “Part of my call to be a sister has always been that call to go out and serve,” she explained. “The name of our order’s constitution is, ‘You are sent.’
I think that was in my heart from the beginning — to move outward to the peripheries, to the unserved and the underserved.”
Similarly, the three Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who in 2014 received Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi Award for their community- and church-building efforts in a colonia near Peñitas, Texas, feel called to be missionaries to the poor.
“When we came here, we knew it was ripe for the planting,” remembered Sister Carolyn Kosub. “We told people: The Catholic Church cares about you, so we will walk this journey with you.” After listening to the needs of the people, the sisters built a community center and a church. Said Sister Kosub, “You can’t stand at a distance. As missionaries, you need to share the life of the people. To be missionary is basic to every Christian living the Gospel, part of our Christian nature.”
Reaching out to poor immigrants
Catholic Extension launched its U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program to further strengthen the Catholic Church’s “accompaniment” of the poorest of the poor. With locations in 12 different mission dioceses, Catholic Extension partnered with 12 Latin American congregations of women religious to help the Church and its parishes to better minister to poor, Spanish-speaking immigrant communities, promote vocations among Latino Catholics and develop greater Hispanic leadership in the U.S. Catholic Church.
Since their arrival in 2014, 38 Latin American sisters have been reaching out to immigrant families in struggling communities around the country. They connect previously isolated Catholics to the Church through a wide variety of ministries.
They have initiated more than 90 new programs or ministries and reach out to more than 7,000 new people every year.
The Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Venezuelan, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran sisters are currently entering their fourth year of this five-year initiative. They provide faith formation, migrant farmworker outreach, home visitations, youth and young adult ministry, retreats and spiritual guidance, social ministry, vocations promotion and many other ministries and services.
According to Sister María Teresa de Loera, the sisters participating in the program see themselves as being on the front lines of answering Pope Francis’ call to “go out to the peripheries of migration.” A member of the Catholic Teachers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who works in the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, Sister de Loera said, “We are listening to, suffering with, giving hope to and sharing our lives with the immigrants. Our best contribution is our prophetic witness of unity and joy.”
Through Catholic Extension’s partnerships with U.S. Catholic universities, the sisters receive extensive language, cultural, theological, pastoral, spiritual and leadership education and training several times a year. At the end of the program, they will return to their Latin American congregations, which will in turn benefit from their education and increased leadership skills and expertise.
The fruits of a joyful invitation
Sister Brenda Hernández Valdes is one of three Daughters of Mary Immaculate of Guadalupe from Mexico who work at St. Joseph Parish in Williston in the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota. She said that for her the program has been a “great opportunity in my life to grow in many ways — as a human, spiritually and in my apostolic life.”
As Latinos in Williston grow in their faith, Sister Hernández said, “We see the fruits in their lives. For me that is the best part of the experience.” Prior to the sisters’ arrival, the immigrant workers did not have anyone in the area’s parishes who spoke their language. “The Catholic Church had been losing people in North Dakota,” she said. “We have been helping the Church to save and to keep people.”
She explained that many of the workers in North Dakota’s oil fields around Williston arrive alone. “Some of them don’t have relatives or friends. Everybody needs family, and in our Church, everybody is family. We are God’s family.”
She and her companions, Sisters Azucena González and Rosa Arreola, visit the makeshift camps that offer temporary housing for the workers, knock on doors and pass out information throughout the area. They even evangelize at Walmart. “It is the perfect place,” said Sister Hernández. “We walk the aisles meeting people and talking about the parish. Many people have never seen a sister in a habit."
During the sisters’ first year in Williston, Sister Hernández said, the first Communion of 25 Hispanic children had a ripple effect: Some of their parents hadn’t been receiving Communion because they were not married in the Church. When their children asked them why they didn’t go to Communion, they decided to get married in the Church. “We evangelized the kids,” she said, “and then the kids evangelized their parents. It is awesome.”
Sister María Catalina Carrillo, who is on the leadership team of Sister Hernández’s religious order in Mexico, said, “The sisters in this program are the bridge between the Hispanic and Anglo cultures. They bring the two communities together.”
For many sisters it has also been an eye-opening experience with respect to the realities of life for immigrants in the U.S., Sister Carrillo said, “In Mexico we think that people who move from Mexico to the United States have an easy life, but they don’t. They have to face so many difficulties, and the sisters bring them joy through the Church and make them feel welcome.”
A motherly embrace
To help minister to the growing population of Catholic immigrants in the three southernmost counties of South Carolina, the Diocese of Charleston invited four sisters from the Congregation of the Disciples of Jesus the Good Shepherd to come to Bluffton. Since their arrival at St. Gregory the Great Parish in October 2014, the four sisters have been reaching out to and evangelizing the area’s Hispanics.
Sister Gabriela Hermila Cruz, who works at St. Anthony Parish in Walterboro, said that prior to their arrival, many Latinos were not connected to the area’s parishes. “When we came,” she said, “we created a bridge. And now they have a kind of mother in us. We bring the Church closer to them, and make them more comfortable coming to church.”
With the many struggles they face, Sister Cruz said, what people need most of all is a welcome, understanding and kindness. “With the grace of the Lord,” she added, “we have been able to give people some joy and happiness.” What she tries to let people know most of all is that “God really loves us, and He is always with us, especially when we have difficulties.”
Accompanying people through their hardships also involves sharing their pain. In her prayers Sister Margarita del Carmen Morales especially remembers one of her parishioners, a father who lost his 19-year-old son in Mexico. He had been unable to see his child for many years, and he could not even go to his funeral. “That experience broke my heart,” she said. “Not only did his son die, but he also had that great pain that he had not seen him grow up.”
With their example, they have also invited and encouraged several young Latinas to consider religious vocations.
Jennifer Bermejo, a young woman from Bluffton who attended a vocation retreat with the sisters, said she feels she has a calling, but she isn’t sure yet what it is. The example of the sisters, hearing their stories and knowing that they felt the same way “gives me motivation to continue on the path of searching for Jesus and finding my true vocation,” she said. She added that it doesn’t hurt that the “sisters are always smiling, they are dancing, they joke around with you, and they are always making you laugh.”
A gift to the U.S. Church
In May, during a gathering of the Latin American sisters and their mother superiors in Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich thanked the sisters for their great gift to the Church in the United States.
As chancellor of Catholic Extension, Cardinal Cupich has been instrumental in developing and guiding the program. He asked the sisters to “tell our immigrant brothers and sisters throughout the country that God is with them in this challenging time and that the Church will never stop advocating for them. Tell them that their culture and language are beautiful and that they enrich us. And tell them that I will pray to our Mother Mary that she protect and cover them and their families in her mantle.”
A recent joint study of Trinity Washington University, GHR Foundation and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate highlighted the contributions and experiences of international sisters in the United States. Led by Sister of Notre Dame Mary Johnson, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Trinity, the study concluded that international sisters are “creating new patterns of international relationships and ministry.”
The authors of the study have cited the U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program as a leading model. They believe that programs like it “have the potential of even greater collaboration and effectiveness in ministry as well as a renewed energy for the building up of religious life and the Church and even greater service to the world.”
Brad Myers from the Hilton Foundation said the Latin American sisters embodied the joy of the Gospel: “Despite the often very difficult situations in which they are working,” he said, “there is always this joy and enthusiasm that amazes me. The sisters seem to be able to transmute suffering into joy. They radiate it. You can’t help but get caught up in it when you’re around the sisters.”
According to Myers, one of the most exciting aspects of Catholic Extension’s program is that “it is inspiring new ideas and is a template for a good partnership in the Church between the global North and the global South.” By thoroughly preparing all parties involved, providing high-quality orientation, education and leadership training and ensuring a just wage and good working conditions, he said, the program is a model for the Church.
Arabella Advisors, a philanthropic-impact consulting group hired last year by Catholic Extension to evaluate the sisters program, came to a similar conclusion. After surveying and interviewing the participants and partners in the program, Arabella concluded that it “has the potential to serve as a national model.”
Catholic Extension plans to build on this success and will continue to support sisters in mission dioceses who are living the Gospel and building up the Church by accompanying the poor.