Home visits key to Franciscan sister’s approach to Latino ministry

Categories: Around the Diocese

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Sister Aurora visits with a family recently in Long Prairie. (Photo submitted)

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Franciscan Sister Aurora Tovar is a long way from her home parish of San Rafael in the Diocese of Linares, Mexico, where she worked as a lay leader and catechist and where she first met the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.

But the ministry she does here in Minnesota is very much the same.

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Franciscan Sister Aurora Tovar

In 2003, the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls established a presence in the villages of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, a very poor and rural area stretching across a vast expanse. They founded the Franciscan Missionary Center to train lay leaders to help with pastoral ministry.

As part of their outreach, the sisters visited homes of the local people and Aurora went with them.

“When I accompanied the sisters visiting the families at the different villages, I observed their work and commitment to the most needy of God’s love, like St. Francis of Assisi,” she said. “The Franciscan sisters listened and became part of their family life. They sat at the table with the families to listen and share about their life experiences.”

These encounters helped develop Aurora’s call to consecrated life, inspiring her to enter the Franciscan sisters’ novitiate in 2008 and make her first profession in 2010.

“St. Francis taught that evangelization was not just to teach about the theology of our faith,” she said. “He went out and asked the people about their well-being, looking to establish a relationship with the people through words or just a friendly smile.”

Sister Aurora used this philosophy and her background as a catechist and psychologist to develop a Hispanic outreach program called “Families Count,” or “Las Familias Cuentan,” that she is implementing in Latino communities in Melrose, Long Prairie and Pelican Rapids.

Sharing meals, listening

This weeklong mission begins with Sister Aurora attending Mass with families on Sunday. On weekday mornings, she meets with older youth and trains them to instruct the younger children through songs and games in the evening while Sister Aurora leads educational sessions with the adults. She then stays in the home of a different Latino family each evening.

“I am able to share their bread, pray together and listen to them,” she said. “It gives me the possibility to see the family dynamics that help me to understand them much better in their new context and experiences. All families are gifted and talented. Our Latino families are very strong and faithful families.”

The program has three components: prayer, formation and action. Each session begins with prayer and moves to topics that help attendees recognize what it means to be a family, what their roles are in the family and how to communicate with each other and as a part of a community of faith.

“I get to know who the Latino families are,” Sister Aurora said. “And, personally, it helps me to contemplate God in all the gifts that he gives to all of us. I learn to be in solidarity with them from their own realities. What I have learned from this experience is to see how families are looking for ways to continue growing in their faith and spiritual life.”

Building the ‘domestic church’

Mayuli Bales, director of Multicultural Ministries for the Diocese of St. Cloud, is excited about the program Sister Aurora has created and supports her work in Hispanic ministry, especially in light of the upcoming synod on the family in September.

“The domestic church is the family,” Bales said. “We see the strong need of a family pastoral approach to ministry in all of our communities. We have a belief that if we can nurture all of our nuclear families, it is going to be easier to build their faith education and call them to take responsibility for their own well-being. We have the capacity to do this using the talents and gifts of Sister Aurora.”

 

Father Mitchell Bechtold, parochial vicar of the Melrose area parishes, also recognizes the impact of Sister Aurora’s efforts.

“Having Hermana [Sister] Aurora here in Melrose hearkened back to that era when Melrose enjoyed the benefits of having religious sisters in residence with them through their everyday experiences,” he said. “Her faithful efforts were met with the generous hospitality of the Hispanic community.”

Father Bechtold noted that the retreat gave Catholic families glimpses into a Catholic understanding of the family in society and the importance of every member.

“Hermana’s efforts sought to provide parents with wholesome resources, counsel and encouragement needed to help them live into their vocational roles as Catholic parents and spouses. The Catholic Church has long identified the home as the domestic church. It’s no small responsibility to be at the head of such a household,” he said.

Father Bechtold was surprised to hear that Sister Aurora often heard many of the same stories from different families.

“Hermana was very open to talk about any topic,” said Blanca Barragan, a parishioner of St. Mary Parish in Melrose. “She was willing to respond to tough questions.”

“Why is this interesting?” Father Bechtold said, adding it is because “we all have these questions that we’re not asking.”

He says that Sister Aurora’s positive voice of encouragement, her gentle demeanor, yet confident approach to the faith, from the voice of a female religious, is the “necessary complement to the priestly support the communities receive.”

“She was as a left lung to our Melrose body: we could all just breathe a little easier with the complement she brought to the ongoing efforts we priests seek to provide.”

Staying in the homes of the people, Bales said, provides the opportunity for both Sister Aurora and those she is serving to become “companions on their faith journey.”

“It has made me open my mind and heart to a more profound relationship with Hispanic/Latino ministries,” Sister Aurora said. “We need to continue praying together in solidarity for each other and opening spaces for sharing our ministerial experiences.”