Sisters Create Oasis in Chaparral, New Mexico

Friday, December 5, 2008

We reprint here an article that appeared today in the El Paso Times newspaper about our community.

Sisters Create Oasis in Chaparral, New Mexico
By Ramon Renteria / El Paso Times
Posted: 12/05/2008 12:00:00 AM MST

CHAPARRAL, N.M. -- Nature flows into the chapel at the desert-based Flor y Canto convent.

On any day, the Assumption Sisters -- five women from Spain, Mexico, Germany and France -- can pray or meditate in their small chapel made of straw bales and see birds, rabbits, roadrunners, squirrels and an occasional coyote.

For Sister Maria Isabel Galbe, better known as Sister Chabela, the desert, as desolate and rugged as it seems, is more like paradise.

"Here, we present to the Lord the joy and pains of our community," Sister Chabela said. "We came to a sacred place, so we wanted the land, the desert, to be in front of the Lord and present in our prayers."

For almost eight years, the Assumption Sisters -- part of a worldwide religious congregation of more than 1,300 nuns -- have worked to help respond to the diverse social needs of Chaparral, a Southern New Mexico colonia of roughly 20,000 souls.

Situated in a place where people often settle to escape the "rat race" of urban life, the religious sisters of Chaparral have a worldwide influence.

Sister Diana Wauters from Allentown, Pa., one of the founders of this compound in the desert, is now based in Paris, in charge of the worldwide congregation.

The religious order's founder in 1839, Marie Eugnie Milleret, was canonized last year.

The convent itself is rather simple, a small house with a kitchen and dining area, a dormitory where the sisters live and the tiny chapel, all made out of environmentally friendly straw bales.

The sisters also run Casa Maria Eugenia, a nearby structure and trailer where most of its outreach programs for young people take place.

For Dora Reza, an immigrant from Chihuahua, the sisters have been a blessing. The single mother cleans schools in the Gadsden Independent School District.

"Their presence is very important to this community," Reza said. "They do not wait for us to come and ask for help. They will visit our homes to find out if we have sufficient food or fuel."

Sister Chabela, originally from Spain, heads the convent but shares the responsibility with Sister Anne Salaun from France, Sister Evelyn Strahl from Germany and Sisters Maria Teresa Tellez and Veronica Gonzalez, both from Mexico.

How did this social ministry wind up in Chaparral?

Bishops in the United States invited Catholic people to take care of the immigrant community, especially Mexicans in the Southwest, where tensions over illegal immigration often divide people and communities.

Assumption Sisters from Mexico and the United States responded to the call and looked at various other communities before selecting Chaparral.

"We wanted to minister to everybody and be in touch with all sectors of the community," Sister Chabela said.

The sisters connect people in need to health, church and social organizations and others that can help them.

"We are witnesses of the richness of this community," Sister Chabela said. "All you have to do is connect a need with an opportunity and click, click."

The sisters also minister to prisoners in a nearby prison and an inmate processing center in Otero County.

Sister Chabela still cries thinking of raids conducted last year by Otero County sheriff's deputies that resulted in some undocumented Mexican parents being deported and separated from their American-born children.

"You see the consequences in the children," Sister Chabela said. "There is a lot of internal anger."

One of the most successful outreach programs has been a series of summer and school break camps for schoolchildren, organized by adult volunteers and as many as 20 community teenagers serving as counselors.

Ellie Stonecash, 22, a volunteer [Associate Missionary of the Assumption] from Ohio with a teaching degree, helps tutor students lacking English skills and runs the camps and various activities.

"I'm in kind of community with the sisters here. We have lunch and prayer daily, so they keep me on my toes," Stonecash said. "I love it. I feel very welcomed by the community and the sisters."

The Assumption Sisters also have been outspoken against a proposed landfill near Chaparral. And they are working with the Catholic dioceses in El Paso and Las Cruces to try to establish an immigrant center in Chaparral.

Sister Anne served in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Africa before coming to Chaparral. She has been impressed with how Chaparral, a relatively poor community, quickly pulls together.

"What I find so striking and so beautiful is the solidarity of the community itself," Sister Anne said. "We are able to help people because other people pitch in. This is like the Gospel, what we should all be about."


Ramon Renteria may be reached at; (575) 546-6146.