EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series.
Every three years or so since my first trip in January of 1981, I have traveled to Latin America to visit our Sisters of Mercy in Chile and our Sisters of St. Joseph in Brazil. In the earlier years, I visited both communities in one trip. In later years — after conversation with the sisters — I have gone to see them in a three-year rotation: one year to Brazil, the next to Chile, the third at home.
They have been wonderful experiences for me. With and through our sisters, I have had a privileged access to the life of the church in other places. It has been an education, and often an inspiration, to see how people in a different culture express their faith, celebrate it and share it with others in circumstances so different from the ones in which we live. And such visits also have stimulated my thinking about religious life — how our sisters live the Gospel as vowed religious in another land.
Last week I went to Brazil. I left Rochester on Wednesday, Jan. 13, and returned on Friday, Jan. 22. What follows is not a chronology of the events of the days. Rather I have tried to gather and write about some of the memories of the events we experienced in Brazil and what they meant to me.
At the Eucharistic Liturgy during which Sister Sandra Silva Arantes pronounced her first solemn vows as a Sister of St. Joseph of Rochester, she had an opportunity to address the congregation which gathered with her at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Uberlandia.
Her words of gratitude first embraced her mother and dad with whom she sat during the ceremony. They included her family members who were present, and, certainly the other Sisters of St. Joseph who were present. I remember, too, her special focus on the people of the parish. She thanked them for twice welcoming her into their midst — once in an earlier abandoned step toward membership in the Sisters of St. Joseph; the second when she had a change of mind and renewed her intention to take up life in an apostolic religious congregation.
Judging by their response to that moment and by their spirited participation in the liturgy, the people understood what she wanted to say to them. That is, in God’s providence the people of Immaculate Conception parish were deeply a part of her vocation story. Their patient love and companionship had sparked her early interest in religious life. And it did more. It encouraged her to trust God’s abiding presence in her life even as she continued her search for the path the Lord wanted her to follow. In her expression of gratitude for their quiet and consistent support, Sandra told them how important they had been in her life. Indeed, she told them that in her deepest being she appreciated them as people through whom God had called her and in whom God had sustained her. I have little doubt that I was not the only person at the liturgy who, stimulated by Sandra’s words of gratitude, thought about people in my life who had offered me similar gifts.
Sisters Marilyn Pray and Eileen Daly, members of the congregation’s leadership team were in Brazil for the celebration, as was Sister Donna Del Santo who came to support some vocation efforts in which the sisters are engaged. And, of course, all of our sisters currently serving in Brazil save for Sister Barbara Orczyk were present. Barbara was recently called home because of illness in her family.
They celebrated with Sandra and rejoiced with her in her profession. They also remembered and chatted among themselves and with parishioners about their sisters who were pioneers in the neighborhood and leaders in the effort to form the parish community. In that context, the names of Sisters Ann Rafferty and Elaine Hollis are spoken with great affection and gratitude. As I moved among the people of the parish and the sisters that evening, I heard bits and pieces of stories that linked the early efforts of Ann and Elaine with Sandra’s profession. They were great stories of how life is shared, of how people find encouragement, of how we all owe much to those who have gone before us. I wished that Ann and Elaine — and all of the sisters who have ever related to that community between their time and Sandra’s — could have been there to hear how deep and lasting have been the fruits of their labor.
Look for the conclusion of the bishop’s column on his trip to Brazil Feb. 5.