Love and Resilience: stories from the Sisters

Now is such a time in our history that our working in unity towards our greater mission will shape our journey together.  How we act, what we say, the way we treat one another, the heart with which we respond, will be recounted by generations to come. 

We have been through so many challenges as an Institute over the past nearly 140 years since our courageous foundress set sail to New York for the first time in 1880.  Over the years we have faced great wars, internal conflict, disease, and many other trials, and yet we have always overcome. 

Sister Barbara Staley, MSC 
General Superior

Read the letter statement from Sister Barbara Staley, MSC General Superior.

In the next few weeks, we will be using this space to run a series recalling our heroines, lest we forget at this time all that we have been through before.

We also encourage each of you to post messages of hope and inspiration, both from the past and from what you are witnessing or partaking in now.

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“We can do all things through Him who strengthens us (Philippians 4v13).”

Argentina



Villa Amelia and La Salada were placed under the wing of the Argentine Province of the Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The assignment was perfectly appropriate for the congregation founded by Mother Cabrini, saint of immigrants, founder of schools and hospitals.

The first Sister to head out to that urban frontier was Madre Virginia Squeri. Born in 1913, she had been with MSC since 1937. She was a teacher at MSC’s Santa Rosa school in downtown Buenos Aires. Blessed with exceptional intelligence, energy, and initiative, she was certified to teach mathematics, chemistry, and physics. She played piano. She had a classy, sohisticated air about her. She wouldn’t seem to be the sort who would opt to sink her feet into the fetid sludge left by a recent flood, let alone fall in love with such a place, not to mention take city buses for a couple of hours to get there every day after teaching all morning, and then get back on the buses for another two-hour trip back home, arriving well after dark.
In fact, the buses didn’t even go all the way to Villa Amelia, no more than a taxi or an ambulance would. The streets were too bad, the crime too violent, the trip just not worth it. Villa Amelia was an untouchable place of untouchables.

So Madre Virginia had to walk the last part of the way, invariably weighed down with as many sacks as she could carry. The sacks contained a surprising variety of donated goods—clothes, medicines, cleaning supplies, the odds and ends that somebody always needs. People didn’t need to tell her what they needed. She already knew. She knew when a kid needed socks, and she just happened to have a pair. She knew when a family needed a little cash. She knew they would spend it well, and she made sure they actually did. She knew because she knew each and every family, each and every child. She visited each and every home and knew each and every problem. She didn’t chat much. She listened. She cared. She told people what to do. And what she told them to do she expected to be done. If it wasn’t done, she’d come back. Because she was a mother—everybody’s mother.

That’s what people who remember her say today. She was my mother. She knew everything, everybody, and what everybody needed. She always cared and she always had a solution. If she caught some father sending his kid out to buy beer, she’d tell the father he really should be using his money to fix the roof or put in a floor. And he should be saving some on a regular basis so that someday his family could have a better house. And then she followed up to make sure it was done. The first thing she told the people of Villa Amelia was that they didn’t have to live in the mud like that, that God didn’t want them to live that way. Then, like any good mother, she told them that nobody was going to fix the situation for them. They had to do it themselves.

To do things for themselves, they had to get educated. To get educated they needed a school. Villa Amelia had none, and the public schools some distance away were not a priority for the government. They lacked, for example, books, desks, and chalk. It wasn’t worth the trip. So in a matter of days—yes, days—Madre Virginia opened a school. As the neighborhood didn’t have any real buildings, she gave the first classes under a tree. There she started from scratch. Children didn’t know how to read, and neither did their parents. In fact, many people didn’t even know Spanish. Many of the Paraguayans were indigenous people who spoke only Guarani. Bolivians and Peruvians spoke Quechua. None of them had books or even a substantive piece of paper. The stub of a pencil would be a family asset shared with neighbors. This was a school starting at the absolute lowest level possible, consisting of little more than heroic intentions, a little shade, and a patch of ground to sit on.

from ‘Argentina, Missions for Dignity and Decency’, in ‘His Hands on Earth’ by Glenn Alan Cheney.

Read it in SPANISH, ITALIAN and PORTUGUESE HERE.

Buy the book HERE.

World War II

1939-1945


For Sister Maria, recreation was the best time of the day. She loved to hear the older Sisters talk about their lives and missions. World War II was still on their minds, and the Spanish Sisters remembered the Civil War in their country. When fascism and German troops reigned over Italy, the Cabrini Sisters tried to stay out of the fray. War wasn’t their mission. But it simply wasn’t possible to avoid it. They hid three fugitive Jews in Rome, and they hid an American Sister—technically an enemy of Italy—at their house in Genoa until an American soldier helped her leave Italy. Sisters became smugglers as they took trips into the countryside and returned with contraband crops under their habits. Often they had to go without food so they had a little something for their orphans. By the time the Allies fought their way to Rome, the Sisters were so weak they could barely stand up. 

from ‘Suor Maria Barbagallo, Work in a Troubled Word’, in ‘His Hands on Earth’ by Glenn Alan Cheney.

Read it in SPANISH, ITALIAN and PORTUGUESE HERE.

Buy the book HERE.

Spanish Civil War

1936/1939

During these recreation periods at the novitiate, the Spanish Sisters had horrific tales of atrocities in Spain. Franco had supported the Church, but he was also overthrowing an elected government, and his Republican forces were guilty of unrestrained massacres and torture. The socialists that opposed him were, in the model of Soviet Stalinism, opposed to religion, and their Nationalist forces were guilty of burning Catholic convents, schools, and hospitals. With dubious reason, the Church sided with the Republicans. They seemed safer than the Socialists, who were unabashedly anti-religion. Priests and teachers were murdered, orphans were moved from Catholic orphanages to government agencies, and some of the MSC Sisters spent time in Nationalist prisons. In one anecdote, a Sister told of three Spanish Sisters who were arrested. A female guard asked why they didn’t leave their Congregation and have a little fun in life. They replied that they were having plenty of fun in life by helping and loving people. They told the guard that, doing what she was doing, she was the one without fun in life.


from ‘Suor Maria Barbagallo, Work in a Troubled Word’, in ‘His Hands on Earth’ by Glenn Alan Cheney.

Read it in SPANISH, ITALIAN and PORTUGUESE HERE.

Buy the book HERE.

Nicaragua and Guatemala

1979

Suor Maria arrived in Managua in September of 1974 with a group of novices from Europe. Their welcome to sunny, tropical Nicaragua was a bad lashing by the tail of Hurricane Fifi, one of the deadliest storms ever to hit Central America. It passed just north of Managua, dropping over 14 inches of rain in four days. Winds reached 130 miles per hour. In Honduras, several thousand people died as whole towns were washed away by waves and landslides. In Managua the winds howled maniacally and rain thundered down. The Sisters were terrified by the sound and the violence of it. Rain leaked in through the roof. Mold lay siege to shoes, luggage, and clothes. Managua suffered less than other places, but the city had barely begun to pull itself up from a worse disaster of an earthquake back in December of 1972. Fifty thousand people died in the quake, and the center of the city still lay in ruins.

[…]

But as she learned about the situation in Central America, as she heard of the great masses of poor—the vast majority of the population—being brutally oppressed, even genocidally slaughtered, her eyes opened. She saw a new reality. She understood and accepted the new role of the Church and the new nature of her mission. Under the precepts of Vatican II and the Medellin Conference, MSCs were to be in solidarity with the poor. Solidarity meant living among the poor and living as they did. If the poor lacked water, Sisters lacked water. If the poor suffered oppression and injustice, Sisters suffered it, too. In Central America, that oppression was extreme. People got killed for even speaking about injustice. Carrying a document or poster with the name “Che Guevara” on it was essentially a capital offense. In Nicaragua, one means of execution—of disappearing people so they stayed disappeared—was to take prisoners away by helicopter and drop them into Masaya, an active volcano within sight of Managua. As director of a novitiate, Maria would be preparing young Sisters to opt for the poor and live in solidarity with them. Sisters would be involved in everything from promoting literacy to resisting injustice to helping the voiceless be heard. And that meant danger. It meant that Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus would be working for many (but certainly not all) of the same goals that the guerrillas were fighting for in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Obviously the Church and the guerrillas were employing different strategies—the Church wielding love, the guerrillas wielding guns—but both wanted to free the poor from institutionalized oppression. One major difference was that clergy and religious workers were not armed. They did not and could not fight back. Nor did they live in inaccessible mountain hideouts. Their only defense was the mercy of those in power, a mercy to a great extent based on fear of stirring up an insurrection by abusing the Church too much. Still, priests were often murdered or arrested and never heard from again. Nuns were considered little different from communist agents undermining the upper class by helping the lower class.

[…]

Traveling to other countries—which Maria did a lot, especially between Guatemala and Nicaragua—was difficult and risky. It seemed that all the Latin American military and dictatorial governments were cooperating to suppress travel. Men and women religious had a hard time getting visas. They were considered runners for a communist post office. At airports and border crossing, they were often pulled aside and thoroughly searched. Officials pawed through everything from underwear to Bibles in search of hidden papers or incriminating evidence of cooperation with Marxists. Any printed materials were taken away, maybe even used to justify arrest. It was the same all over Latin America. Treatment at customs at the Buenos Aires airport was about the same as at Managua. Police had blacklists with photographs of nuns, monks, Jesuits, priests, and other alleged subversives. To travel from Guatemala to Nicaragua by land, which Maria and other religious often did in a minivan, required crossing borders between Guatemala and El Salvador, El Salvador and Honduras, Honduras and Nicaragua—all countries with military governments and guerrilla uprisings. Suor Maria thought she was a goner the time she flew into Managua from Guatemala. As soon as she got off the plane, officials took her into a separate room. This was often the first step toward disappearance. They put her in front of a camera, told her to hold a card with a number on it to her chest, told her to turn this way and that as they photographed her from the front and both sides. She felt like a criminal being arrested. But then they let her go. 

[…]

In 1976 Maria went to Nicaragua with some of her novices for a little vacation on the beach at a little house the MSCs had. They were looking out to sea one evening, appreciating the beauty of the moonlight on the oddly troubled water. Suddenly one of the novices said she was afraid. Something was wrong. She didn’t know what it was. The next morning, at 4:00, a phone call came in. Maria was to go to Guatemala City immediately. There had been a terrible earthquake. The city was in ruins. Communication was impossible. No one knew the fate of the MSC Sisters who lived there.

[…]

Maria rushed to the airport with one of the novices but was informed that all flights to Guatemala were, of course, cancelled. It would be quite impossible to fly there for the indefinite future. Impossibility, however, had never stopped Mother Cabrini or any Cabrini Sister since. Suor Maria looked and probed and whined and wheedled and asked around and finally sobbed her way onto a military aircraft headed for the disaster zone. At the Guatemala City airport, she found, incredibly, a taxi willing to take her into the city. Along the way, she was astonished at the silence—no traffic, no people, no sounds of life. Everyone had left the city in fear of the aftershocks. The scene was otherworldly, the fronts of buildings lying in the streets, the innards of kitchens and bedrooms exposed. The only people around were looters. Maria arrived at the MSC house. It was a wreck, the outer walls still up but everything inside collapsed. The two Sisters who had remained there rather than go on vacation to Nicaragua were nowhere to be found. It turned out that they had been smart, first standing in doorways rather than running outside, then getting into their pick-up truck and driving to a place where nothing would fall on them. Suor Maria asked around and soon found them sleeping in their truck in a field. Many of the churches in the city had collapsed. As the Sisters wandered around looking for some kind of church-based rescue operation, they found that all the priests were chiefly concerned with saving their churches, the icons of saints, the holy this and that that lay under the rubble. Evangelical Protestants were thumping their Bibles and telling people that God had wreaked this damage to punish the faithless and unfaithful. The Sisters decided that their own efforts should focus on helping the poor who were now without homes, water, food, or medical care. The government was of little help. Its main effort seemed to be a propaganda campaign based on the uplifting slogan, Guatemala está de pie!— Guatemala still stands! Except that it didn’t. Due to the lack of communication and transportation, people had no idea how wide the destruction was. A Guatemalan Sister from another congregation, having not heard from her family in a distant village, felt compelled to go into the countryside to see how they had fared. She found the rural area in ruins, the people suffering terribly with no assistance, or even acknowledgement, from the government. She returned to Guatemala City, and as soon as the television broadcaster was operating, she got herself invited to a talk show. There, in tears, she told everyone what was really happening. The Conference of Religious of Honduras sent the MSCs an emergency response truck. It didn’t have much in the way of medicine or equipment, so Maria and two other Sisters did what they could, which was to raise spirits and give people hope. This was almost as important as the more physical assistance that foreign aid groups were providing. People were terribly depressed, and they had a tendency to believe the evangelicals who were saying that the disaster was God’s wrath against them personally for their bad behavior. The Sisters drove around to villages—or rather up to villages thousands of meters higher than the nearly mile-high Guatemala City— sounding a klaxon horn and ringing a bell to announce their arrival. In many cases, the Sisters were the only aid in town, so people came in great, desperate crowds. The Sisters organized prayer groups, held meetings, offered advice, blessed people right and left, and showed movies with a projector that had come with the truck. With no other options, the Sisters slept in the truck for a month, depending on peasants for food, bathing in creeks, and sneaking off to latrines when no one was looking. The Sisters from Central America were a lot more comfortable with this than the sisters from the traditional convents of Italy. But to such situations Cabrini Sisters apply a principle they call transcendence—rising above the expected to do what must be done. During the weeks following the earthquake, foreign aid poured in. Aid organizations, distrusting the government, provided food, medicine, clothes and such to local religious organizations for distribution. The MSCs were especially appreciated because unlike many other religious groups, it provided assistance to whoever needed it, not just to their own constituents. Maria saw a preacher, a Bible under his arm, thundering that these material goods will not save you, only the word of God will save you! She told him that when people are starving, food is the word of God.

[…]

But within a week, as the Sisters sat eating at the Cabrini community house, they heard a knock on the door. It scared them breathless. They remembered the last time there was a knock on the door after dark. That time, it was three Sandinistas. They demanded that Maria and another Sister, a nurse, come with them. The Sisters asked why. The men wouldn’t say. Nor would they let the Sisters refuse. So they went. The Sandinistas took them to a place that was full of severely wounded young men, guerrillas down from the mountains. They had open wounds, infections, limbs missing, limbs in need of amputation. Maria and the nurse did what they could but had to leave the next morning.

[…]

MSC Sisters with training in nursing often went into poor neighborhoods to help wounded people. This was quite illegal and could have gotten them killed. They had to lie their way past roadblocks and gauntlets of soldiers with machine guns. Sister Flora worked as a kind of spy, going alone into neighborhoods on supposed missions of catechism but really to see where help was needed. Then nurses would come later. Suor Maria should have felt fear in those days, she knew later. She and every other Sister just assumed that they’d probably meet a violent death. But Maria was oddly—and, she knew later, foolishly—at ease with this. Such is the effect of faith and mission. Her fears were only for others, her people in the field, from Sisters to base community workers to young people who believed the call of the Gospel and were so bold and foolish and faithful as to act on it. She was living in Managua but traveling in cars, trucks, buses, vans, and motorcycles to mountain villages and city slums. It was hardly what she had imagined when she decided to become a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart, but it was extremely satisfying. Extremely transcending. She was fully using her considerable capacity for hard work, compassion, rational decisions, and creativity.

[…]

In July of 1979, Suor Maria was called to Rome for a conference. But no sooner had she arrived than she heard that the uprising was really flaring up. The Sandinistas were approaching Managua. Somoza was bombing his own capital city. Maria took the next plane back but had to land in Guatemala City. A few days later—July 19, 1979—the war was being fought in the streets of Managua. Maria went back to the Guatemala City airport the next day, just to find out when there might be a flight. At the ticket counter an attendant asked her if she was crazy. There was a war. The communists were killing everybody. And it didn’t matter whether she was crazy or not, there were no flights to Managua whatsoever. But Suor Maria asked around, sobbed here and there, begged and pleaded, finally found a small foreign aid aircraft that was taking some soldiers and civilians to Managua.

[…]

She was almost there, but he told her to watch out for snipers. They were in the trees. She pressed on for another three kilometers. When she finally got to Diriamba, she didn’t even recognize the place. All the branches had been sawed off the trees for firewood, and there were barricades everywhere. It looked like a different world. But she found the school building. It was full of refugees and the place was under Red Cross administration. There were people in the classrooms, hallways, stairs, garden, everywhere, everyone with baskets and bundles. Some of the people were from nearby, others strangers from elsewhere. Nobody knew who sided with the Sandinistas, who was sticking with the Somozistas, who was trying to remain neutral. There was a big red cross painted on the roof in hopes of avoiding an air strike, but bombs fell nearby. Each explosion touched off a stampede as people rushed downstairs, dragging screaming children. Sisters were trying to keep people organized, teaching them to share and take turns. The well pump was broken. There were no disinfectants or detergent. The toilets were clogged so people had to use latrines dug in the courtyard. Neighbors, including some of the rich landowners, sent food. The Sisters spent their nights in desperate prayer. Suor Maria was especially worried about the younger Sisters. If the Somozista soldiers came along, the younger Sisters would suffer the most. Religious convictions would have nothing to do with it. If worse came to worst, the Sisters had a plan to slip out the back and follow a path into the forest. They had their bags packed. They were ready to go. The overcrowded conditions pushed people to the brink of insanity. The Sisters tried to keep them busy. They formed discussion groups, work parties, games and contests, prayer sessions. People prayed and prayed and prayed. Backsliders converted and promised to change their lives. One woman confessed in public that she was glad her husband had been arrested. He was a drunk who used to beat her. The war, she said, had been good to her. But then the husband escaped from prison and came to get her. This went on for a month. To fight off boredom, the Sisters played cards, chess, and Chinese checkers. They took turns keeping watch over the refugees, trying to prevent fights and thefts. They took in fugitives who said they needed to hide. They tried to glean news from the radio.

from ‘Suor Maria Barbagallo, Work in a Troubled Word’, in ‘His Hands on Earth’ by Glenn Alan Cheney.

Read it in SPANISH, ITALIAN and PORTUGUESE HERE.

Buy the book HERE.

The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in the tradition of Mother Cabrini, were accomplishing the impossible. Though in most cases at an age where most people would retire, these women were working harder than anyone I’ve ever known. They lived under conditions that put them close to the poorest of the poor. They put themselves in harm’s way to prevent harm to others. They loved—truly loved—everyone. That level of love is, to me, something like miraculous. The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were using love to accomplish miracles, and that’s something I will be thinking about for a long, long time.

Glenn Alan Cheney, His Hands on Earth

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