World Mission Sunday: One relationship at a time

Categories: Around the Diocese

Oct. 11, 2013, edition
By Jennifer Janikula
For The Visitor

Franciscan Sisters build up global church through mission in Mexico

“He said to them, ‘Go throughout the whole world and preach the Gospel to all mankind.”
— Mark 16:15

When the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls arrived in San Rafael, Mexico, in 2003, one priest served the entire town center and its 54 villages.

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From left, Sisters Isabel Berrones and Aurora Tovar celebrate their first vows in San Rafael. Bishop Ramón Calderon blesses the San Damiano crosses, which were gifts to the sisters. Photos courtesy Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls

Limited transportation and poor road conditions made it difficult for the priest to reach the isolated mountain communities more than once per year.

San Rafael, 250 miles south of the Texas border, consists of high plain and mountain regions that range from 6,000 to 9,000 feet in altitude. Agriculture, the primary industry, involves mostly seasonal, manual work — tilling, planting and harvesting by hand.

Most of San Rafael’s residents identified themselves as Catholics in 2003, but wanted more opportunities to practice their religion. They wanted to learn about the church, receive the sacraments and celebrate their faith without making the long, and many times impossible, journey to town. They needed well-trained missionaries and lay ministers to carry the work of the church to the remote villages.

In response to this need, four women — Franciscan Sisters ColetteToenies, Rose Mae Rausch, Pat Forster and Janice Wiechman — with the blessing of Bishop Ramón Calderon, established the Franciscan Missionary Center.

“Our goal was to prepare them to become missionaries to their own people,” said Sister Rose Mae, who served the San Rafael mission for seven years.

‘Gringas’ with Bibles

The sisters took residence in the San Rafael parish convent and began building relationships with the local people. As they explored the outlying villages, the sisters remember the villagers being a bit confused at first.

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Franciscan Sisters Colette Toenies and Janice Wiechman are pictured at a training session for lay catechists who serve the 54 villages that are part of San Rafael Parish in Mexico. Photos courtesy Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls

The people of San Rafael did not know the women were Catholic because the Little Falls Franciscan sisters do not wear a traditional habit — they wear normal, secular clothes. “They did not recognize us,” said Sister Collette, “We were just ‘gringas’ who carried Bibles and went door to door.”

To clear the confusion, the sisters decided to wear a “modified habit” — outfits made of blue denim — until they established personal relationships with the local people.

After 10 years of service in San Rafael, even people in the remote villages recognized “las Hermanas Fraciscanas.” Their ministry had grown in size and scope to include four key values: evangelization, celebration, education and catechetics.

One of the first needs addressed by the sisters was the lack of sacramental preparation.

Parents wanted their children to be prepared for and to receive confirmation and first Eucharist. But because of the lack of parish-wide preparation, less than a dozen kids were confirmed each year.

The sisters found materials and trained teachers so that children of all ages in every village had the opportunity to attend religious education classes. A recent confirmation celebration included more than 200 children.

The sisters also began to emphasize youth leadership and provide opportunities for teenagers to minister to their communities.

One program creates Holy Week teams — groups of 10 teenagers that travel to remote villages during Holy Week. Early in the week, they evangelize door-to-door. Then, on the holy days they lead services for the villagers.

In addition to lay ministry training, the sisters assist the parish by distributing Communion, visiting the sick, assisting with funerals, leading Bible studies and teaching music classes.

Students in Residence

After several years in the parish, the sisters began envisioning a new ministry called Students in Residence. They realized many teenage girls from remote areas of the parish wanted to continue their studies, but they lived one to two hours from the nearest school and did not have access to reliable transportation.

Thanks to generous donors, the Franciscans built a new mission center in 2008 that includes living quarters for 15 middle school and high school-aged girls. Now, young women from remote villages have an option to continue their studies in San Rafael.

The program allows young women to gain the skills and confidence needed to support their families. Several women from the program intend to pursue college degrees.

“We are producing professional women,” Sister Colette said. “We are giving them a gateway to a profession — poverty lessens when they get jobs and help support families.”

Inspiring vocations

The ministry of the Franciscan sisters in San Rafael also inspired two Mexican women to join the Franciscan religious community.

Sisters Aurora Tovar and Isabel Berrones professed their first vows as Franciscan sisters at the motherhouse in Little Falls three years ago. Both sisters felt called to a life of service to the poor. They are living together with other Franciscan sisters in Monterrey, Mexico, while they complete their university studies.

In addition to the San Rafael mission, the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls maintain missions in Ecuador and Nicaragua. They have had a presence in Latin America since 1962.

Sister Colette probably speaks for many missionary sisters: “I’ve never worked so hard, but I’ve never been so happy!”

For more information about the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls and their San Raphael Mission, visit fslf.org