In 1976-1977 the Assumption USA opened four new communities. During the ten previous years, eight communities had been closed. The map of the American Province was radically changed.
The late 1960’s – 1970s - a period of crisis in America, in the Church, in the World. “The times they are a-changin”, sang Bob Dylan.
In his book The American Catholic Revolution: How the ‘60s changed the Church Forever, Fr. Mark S. Massa S.J. writes, “The ’60s changed almost everything in American culture: rock music, literature, the youth culture, the rise of the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement. But there was also a distinctly Catholic take on the ’60s. From my point of view the “Catholic ’60s” are not the years from 1960 to 1970, but what I call “the long ’60s,” from the implementation of the first liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1964, to 1974, when the Jesuit Avery Dulles published “Models of the Church”. The ’60s began a whole succession of events whose ripples are not just ripples anymore; they are more like tsunamis affecting American Catholic communities today.”
A time of crisis - a painful time for some, an exciting time for others.
"We have all heard that the Chinese use the same word to describe the concepts of crisis and opportunity. What they mean to say is that in every crisis lies an opportunity, depending on how it is looked at. There is an opportunity in every crisis and the deeper the crisis, the better the opportunity can be. Sometimes the world needs a crisis, turning challenges into opportunities." (Fr. José Juan Romero S.J.)
The Provincial Chapter of 1974 defined the Apostolic thrust of the Province (Mission Statement) as "to educate for Liberation through Community witness, worship, teaching, personal encounter and humble service. We aim by this to develop a vital personal relationship with Christ in those we serve and eventually to bring about social reform in the light of Christian values.”
By then three trends had emerged which would guide the Assumption in her discernment to determine realistically the apostolic undertakings that would be feasible in the next years.
- Adult Religious Education: direct evangelization in Parishes, Dioceses and Universities
- Insertions among the poor and disadvantaged
- Spiritual Centers: Centers of Prayer and Reflection, Retreats and Houses of Prayer, etc.
A new style of religious community emerged, moving away from large, administratively heavy institutions to small insertions in the local milieu. These communities radiated life to the world around and responded in an Assumption way, to the needs of a changing Church and Society.
An insertion among the poor and disadvantaged: 49th Street
In August 1977, six Assumption sisters took up residence in a simple rowhouse on South 49th Street in an integrated neighborhood in West Philadelphia. The impetus for this foundation goes back to a resolution taken at the Provincial Chapter of 1969, “that a work for disadvantaged children be planned in the province within the next five years.” Later the idea would evolve as sisters expressed the desire for “a small community inserted in the local milieu, a low income neighborhood,” echoing what was being said in the General Chapter documents of the time: “We recognize more fully the call felt by the whole congregation towards an “incarnation” among the poor, the desire to reach out to others, to become simpler in our life style and in our ways… we want to live in solidarity with the mass of people who struggle for their existence and, as far as possible, assume their life style.” The Provincial Chapter of 1976 would confirm this apostolic orientation of the Congregation: “Our project of an insertion among the poor is seen as being conformed to the poor Christ who came to live among the poor.”
A committee was appointed to explore the question of where to make the insertion– Appalachia; among the migrants in Florida; or a working class neighborhood near Ravenhill? The choice of West Philadelphia was facilitated by the involvement of two sisters from Ravenhill who had been commuting since 1974 to the “Early Learning Center” in the inner-city neighborhood of Mantua where they taught in the Head-start Montessori program there. In 1976, a group of sixteen low-income Black families whose children had had a very successful Montessori pre-school experience at the “Early Learning Center”, approached the sisters for help to start their own elementary school. These parents wanted their children to continue enjoying a high quality education during their elementary years. Together - the sisters and Eleanor Childs, another teacher, and the group of parents - started their own school, “Montessori Genesis II”.
When the sisters asked that the proposed new “insertion among the poor” be in the nearby 49th Street neighborhood of West Philadelphia, it was readily accepted. For more than thirty years Sr. Anne Joseph and other Assumption sisters would teach and help administer the Genesis II School.
Another member of the first 49th street community was Sr. Diana who was just back from West Africa where she had been involved in the foundation of an Assumption community in an apartment over a bakery in Attiécoubé, a poor “popular neighborhood” in Abidjan. This brought in firsthand experience of an Assumption community “living among the poor.” Diana was back to pursue her professional formation in social work in order to return to West Africa to help the African population in its adjustment from village to urban life. She would study at the University of Pennsylvania and return to Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso in 1980.
At 49th street, ministries would develop and expand as needs were perceived and different sisters arrived, but all were involved together in the local community and the parish (Saint Francis de Sales) and with people who wanted to improve the quality of life in the area.
Montessori Genesis II
Montessori Genesis II (MGII) was founded in 1976 by a group of low-income Black families. The children of these families had had a very successful Montessori pre-school experience at the “Early Learning Center” in the Mantua section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These parents wanted their children to continue enjoying the same high quality education during their elementary years. But there was no nearby elementary school prepared to follow up on the Montessori education that had been so successful.
It wasn't the easiest decision to make, but in September 1976, in the midst of a teacher's strike, these African-American families decided to opt out of the Philadelphia public school system. They wanted their children to continue to flourish intellectually, but weren't wholly convinced it would happen in their West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua, at least not in time to help their children. So they approached the Assumption Sisters who had been teaching their children. “The founding of the school and the choice of the educational method were motivated by the positive changes they witnessed in their children as a result of their participation in a Montessori Head Start program,” wrote Sr. Anne Joseph, “they made the impossible possible; they started their own elementary school, Montessori Genesis II.”
"The school got its start with the help of nuns who worked for little or nothing, and was aided by fundraisers, community support and really good friends," wrote teacher development coordinator Eleanor Childs. From the beginning, according to Childs, the school got by "on dedication, sweat and hard-headedness."
Operating at a tuition level a mere fraction of that of other private schools, Montessori Genesis II defied the odds, proving wildly successful in educating a demographic which had often been labeled "hard to teach." Serving as something of a magnet, Montessori Genesis II drew students not only from the surrounding community, but from throughout the Philadelphia area such as North Philadelphia, Germantown, Greater Northwest Philly and beyond. The quality of the education and personal growth afforded the students at MGII was such that when they left, they could go out and successfully navigate the waters of all levels of higher education and post-academic life.
A Tracking Survey of Alumni in 2000 found that MG II graduates were enrolled in a variety of public and parochial middle schools and high schools. Many had been awarded scholarships to attend some of Philadelphia’s most prestigious independent schools: Shipley, Agnes Irwin, Gladwyne Montessori, Masterman, St. Joseph’s Preparatory, Friends Select and the Girard Academic Music Program are just a few. Of Genesis’ early graduating classes, there were students matriculating at and graduating from Colleges and Universities such as Morehouse College, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Temple, Drexel, Howard University, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, Old Dominion, Colgate University, University of Hartford, Trinity College, Hahnemann University, Delaware State College, Lincoln University, University of Virginia, University of Maryland, Morgan State, and Indiana University of PA, to pursue degrees in Medicine and Healthcare, Law, Early Childhood Education, Computer Science, Biology, Architecture, Engineering, Finance, Physics, Art, Education, Accounting, Physical Therapy.
See the video: “Montessori Genesis II: A Family Thing by Montessori Genesis II”
Growing Community Between Two Worlds
The community of West Philadelphia has always had a diverse apostolate. Located as it was on 49th Street, it was considered a model of an integrated neighborhood(1). 49th Street was, however, the dividing line between the mostly black neighborhood to the west, and to the east– University City, the bustling, culturally diverse academic neighborhood surrounding the universities of Penn, Drexel and Temple. The sisters found themselves between two worlds, but they were early to perceive the needs of these seemingly different milieu.
Already reaching out to the needs of the Black community by their involvement in the Genesis II Montessori School; collaboration with Pastor Hal Tausig in the Social Action Program of the Calvary Methodist Church; and through the promotion (along with five Protestant, Catholic and Jewish Worship Communities in the area) of the West Philadelphia Community Federal Credit Union on 50th Street(2), the sisters sought to implement the priorities of the Congregation expressed in the Provincial Project of 1982: “preference for the poor, promotion of justice and concern for young people as the society of the future.”
In 1982 (five years after the foundation) the community described its local project as "a community of faith directly involved in the apostolate of the economically poor." They hoped to become a contemplative community giving a testimony of peace, prayer and fraternal union in a moving and violent neighborhood in the city center. They also tried to make contact with the many university students living in that section of the city.
- Sister Anne Joseph while continuing to work with the black parents of Montessori Genesis II, was also in charge of religious education at a nearby University City Parish (Saint Agatha-St. James).
- Sister Marie Benedicte (newly arrived from France) taught in a large diocesan high school (West Catholic) on nearby 45th and Chestnut Streets, to be followed later by Sisters Charlotte and Silvia.
- Sister Sheila was coordinator of the training of young European missionaries (like AMAs) who were part of the Calvary Methodist staff. These young men and women came with the desire to observe and participate in the ministry of a Christian church in a poor neighborhood.
- Sister Marie Dorothy tutored children at a nearby Catholic school for the blind.
1. See: https://www.davidguinn.com/The-Heart-of-Baltimore-Avenue
2. See: What is a credit union? https://www.pfcu.com/membership/what-is-a-credit-union
The Heart of Baltimore Avenue
Philadelphia is well-known for its historic past, and the place where our American democracy began. It’s also home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the country’s largest art museums dating back to 1876, which houses some of the world’s most renowned art collections.
While it may be a wonderful place to browse through on any given day, there are plenty of other places around the city to see terrific works of art. Philadelphia has over 3,000 outdoor murals, more than any other city in the world. Most are commissioned through the city’s Mural Arts Program, which began in 1984 as an effort to address the city’s graffiti problem. One of the most remarkable murals to look for in Philadelphia is located right near our West Philadelphia community. “The Heart of Baltimore Avenue”, a mural that perfectly captures the diversity of West Philadelphia, is what artist David Guinn calls this interesting piece of art. He also refers to it as his “epic poem”. The mural features a voice component that is available on low-frequency radio, and it sits at 4716 Baltimore Avenue.
Expanding Outreach in Philadelphia
Who can ever forget the Halloweens at the Assumption West Philadelphia community where Sisters Francis Joseph, Charlotte and others excelled at welcoming neighborhood “trick or treaters” in a special way?
Towards the late 1990’s the sisters of the West Philadelphia community began expanding their apostolic outreach beyond the immediate neighborhood. Sr. Lori was able to be closer to the Filipino Apostolate which had become duly recognized as part of the evangelization work of the Church of Philadelphia. With the arrival of Sr. Silvia Robalino from Equator another ethnic ministry opened up as she became involved in the newly established “Catholic Institute for Evangelization”, headed by the then Fr. Nelson Perez (now Archbishop) to provide religious formation, spiritual growth and human development among the Hispanic people of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Further involvements in the Hispanic ministry brought Sr. Silvia to the “Capilla la Milagrosa” community on Spring Garden and 19th Street which later moved to the Cathedral Chapel, and as far away as Danbury, Connecticut for monthly weekend encounters with the Ecuadorian community there.
The Afro-American community continued to be served by Sr. Anne Joseph who, in addition to her presence at the Genesis II Montessori School, began doing Art therapy at the JFK Mental Health Center, an outreach to those living with mental and emotional health issues. And Sr. Sheila at “New Jerusalem Laura” – a community for Recovering Addicts in North Philadelphia that strives to help people recover from substance abuse without the use of medication, by substituting community service, discussion, and Bible study as routes to recovery.
Sr. Francis Joseph became involved in the Church’s Peace and Justice ministry. As part of her service to the Archdiocese, she became the director of the “Outreach Lector Series” of the Faith-Justice Institute of Saint Joseph’s University. There she provided a forum for thoughtful dialog between the academic campus and the larger community on Catholic social thought on contemporary issues.
And then, in 2000 a big change, a decision that would change the map of the USA Province once again. In order to respond to the challenge posed by the Congregation to restructure the Province, the three communities in Greater Philadelphia, were brought down to two (Lansdale and West Philadelphia) and the Bowman Provincial House was closed. This was to enable the foundation of the Chaparral community in New Mexico in 2001. As bigger houses were needed, the Lansdale and West Philadelphia communities moved into new houses. The West Philadelphia community didn’t go far, moving into a double Victorian house two blocks away on the corner of Springfield Avenue and 47th Street, across from St. Francis de Sales Church. At the same time Sr. Clare Teresa became Provincial Superior and took up residence in West Philadelphia which thus became the Provincial House.
New ministries would soon develop. In the neighborhood, the community aspired to be a “monastery in the city” - a center of prayer and spirituality, of friendship and hospitality. People gathered at the convent for the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, as well as for meetings of the Friends of the Assumption, a young adults’ group, a Sunday Reflection group, Taizé prayer, a crafts circle, and a book club.
“In 1977”, writes Sr. Therese Margaret, “it was the foundation of Lansdale, PA in St. Stanislaus Parish where Msgr. Paul Cahill welcomed us to form a permanent community. Sr. Therese Celine had already been commuting there from Ravenhill as the parish CCD head since 1972.” For Sr. Therese, Lansdale marked her fourth foundation after Baie Comeau, Canada in 1960, Waunakee, Wisconsin in 1967, and Worcester, MA in 1976.
Msgr. Cahill, had fixed up a 3 story house that had been the former rectory. It was directly across the street from the Church and on the grounds of the parish elementary school. Later the sisters would move to their present address at 506 Crestview Road.
The proposition to form the Lansdale community dated from 1973. Several apostolic possibilities for sisters in addition to the post as DRE in the parish were offered and the Assumption was ready to assume most of them in 1977. Over the next 3-4 decades different Assumption sisters would succeed to provide these services.
- Director of Religious Education (DRE): The main task is to be an “animatrice” of the CCD and adult education programs for some 1000 enrolled in CCD from pre through grade 12. The DRE prepares and gives lectures and courses, runs work-shops for CCD teachers, parents and adults. A Young Adult Program at St. Stans (a singles group for 18-35 year olds) was begun in 1980.
- Parish Ministry : 3 priests were working full time (for 2850 families) but felt the need of help. The task of a sister involved daily hospital visitation, communion calls to sick and elderly who couldn’t attend Mass; baptismal catechesis on a small group level for young couples preparing for a baby’s baptism, visiting elderly in the parish.
- Teaching : Sisters were needed to teach in the High School (Lansdale Catholic) in English, Religion, etc.
- North Penn Hospital, the area hospital serviced by the Parish, located 2-3 minutes by car from the church, would be an apostolic opportunity for a nurse who might want to do nursing or hospital visiting part time.
- Various administrative tasks at the Rectory.
Sr. Therese, writing in a Report in 1985: “Our sisters in Lansdale are all directly involved in some aspect of parish ministry. The size of the parish – approximately 25 square miles and comprising about 3500 families or 10,000 people – provides more than enough scope for the small community of four. High School teaching, adult education and education of children in public schools (CCD), hospital ministry, sacramental preparation of adults and parish record-keeping are all fields in which our sisters are involved. The adult catechumenate at St. Stanislaus is considered a model for the archdiocese. Sister Ann Teresa works in close collaboration with the priests in this adult catechumenate program. (RCIA = The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults)”
In 1986 Sr. Marie Benedicte joined the community and is well remembered for the Bereavement Ministry in the Parish and the “Landings” program of welcoming returning Catholics back to the Church.
“There are times when we all need a “quiet place” – to read, to think, to rest, to pray, to talk. In the summer of 1977 five sisters – Religious of the Assumption – settled in a new home on the outskirts of Greensboro, North Carolina. They hoped to be of service to the local community and the five parishes around the area, through their professional work (psychiatrist, psychologist and nurse) – giving witness in this way to their commitment as Religious and as Christian women. They also hoped to provide a service to the Catholics of the community by making their “quiet place” available to all who would like to respond to the invitation.” (Excerpt from an Article in the local Newsletter)
Two trends influencing the province’s reflection concerning the opening of a new work in the early 1970’s were at the origin of this foundation (venture) : the desire of sisters to live in small communities more inserted in the local milieu and the idea of a House of Prayer-Retreat Center where the contemplative dimension of the Assumption vocation would be lived and shared with others. The first community fulfilling these criteria was that of Greensboro in the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina.
In the original project submitted by the sisters who visited the Bishop, they wrote. “We see ourselves responding to the needs of a young and poor Diocese (erected in 1972 in western North Carolina, less than 02% of the population are Catholic), essentially, through the Center of Reflection and Prayer as called for in the pastoral letter of the Appalachian Catholic Bishops in 1975, “This Land is Home to Me” p. 18 1 and as suggested to us in our October visit with Bishop Begley. At this time, he felt that our life as a Religious Community naturally lends itself to being such a center which “could integrate the analytical social science skills and the profound spirituality necessary for preserving creativity in the struggle for justice”. At the time of the October visit, the following description was submitted verbally to the Bishop and accepted:
Assumption Community : Center of Reflection and Prayer
Open to all in the region and to the local Church.
Those who come would share in our life as it is :
community, prayer, liturgy, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for
an evening, a day, a weekend, or longer.”
From the beginning the Greensboro foundation was to be an experiment. In a letter to the province announcing the foundation, it was specified that “during the first year the sisters should be concerned with apostolic engagements outside the community, either in secular or church institutions in order to delineate clearly the community’s initial approach to becoming a “sharing community” primarily through personal contacts and listening to the expressed needs of the people. The community should expect to evaluate itself after two years especially in terms of the above and not in reference to establishing an “institution” – Center of reflection and prayer.”
At the end of the period of experiment, the province was obliged to withdraw from Greensboro in August of 1980 because of its inability to provide personnel to meet its apostolic commitments and to form viable communities.
With the closing of Ravenhill, in April 1978 the Provincial House moved into a house on Bowman Avenue in Merion, Pennsylvania. The initial project was – in addition to being the Provincial administration center – a community for retired or semi-retired Sisters who couldn’t live in smaller communities; it provided an atmosphere and rhythm of life helpful to them and a place where sisters who needed rest and space could find it. It soon became apparent that this house was a perfect setting for spiritual activities.
Without planning, a weekly prayer group and a monthly student retreat group gathered in Bowman and gradually the doors opened to others: pastoral teams, faculty retreats, young adults, campus ministry groups, ecumenical, social issues and pre-Cana groups. It was becoming a Spiritual/Pastoral Center – a House of Prayer.
Sister Mary Joan took charge and with the community, helped Bowman to become a center of prayer, reflection and welcome. In 1983 the “Bowman Spiritual Center” began to publicize its offerings of private and directed retreats, workshops, days and evenings of reflection, and ongoing spiritual direction and pastoral counseling.
The community also touched different parts of the neighborhood and the city through various ministries in accordance with the priorities set up by the Congregation. These outside ministries included:
• The Peace and Justice Institute at St. Joseph’s University
• The Cardinal’s Commission for Human Relations and the Office of Urban Ministry
• Director of Religious Education (DRE) at the nearby St. Margaret’s Parish
• Teaching Theology at St. Joseph’s University
Sister Francis Joseph brought an added dimension to the community’s apostolate by making it a center of AMA recruitment. Many young women came from all parts of the U.S. to offer themselves for global service and, after a summer formation session, went as AMAs to Mexico, Guatemala, Benin, Japan and the Philippines.
“Unsung Catholics quietly doing good works receive papal awards. Among those honored with the “Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” on September 5, 2019 was Sister Loretto Eugenia Mapa, R.A. who was instrumental in the formation of the Filipino Apostolate for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1995. She led this apostolate from its inception until 2014. She has also served as a committee member for the archdiocesan Office for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees (PCMR) and co-founded the Asian and Pacific Catholic Network. The “Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice”, also known as the Cross of Honor, comes directly from the Holy See and is composed of a gold medal with the name of the honor inscribed, as well as a scroll. Pope Leo XIII established this honor in 1888. It is awarded to Catholics aged 45 and above who have shown distinguished service to the Church and to the Papal office.” (Catholic Philly September 2019)
Sr. Lori explains how this happened. “I actually started my Apostolate with the Filipinos while still in the Bowman community in 1990-91. Yes! The beginnings were really in Bowman and I even brought our first celebration of Christmas (the Simbang Gabi*) there. Our first meetings were also in Bowman in the basement which was an ideal place to hold group meetings! We also hosted visiting Filipino Bishops and priests like the now Cardinal Chito Tagle when he was just newly ordained a priest."
"It was in 1995 on the occasion of the visit of the statue of Our Lady of Antipolo** on its way to the DC Basilica Shrine, that the formal establishment of the “Filipino Apostolate” in the Archdiocese happened. The statue was at first brought to our chapel at Bowman since I picked it up from Ohio traveling at midnight until morning to Philadelphia before bringing it to St Augustine and then on to Washington! Before that there was only a “Filipino ministry” in the parish of St Thomas. When the Filipino Apostolate was established I asked to keep the office in St Thomas since the nucleus was there. It got transferred to Our Lady of Hope only in 2006 when Fr. Efren was named pastor of OLH and chaplain of the Filipino Apostolate.”
It is interesting to follow the story in more detail thanks to an article entitled the “Filipino Apostolate Story” as recounted to Gina Gozum by Sr. Loretto which appeared in the “Olde St. Augustine, SUMMER SINULOG SOUVENIR PROGRAM 2002:
“In 1995, when the Filipino Apostolate was officially established, Sr. Loretto Mapa RA had already been fulfilling a role of Filipino ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. She was asked to carry out and establish this apostolate back in 1990. It all came about by happenchance. She met Fr. Arthur Taraborelli, Pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas while attending an Easter Vigil. She noticed all the Asian faces and felt it would not be surprising if she bumped into a fellow Filipino. After the celebration, she was approached by the Pastor and upon hearing that she was a Filipino Sister, immediately took her to meet the Filipino choir members. He asked if she was interested in doing pastoral outreach ; he needed someone to coordinate the Filipinos at the parish to be more active in church laity work as well as to set up the ministry itself. She began that April by making visits to local parishioners to make them feel more “at home”; it was Fr. Arthur’s wish that the parish become multicultural and found it important that she reach out to the new arrivals, mainly the Asian population. She had about 54 families by summer. By 1991, a Filipino seminarian, Brother Efren Esmilla, full of his own zeal and energy helped her to set up a pastoral program for Filipinos in the parish. She re-instituted the Wednesday evening Mass and Novena for Our Mother of Perpetual Help and, thanks to a convention called “Sandiwa” in San Francisco, she was energized with ideas for the community outreach. At the St. John Neumann Shrine at 5th and Girard she met up with more Filipinos who were looking for a place to carry out a weekly novena in honor of the Santo Nino. They found that St. Augustine Church*** was virtually empty of parishioners, so a group of Filipinos approached Fr. Walter Quinn, then pastor, and asked him permission to hold weekly novenas in honor of the Santo Nino. He welcomed them warmly. They held the first installation of the little statue in January 1992.
The big event in 1993 was the ordination of Brother Efren to the priesthood, first Filipino priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Also in 1993, Noemi Castillo, of the Office of Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees (PCMR) in Washington, DC organized a seminar on Filipino faith and culture, laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Filipino Apostolate in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
In 1994 at the Sandiwa 4 Convention in Washington, DC, Sr. Loretto was approached by Fr. Bill Rickle SJ, the acting Director of the PCMR, to ask her to coordinate the pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Antipolo’s visit in the Archdiocese as a way of beginning her Filipino Apostolate at the Archdiocesan level. The first stop on Our Lady’s itinerary was the historical St. Augustine’s Church, the theme being “the Mother visits the Child”, seeing that the Santo Nino was already firmly ensconced there. And also, since the first Winter Sinulog of 1992, the Filipino Apostolate’s mission had already been firmly in place.”
* Simbang Gabi, or “Night Mass,” is the central part of Christmas celebrations in the Philippines. It is a nine-day devotional series of Masses that is slowly becoming a part of American parishes as well. Traditionally, Filipinos gathered at church from as early as 3-5 a.m. for Mass every day from Dec. 16 to 24. Unlike regular Masses during the Advent season, these Masses are celebrated with great solemnity and the “Gloria” is sung. White is the liturgical color priests wear to celebrate these novena Masses, unlike the purple vestments that are used for other Masses during the Advent season. After the service, there is a feast where parishioners bring traditional dishes to share with the community.
** Our Lady of Antipolo: The symbol of Filipino-American Catholic faith and devotion to the Blessed Mother, the Oratory of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage (Birhen ng Antipolo), is now represented at the largest Roman Catholic Church in the United States, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The Oratory which honors the sixteenth century devotion of Filipinos to Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage was dedicated in June 7, 1997. The dedication marked the culmination of almost six years of efforts by the Filipino-American Catholic community in the United States to gain approval for the establishment of the Oratory and to raise the necessary funds for the construction. A National Pilgrimage is held every year in response to the numerous requests of Filipino-American Catholics to promote devotion to the Blessed Mother.
*** St. Augustine Church has been continually transformed by immigrants throughout its two-century history. It has nourished many generations, beginning with Irish and German immigrants, who have made their home in the river wards of old Philadelphia. Anti-Irish, anti-catholic nativists burned the church to the ground in 1844, but the church was rebuilt and subsequently became a major institution of the neighborhood. In recent times, the Filipino-American community, long a vital part of Philadelphia’s history, has played a crucial role in the rebirth of the church at 4th and Vine. Declining in the late 1980s, St. Augustine was revitalized by an influx of Filipino immigrants in the early 1990s.
To learn more see www.st-augustinechurch.com/our-filipino-community
The first foundation of a community at Worcester, Massachusetts was made in 1976, a sort of “trial run” for the community that was permanently established in 1985 and is still there today.
In March 1975 the Assumptionist Fathers (Augustinians of the Assumption) re-iterated, for the third time, their appeal for Assumption Sisters to work with them in their college apostolate at Worcester. By December it had been decided that a community be sent to Worcester to collaborate at Assumption College in campus ministry, religious education as well as in administrative and faculty roles, for a strengthening of our Assumption heritage and identity.
From a letter of Fr. Wilfred A.A. Vice President of Assumption College: “The school now has close to 450 undergraduate girls, and a majority of our 600+ graduate students are girls. It is our feeling that there should be a sister in our Campus Ministry Team. Girls may feel more inclined to approach a sister than a priest … thinking of a possible sister, my preference went to our Sisters of the Assumption for obvious reasons. … there is also the possibility of work for more than one sister hereabouts: teaching assignments either at the College or in neighboring schools – secondary or college level, a residence for students."
From Father Richard Lamoureux A.A.: “Your presence in Worcester would be an advantage to the College and to the Assumptionist ministry at the school. The Fathers and Brothers are committed to the Institution but feel “slightly” inadequate before the great amount of work that ought to be done. To be able to do this work jointly with a sister Assumptionist community would strengthen the Assumption presence and make of our work here the kind of ministry we’d like it to be. There are many things that could be said about this ministry of Truth, addressed as it is to some of the poorest and neediest people in the world. Most of our students are from the middle-classes, not wealthy but not materially poor. But most of them, like in every other school today, are poor in a way that is most urgent. They suffer from a spiritual poverty, more serious than the material kind because they often overlook it and learn to live with it. There’s another angle to consider. Half of our students are men; the other half, women. From the work in direction I’ve done on campus, I’m convinced that women too are thirsting for examples of evangelical consecration, of apostolic religious communities. … this could be an important source of vocations for you. Most of ours have come from the college. It’s an age when students make career decisions. … Working with college students is working with young adults. They have resolved more or less successfully their adolescent crises and now must face major vital issues: life, death, love, profession. Work in the classroom is consequently not the drudgery one often expects and finds in a high school setting: dialogue, discussion, formation of minds and principles are the order of the day.”
This invitation resonated well with the Assumption sisters who for many years had recognized that the Catholic formation of adults, especially young adults, was a major priority of the Church since Vatican II ; informing, arousing and guiding the conscience of the faithful to be able to live more truly their faith in their own lives and by drawing closer to others, indeed to all men of good will, committing themselves to eliminating the evils of racial prejudice and injustice in their society.
And as Sr. Therese Margaret expressed: “I want to be part of a community of persons who believe that to be used for the Kingdom is the highest value life can offer. To try to witness with others to that value on an academic campus where the leaders of tomorrow are emerging today, is the way I understand my call to join the Assumptionist Fathers in our common effort to make the Kingdom of God more an existential reality today.”
And so in the fall of 1976, four Assumption Sisters took up residence in a second floor apartment of a three-decker house on Pleasant Street just off Park Avenue, about ten minutes from downtown Worcester. They had daily Mass at Blessed Sacrament parish across the street and then made their way to Assumption College: Sr. Therese Margaret in Religious Education and in Campus Ministry with two Assumptionists; Sr. Martha of the Compassion worked in the Registrar’s office. Sr. Diana began graduate studies in social work at the Institute for Social Rehabilitation at Assumption College and later at Worcester State Hospital. Another Sister, Anne de Viron, worked with a Jesuit at Holy Cross College in town.
A Permanent Worcester Community
In March 1985, the permanent community of Worcester was founded. The sisters had already spent a school year (1976-77) at Worcester studying and teaching at Assumption College but had been obliged to withdraw due to lack of personnel at a moment when two other foundations were being made in Philadelphia.
But already by 1982 there was a project to re-open Worcester. “The Province should make a foundation outside the Philadelphia area in September 1983, whose apostolic goal (mission) would be to develop faith with young adults. The province recognizes the call to collaborate with the Assumptionnists at their College in Worcester where we had been one year in 1976-77". This call “corresponds to the 1982 Provincial Project option for teaching in universities and colleges and reaching out to young people in a way that will prepare them for social responsibility tomorrow.” Some sisters also saw that Worcester provided ideal conditions for being an international house of studies for the Congregation.
However the province was not yet ready to make another foundation in 1983, the perennial problem – lack of sisters. At a Congregational Meeting of Provincials (CGP) in Mexico in 1984, Sister Sheila presented the hope of the American Province of a “re-foundation in Worcester to work with the Assumptionnists at the College and to begin an International House of Studies for the Congregation.” But she also made an important request. “We have seriously tried for several years to renew and to develop our Province. We have not succeeded. We need the help of the Congregation."
The other provincials listened. The second foundation was made in March, 1985 after the purchase of a house on Otsego Road, one mile and a half from the campus of AC. There were six in the community : two from the United States, Sr. Therese Margaret, then Provincial, and Sr. Mary Joan Rice; one from the Philippines, Sr. Cecilia Augustina; one from Japan, Sr. Cristina Nakayama; one from Kenya, Sr. Monica Gakobo and Sr. Feliciana Massawe from Tanzania. The last three were student sisters who studied at Assumption except Cristina who enrolled in Clark University for a degree in English. Two sisters were directly involved with the students at Assumption College; Sr. Mary Joan as a member of the Theology faculty and Sr. Cecilia, as a team member in Campus Ministry.
In the Fall of 1989 Worcester became a Formation Community welcoming Nuala Cotter as a postulant. After 3 years of initial formation Nuala would make her 1st vows in 1993 before going to Belgium for her Juniorate Studies. She returned to Worcester in 1995 and began teaching full time at the College, being tenured in the English and Theology departments until 2012 when she became Provincial. Her memories? “It was pretty engrossing, and I enjoyed it - loved the kids and my colleagues as well as the great pleasures of Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bible, etc.“
To learn more about Assumption College-University visit www.assumption.edu
Campus Ministry and the Mexico Mission
In 1986, Assumption Campus Minister Sr. Cecilia Hervas, R.A., brought students and staff to San Ildefonso in Mexico for the first time on what would become the College’s annual Mexico Mission.
Sr. Cecilia, formerly called Sr. Eloisa, entered in the U.S. and taught at Ravenhill before returning to her native Philipeens in 1962. In 1985 she came back to be part of the foundation of the R.A. community at Worcester.
“I was sent on mission to Worcester since the US province was in need of personnel and asked for sisters from different Provinces. I came to the US in response to this call in 1985 and have stayed on.” Being assigned to the campus ministry team at Assumption College, Sr. Cecilia lost no time getting to know what her new mission entailed. “The first days were ‘getting to know you days’. I entered open doors of offices and introduced myself. I found an open friendliness, the staff members and faculty were just as curious to know who I was! Since I made it an almost daily routine, I soon became a familiar face". By the end of that first school year she was already proposing an immersion experience for Assumption students in Mexico.
Where did the idea come from? Sr. Cecilia explains: “Sr. Ana Josefina, the Provincial of the Province of Mexico, was on a visit and asked me one day, ‘What do you think of bringing students from Assumption College to Mexico for an immersion experience in the summer?' I was then Campus Minister in the college. That was the start of the yearly Mexico Mission which lasted for a good 25 years. It was a transformative experience for the many who participated in the program. The first Mexico Mission was in the summer of 1986 and lasted for two weeks. There were a dozen students together with Fr. Dennis Gallagher, Gerry Seibold (the College post office director) and me. We spent a week with the Assumption Sisters in San Ildefonso and a second week in the city. Our brief stay on the inaugural trip was our immersion in the life of one of the most marginalized people of Mexico,” said Sr. Cecilia. “As we lived those two weeks, our eyes were opened to the unsuspected treasures of the Otomi people. In their simplicity and poverty, they became our teachers.”
Sr. Cecilia explains what she meant by a transformative experience: “A student who took part in our trip in San Ildefonso remarked to me one day, as we shared what happened to us during our time in Mexico: ‘I was looking out my window at home the other day and noticed how a young tree was blocking my view of our garden. I wanted to enjoy from my room, the sight of the many-colored flowers that bloomed profusely in our garden that summer. With axe in hand, I started bounding down the stairs, determined to do the job. I suddenly stopped as a thought came to me, 'How long did it take for that tree to grow to what it is now? And I can just cut it down with a blow of the hand.’ I went back to the house, put the axe in its place and decided to take a long walk instead and enjoy the afternoon air.' San Ildefonso is a vast wilderness of rocky, dry barren land. Trees are sparse and can barely provide shade from the hot Mexican sun.
One of our activities was weeding the corn fields where the corn plants were just starting to come out of the ground. Now the corn seedlings and the weeds look alike at that stage of their growth. If one was not careful one could mistake the corn for weeds. That evening, as we gathered around the fire and shared the events of the day, one girl started to cry. She realized she had pulled corn plants thinking they were weeds. She had become aware of how the Otomi people of San Ildefonso were dependent on a good harvest of corn for the rest of the year!”
Another participant, Laurie MacMath-Costigan ’91 writes: “My Mexico Mission experience is present in my mind every day when I look at pictures of children I met there, which are displayed on my office wall. The Mission had a profound effect on my career choice, making it clear in my mind that I wanted to do something that provided assistance to those in need. One lesson of many lessons that still resonate today is how often when we think we are helping others, they are really the ones teaching us.”
And Fr. Dennis Gallagher A.A. writes: “Over 500 students participated in the Mexico Mission Program over the years, joining the Assumptionists and Religious of the Assumption in serving the needs of economically impoverished Mexicans in Mexico City and its environs, as well as the indigenous peoples of San Ildefonso. Not surprisingly, the principal educational benefit of the Mission for our students often turns out to be something different from what they had anticipated. “I went down to help the poor, and I ended up gaining much more than the little I was able to give.” This is the typical observation of the returning students. What is the content of the “much more” that is learned from the experience ? It often surfaces in the form of an unsettling question : how is it that a people whose material possessions are so meager but who somehow eke out an existence from day to day – can reflect in their overall demeanor and in their relationships to others - a level of peace and a joyful spirit that one is hard pressed to find among the more affluent? Where does that come from? It is true that seeing the abject poverty in which so many are forced to live can affect a salutary shock in our students and can stimulate a desire to know more about the root causes of economic disparity. That would be enough, I suppose, to justify the trip as part of our educational mission."
"But that other question, the one that dogs the minds and hearts of our students, is arguably the more interesting and educationally valuable one. The encounter that our students have with economically poor Mexicans exposes them in a more direct way with these fundamental realities that are at the source of the surprising joy which radiates from so many of them. More salutary, perhaps, than the calculus of social justice is the sobering contrast between a life marked by gratitude and interdependence on the one hand and the characteristic superficiality of our time-consuming culture on the other. In the end, it is this shock of recognition that provides the most compelling rationale for the Mexico Mission.”
New Directions for Worcester
In the spring of 2020, the Worcester community celebrated its 35th anniversary. In 1996, the apostolate of the community took a new direction when Sr. Mary Ann Azanza arrived from the Philippines, ready to help with the long-felt desire of the community and the province to begin reaching out to the greater Worcester community. Until then we interacted mainly with Assumption College students and professors on the college campus. Sr. Mary Ann’s mission was to build up our outreach to and with young people, to immigrants and the poor beyond the College Campus. Sr. Nuala tells the story of this important moment in the history of the US Province:
“There wasn’t much direction starting out, but Sr. Mary Ann (and we) got lucky pretty early on: Sr. Ann Marshall, RSM, long-time minister to the Spanish-speaking community at St. Peter’s Church in the Main South neighborhood, also prayed with the community at Assumption College. She invited Mary Ann to come to visit the church and get to know Monsignor Francis J. Scollen. She went, ate lunch - bologna and hot sauce anyone? - and the rest, as they say, is history. Monsignor Scollen invited Mary Ann to invent something for the neighborhood that the parish could provide. A pretty informal way to be hired, but that’s the motto of “our Monsignor” in a nutshell: “Cut the red tape. Just do it."
Mentoring and ESL
Pretty quickly after, on September 1st, 1996, Sr. Mary Ann began at St. Peter’s Church as the DRE (Director of Religious Education) for both the English and Spanish programs. Almost immediately an ESL program (English as a Second Language) got underway, serving at its highest point about 75 or 80 English Language Learners each semester, two nights a week, with volunteer teachers. Most, though not all, were retired Worcester public school teachers and very good at what they did.
There were also volunteers from Clark University, just across the street from the church. In fact, Mary Ann’s first fact-finding tour of the neighborhood came in the company of a Filipina grad student, Femy, who helped with the foundation of this program, as did another Filipino Clarkie, Marco, and a young American guy, Pete, whose dad was American and his mother a professor at Assumption College – who also happened to be Filipina. Yes, that connection is and has been deeply valuable to the U.S. Province, wherever we go!
For 10 years the St. Peter ESL night school carried on, until Mary Ann became the provincial in 2006 and could no longer juggle that commitment at night with her new mission. So it became a morning program, which is still in operation – or will be, once we get to post-Covid time. Some old faces disappeared, but new ones came, and that was true in the teaching ranks as well. When Sr. Catherine arrived in 2009, she gradually assumed leadership of the program, offering in-service training for our younger volunteers with the help of some of the veterans. Sr. Evelyn also joined the program as a teacher in 2017.
Meanwhile, that wasn’t all that was going on. Mentoring had begun, almost simultaneously with ESL. And why? According to Mary Ann, she’d been teaching in one of the tiny classrooms upstairs in the St. Peter’s building. The windows were open. All of a sudden, stuff was flying through the windows and bad language was coming in as well. What was going on? Down she flew, a five foot whirlwind in purple habit and gray veil, to confront a group of kids who were just hanging out, doing what kids do when there’s nothing to do. When she tells the story, she laughs at herself:
“I said, ‘Take me to your parents,’ and they said, ‘Ain’t nobody home.’ And I realized that that was a fact. I persisted, and eventually, I did meet some of the parents. It occurred to me that this situation was something we could address. Of course, there was a lot more to it than that, but that was the beginning of mentoring, right there – salty language and cans thrown at windows.”
So Mentoring also began in 1996 about a month after ESL, with 4 kids, and it continues to this day in the big meeting room of St. Peter’s Church. Twice a week, from around 2:30 till 5:00 pm, a kind of happy chaos reigns while local children and their college student mentors (from Clark, Holy Cross and Assumption) tackle homework, build things with Legos, play hide and seek outside, put on fashion shows, play football or soccer, make dioramas, eat healthy snacks, cheat at Candyland, etc.”
A Faith Community of Volunteers Forms
At Worcester – Main South, the first faith community of volunteers came together in the fall of 1997 when three graduates of our school in Queretaro, Mexico - Paola, Covadonga and Cecilia – began living in the apartments we had rented from Clark University to house a group of young lay women desiring to live as a faith community and work with RA’s in their mission. They were followed in 1998 by the six that stayed for two years : Paola from the first group and Sindy, Monica, Christine, Erin and Debbie.
For the first two years, the community didn't have a fixed name. They were called the Florence Street community the first year and the Wyman Street community the next. When the community had to move yet again the third year, they had a weekend retreat and while reflecting on the experience that had been lived, the name "Cana Community" was born ... and has stuck ever since.
One of the early “fruits” of this experience was Nha Trang who joined the Cana Community in 2000 and after a year moved into the Worcester community for her novitiate. In 2003 Sr. Nha Trang made her first vows and began her ministry with a Vietnamese group in the city. In the summer of 2000, with the retirement of Sr. Francis Joseph as director of AMA/USA, the Headquarters of AMA/USA moved to Worcester, with Sr. Mary Ann as director.
Sr. Nuala continues her first-hand story: “Around 1997 or ’98, long before we had the Center, the first group of “domestic AMAs” took up residence in Worcester. Six young women, from Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Belgium, spent two years living in and serving the St. Peter’s community. They christened themselves the “Cana Community”, saying that their water had been turned into wine by the experience of life together. That name stuck and remains today, whether there are six or three or two or even one person making up the Cana Community.
Over these 20 years and more, Cana has become very dear to the people of St. Peter’s/St. Andrew’s parish and to the Assumption Sisters, not only of Worcester, but of the whole U.S. province. The AMAs of Cana have provided much of the muscle and energy that’s gone into making our ESL, Mentoring and all the other programs of the Center happen, all the while working closely as partners in mission with the Sisters who provide continuity, oversight, and encouragement. At first, the Cana-ites were all AMAs, but as time passed, others came to share this life in community while working at their own professions. Both the volunteers and these young professionals have found a good place in Cana, and have helped it to continue to develop in ways that nobody imagined when things began, almost 25 years ago.”
The Assumption Center
The founding of the Assumption Center at Worcester in 2007 marked a major milestone in the growth of the relationship between the Assumption community, still taking part in life at Assumption College on the city’s West Side, and the Main South/Columbus Park neighborhoods about four physical miles from the house (but often many more miles away culturally and economically). Thanks to Anne Cataldo, a wonderful friend who was also a realtor, we were able to buy the old rectory of St. Andrew’s Church from the Worcester Diocese. It needed a fair amount of work – the upstairs hadn’t been repainted, it seemed, since the Eisenhower Administration – but God was good, sending us our AMA Pierre for the year, a gentleman from the south of France who loved basketball, became a rabid Sox and Pats fan, and was 6’3”. A useful height for steaming off wallpaper, skim-coating drywall, painting, and heaven knows all the other stuff involved in turning St. Andrew’s Rectory into Assumption Center. All that in addition to his other skills, which included making chocolate mousse and playing a very fine game of chess. (He started a chess club at Mentoring and used to walk up and down playing with four or five kids at the same time.)
In addition to housing the Cana Community, the Center became home base for our AMA program, directed first by Michelle Sherman in 2010 and now by Sandy Piwko; as well as a thriving Knitting Circle founded by Sr. Therese Margaret. A lot of yarn has crossed over the needles since she invited a small group of local women to come for knitting, purling, conversation and coffee. The Center has also sponsored the GIFT Lecture Series, looking at issues as varied as the “Catholic Chaplains of the Civil War,” “The Mystical Animals of The Book of Kells,” “The Real Mary Magdalen,” and “’Beyond the Green Beer, a Lake of Beer’: An Evening with The Great Irish Saints.”
There’s something for everyone at the Assumption Center, and now, thanks to the leadership of Myra Villas, our first lay director of Youth Programming, there’s even more going on. This summer, she’s been very involved in a spin-off from Mentoring called Girls With Dreams (GWD). Girls of 11 and above can get together to do some schoolwork with, again, college students who offer role modeling as well as lots of fun. GWD has been part of the Center’s programming for quite a few years now, but this summer it really took off, with a project to work in the garden and to spruce up a space in the basement for a kind of study-space/clubhouse. With the guidance of Myra, as well as the direction of Conner, our current AMA, and Serafina, a past AMA, both of whom live at the Center, the GWD have helped to make a wonderful place for themselves to study. No question that this will be important during a fall without in-class school for girls who often live in fairly crowded homes with little privacy and problematic or non-existent Wi-Fi.
Finally, of course, there’s that lovely garden, planted originally by another AMA, Letty, and nurtured by many people, both of the Center and of the neighborhood, ever since. Its name, proposed by one of the local children, is “Semillas de Vida,” that is, “Seeds of Life.”
“Seeds of Life” is a deeply appropriate name, for the links among the religious community, the parish community and the Cana community have been life-giving for everyone. We thank God for all that we’ve received and for all that we’ve been able to give during our time together, and look forward to what the future has in store for us. Whatever it will be, it will be Assumption, and that is a very good thing. (Sr. Nuala Cotter)
Assumption Center Page: http://www.assumptionsisters.org/assumption-center-worcester
Assumption Center Jubilee: https://youtu.be/L7hY92b0XMM
Semillas de Vida Page Community Garden Page: http://www.assumptionsisters.org/semillas-de-vida
Foundations on the Southwest border
The insertion of an Assumption community at Chaparral, on the US-Mexico border has its origin in the desire of the USA Province to open new apostolic possibilities in the Southwest by collaborating with other provinces. We’ve asked Sr. Anne Françoise to write about the province’s journey towards the foundation of Chaparral which we are posting in its entirety here:
“We went to the General Chapter of 1994, Sr. Diana and I (Sr. Anne Françoise, then Provincial) bringing some desires of the US Province: the province felt the necessity to be open to possible "change" from our well established position in the North East (MA and PA). We were hearing the call of the US bishops in "Ecclesia in America" (1992) to go to the Hispanic population in our country (in majority Catholic) who were lacking priests and religious to serve them when the dioceses where we were had a relative abundance of clergy and sisters. The bishops also pointed to a call to serve the immigrants and we knew that many of our sisters from Central America and Mexico had family here in the USA. Looking at our own reality we felt the desire to explore the possibility of collaborating with other provinces in a foundation in the Southwest region of the United States.
At the chapter Sr. Diana and I had conversations with several provinces, the most interesting of which was with the province of Mexico, sowing the seed for a possible common action. At the end of 1994 Mexico contacted us and we were encouraged to begin our "exploration". We wanted to see if there was a place for Sisters of the Assumption to work with immigrants at the border of Mexico and the United States. The first exploration trip was made by Sisters Clare Teresa and Anne Francoise to Brownsville, Houston, and Beaumont (Texas) followed by many other trips by sisters along the US/Mexico border. The province of Mexico soon concretized their collaboration to the project by sending us Sr. Chabela in 1996 and the "exploration" became more and more focused.
In the meantime, and after a trip to the border by Sisters Chabela and Cecilia, another collaboration began: the "missions" of students from Assumption College in Worcester and students of our schools of Mexico City and Queretaro to help run the summer camps of the “Project Arise” near McAllen Texas, close to the border. A little later in 1997/1998 Chabela received a call from the pastor of the parish in Cameron Park to work as a sister in this sprawling poor “colonia” near Brownsville Texas. With the approval of the province, Chabela lived this experience for almost a year; several sisters visited her and the experience made us grow in our understanding of and proximity with the people at the border.
More and more the project was becoming more focused and the elements for discernment clearer. At the Provincial Chapter of January 2000, we made the decision to found a community on the Southwest border for a presence and a ministry to the immigrant population. The chapter outlined also some objectives for the mission and the life of this community and its relationship with the rest of the province. At the same chapter the members of the community of Bowman expressed their willingness to close their community for the greater good of the mission of the province, and the decision to close the community of Bowman was taken.
From then on several trips to the border helped to decide on the diocese and the precise place to implant the community : Sisters Chabela and Anne Françoise to El Paso and Las Cruces; Clare to Arizona; Chabela and Diana to El Paso and Las Cruces until finally Chaparral was chosen.
So it took us six exciting years of exploration and discernment to bear fruit in the final decision of the foundation and its implementation in Chaparral, and it continues to bear fruit..."
Establishing a Community in Chaparral
In January 2000, after six years of exploration and discernment, the US Province approved the project of making a foundation in the Southwest. By September a community had been named- three sisters who reflected the internationality of the congregation: Sr. Chabela (Spanish, missionary in Mexico for 20 years); Sr. Maria Teresa (Mexican, missionary in Guatemala for 29 years) and Sr. Diana (United States, missionary in Africa for 11 years). They were later joined by a sister from Brazil, Sr. Doracina Cruz, to make a community of four, and when she left after three years she was “replaced” by Sr. Anne Françoise.
It took another visit to the Diocese of Las Cruces in New Mexico in November to settle on Chaparral as the location, and by the following January, they were there. The three-building, energy-efficient convent made of straw bales was up and running in 2002.
Sr. Diana recounts: “I remember especially my visit with Chabela for an in depth visit to the Las Cruces and El Paso Dioceses, and the marvelous way we were welcomed by Bishop Ramirez. We stayed at the house of Sr. Ida, a sister of St. Joseph of Corondolet (former Superior General). Her house was in El Paso, but every morning after Mass we would head over to Las Cruces for various meetings etc. The Bishop, after we explained what we were looking for, told us just to go and visit the various "colonias" along US Rt.28.
They were mostly farming communities and small, too small for four sisters to find meaningful work. But then we went to Chaparral. I'll never forget the first glimpse of the large Colonia nestled in the mountains. It was almost "love at first sight" for the two of us. And it was large enough, 16,000 people, who were right then involved in a fight against a land fill company. The third in the area. We joined the fight and a woman, Maria de Jesus, a Protestant, found lodging for us with another family who had an extra house on their site. We were immediately adopted and invited to these huge family parties for Christmas, Thanksgiving etc. They even started a local newspaper where we could work as journalists and translators.
We had explained how we were envisioning establishing our community. We wanted to insert ourselves in a neighborhood as a religious community. We would be a presence in the community as well as work within the community. This vision meant that the community would have to be located in an area big enough and densely populated enough to allow for multiple “job” opportunities, either in pastoral ministry or social projects. We also desired to collaborate in evangelization through the formation of Base Christian Communities. Accompanying the Faith journey of the people in and through their day to day struggles and joys was a key component in our thought.”
"Flor Y Canto"
The earth-friendly compound that the Assumption Sisters of Chaparral call home was built in 2002. “A lot of religious congregations had been thinking not only about peace and justice issues but also about the integrity of creation, of the environment,” explains Sr. Diana. “So we wanted to build this straw bale house as our commitment to that.” The project was a joint venture, drawing on skilled and volunteer labor from the parish (of nearby St. Thomas More Mission) and from Assumption College back east in Worcester, Mass. To construct the houses, the sisters explain, bales of barley straw were stacked around wooden framing and stucco was then applied by hand. The inside walls are plastered with a mixture of mud and flour (adobe), and the exterior is stuccoed. One building houses a kitchen and common area, the second sleeping quarters and a third a chapel. Walls of hand-crafted adobe bricks separate the bedrooms. With no central heating or air conditioning, the adobe helps retain solar heat at night and keeps the rooms cool by day.
The house is environmentally friendly in another way. The living quarters use an alternative waste water system in which “grey water” from bathing, dish washing and other household tasks goes into an underground system and irrigates a small garden. With water a precious commodity in this arid part of the country, the system is efficient. Sr. Chabela suggested the compound’s name: “Flor Y Canto” (flower and song). To the Aztec Indians, “Flor y Canto” is a prayer-poem to the Giver of Life. (From the article: The “Straw Sisters” of Chaparral 2006)
Each year the Chaparral community welcomes AMAs (Assumption Mission Associates) who live and work at “Casa Maria Eugenia”, a small house near “Flor y Canto” that is part-youth center, part-office space. It also has small living quarters for the associates, who spend a year there. This house has become a gathering space for Chaparral youth, a place where they can just drop in, come for tutoring, use the computer or join in programs and activities, such as “Friday Nights” (games, sports, art and crafts). The AMAs provide leadership to area youth, participate in parish ministries such as the parish youth group and Confirmation classes, help run the summer camps, assist in ESL classes in the local public schools, and often invent their own unique community projects. They maintain a strong bond with the religious community by working, praying and sharing meals together. Meanwhile, the openness of the people of Chaparral, who welcome the AMAs into their hearts and homes, provides them with an even greater sense of family and acceptance; they learn to feel at home in Chaparral as they discover another face of this country: the culture of the Southwest, the culture of “The Border.”
The first AMA, Eva Castilla who served in Chaparral in 2004-2005 shares her reflections from her life-changing AMA experience. “In the Winter of 2004, I left my home country Spain to live in Chaparral, NM with a group of women I had never met before and did not know much about. I never expected how much I would learn about myself from that experience. I would be their first AMA and my main role was organizing activities for the community, more in particular for the young, something I had never done before. Talk about learning on the job! And what was created could not have been done without the support and love of the Sisters (extraordinary women who inspired me every day), so many people from the community (especially the kids, teens and women) and dear Kristin, the second AMA who joined us several months after I arrived. I will always keep in my heart the time spent with them and the love I received.”
Over the years, the trust that has grown up between the sisters and the local people has allowed them to accompany immigrant families on the border and expand their apostolate in many different ways.
• Advocating for immigrant rights along with other regional organizations
• Teaching English as a Second Language at the Community College
• Working with teams of lay people to provide spiritual accompaniment at the local detention center and processing center (from which thousands of men are deported each year)
• Organizing educational and recreational programs for children and youth (three or four weeks of camps during the summer) for groups coming from other parts of the country and Mexico. In addition to all the fun, these groups get a chance to learn about the realities of life on the Border as well as to develop leadership skills and a culture of community service.
• Welcoming college immersion groups, sponsored by Annunciation House and Border Servant Corps, who come to visit; the object is to help these young people understand more about both the joys and sorrows of daily life in an immigrant community.
• Contributing to the faith formation of children and catechists as well as other parishioners through Scripture classes.