Preparing leaders: Deacons Margarito Gonzalez and Santiago Masis were among the many who benefited from the Sisters' ministries in Nicaragua from 1970 to 2004. Standing in front of Cristo Redentor Church are, from left, Helen Crevier, Sister Agnes Fischer, Deacon Margarito, Sister Laura Zelten, Deacon Santiago and Sister Maria Drzewiecki.
by Renae Bauer
They brought education to illiterate adults, health care to women and infants, and faith development to more than 40,000 people in a corner of the world known for political revolutions, poverty, hurricanes and earthquakes.
This is the experience of nine Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross who from 1970 to 2004 ministered to the peasant people in the Apostolic Vicariate (mission territory not yet a diocese) of Bluefields, Nicaragua, a region most of which was barely accessible except by mule or boat. Forget about cars, buses and paved roads. The living was hard but incredibly joyful. Yes, there were rats and rickety outhouses and even gunfire, but there was something powerful and intangible there, too. There was a deep connectedness to one another and to God.
"The greatest gifts were the people who were very open and hungry for a lot of formation in their faith and education and health … and very open to us," says Sister Maria Drzewiecki, who was one of the first Bay Settlement Sisters to minister in Nicaragua and was among the last to depart. "The other gift was the solidity of the (Franciscan) Capuchins there and the harmonious integration of Franciscan and pastoral values and plans."
Sister Maria along with Sister Agnes Fischer, Sister Laura Zelten and Helen Crevier (a friend of the Community who as a Sister served in Nicaragua from 1978 to 1989) were blessed to return there in early December for the vicariate's 100th anniversary celebration. Not only did they reunite with old friends and celebrate the local Church's milestone but they also saw first-hand how the ministries they initiated were flourishing under the care of local people.
This Community's connection to Nicaragua began in the early 1960s when the Holy Father asked America's religious communities to share 10 percent of their members with the Church in Latin America. Taking the challenge seriously, Sister Mary Ellen Lowney, then Superior General for this Community, contacted a friend, Father Dan Kabat, OFM Cap., who was serving in Nicaragua. After learning more about the great need for faith formation and leadership formation, the Sisters asked Father Kabat to convey to his Bishop, Matthew Neidheimer, the Community's interest in Nicaragua. In 1970 the first Sisters arrived in the Nicaraguan village of Muelle de los Bueyes.
Instead of working in the traditional school or hospital setting, Father Kabat asked the Sisters to work in the parish where they could address women's pastoral needs, from preparing them and their families for the Sacraments to teaching how to be effective catechists, musicians, adult educators, and so on.
There was also a tremendous need for local people to become teachers; however, most men and women willing to teach in rural areas tested between the first- and fourth-grade reading level. Year after year, through weekend and summer programs, the Sisters helped them advance through the grades, eventually completing grade school, then normal school before earning a teaching certificate, Today, there are 630 teachers and about 18,000 students.
"They learned to read and when you learn to read, you can read the Gospel. They've learned to dialogue about the Gospel and apply it to their lives," says Sister Agnes, who ministered in Nicaragua for 30 years.
Newborns and moms: Doña Silvia is the administrator of the maternity house in Muelle de los Bueyes, Nicaragua, which assists at-risk mothers in the surrounding area. She is one of the first parish health promoters to complete the regional training program supported by our Sisters.
Among the other changes: Muelle de los Bueyes is no longer isolated. There are roads, cell phones and television from Managua. There's even a local radio station operated by the parish, Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer).
"It's a good station," says Sister Laura. "They broadcast catechetical information as well as news and music, and you hear it wherever you go."
There's also a new Cuban hospital and a much-needed maternity house. "Infant mortality is down to nearly zero," says Sister Laura. Doña Silvia, the administrator of Casa Materna, started as a parish health promoter and kept pursuing her education because of the Sisters. She went back to school, finished grade school and eventually earned her high school degree, and "now she's running this maternity house as well as in charge of the health promoters in the parish," she added.
One thing that has not changed, and probably never will, is the Sisters' connection to the Nicaraguan people. "It's not something of our past or our history. The bond still exists," says Sister Maria.
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