The Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester and the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ regional community in Rochester both recently hosted visitors from their missions in Brazil and Chile, respectively.
Both groups of missionary sisters work with the poor and marginalized in their Latin American mission areas, providing such services as pastoral care, social services, education, health care and advocacy. The SSJ mission in Brazil comprises eight sisters from the Rochester Diocese, as well as four native Brazilian sisters. The mission serves 15 communities. The Mercy mission serves five areas of Chile, and comprises 13 nuns and 20 lay associates from Chile, Rochester, Ireland and New Zealand.
On July 11, the Sisters of St. Joseph marked 40 years of mission work in Brazil with simultaneous celebrations at the SSJ motherhouse in Pittsford and at the mission in Brazil. Eight Sisters of St. Joseph from Rochester went to Brazil for the July 11 celebration. Two American sisters serving in the missions visited the Pittsford motherhouse in May.
Also in May, the Mercy Sisters hosted a visit from three Chilean nuns, who were inspired to join the Sisters of Mercy by the examples set by women religious from the Rochester community.
The Mercy sisters
Sisters of Mercy Lia Gonzalez, Valeria Vincencio and Soledad Cantillana talked about their lives in Chile during an interview at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish in Rochester. The parish’s pastoral associate is Sister of Mercy Julia Norton, and Sister of Mercy Janet Korn, social-justice awareness coordinator for the Diocese of Rochester’s Catholic Charities, served as translator for the nuns.
Sister Cantillana joked that she chose to become a Sister of Mercy because she could never find a husband who measured up to God.
“I wanted to choose a love that would be more faithful,” she said with a smile. “God’s love never ends.”
Sister Vincencio echoed that sentiment. “I fell in love with Jesus,” she said.
Sister Gonzalez said she was inspired by Sister Korn’s example to join the Mercy Sisters. Sister Korn served in Chile from 1965-81. Unlike the nuns she saw as a child, the American sisters dressed more like the people they served, Sister Gonzalez said, and were seen as equal to the average person. She added that she enjoyed the homilies she heard at liturgies hosted by the Mercy sisters because they often featured question-and-answer periods.
Sister Cantillana noted that the American nuns were empathic women who shared the good times and bad of the poor people they served. She remembered how two Sisters of Mercy comforted her family when her 11-year-old sister died.
“They were able to feel the pain that my family felt,” she said. She added that while she explored entering the religious life in other congregations, “I felt that the other groups that I met weren’t present in the midst of my people … I felt that God was calling me to serve in my own world, and who was there? The Sisters of Mercy.”
SSJs in Brazil
“You can’t be neighbor to someone unless you can get near someone,” Sister of St. Joseph Mary Ann Mayer recalled someone saying once. “That, I think, is the core of becoming Christian.”
Getting near to the poor of Brazil has been the approach of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brazil, according to six sisters who were interviewed at the SSJ motherhouse.
For example, Sister of St. Joseph Jean Bellini, coordinator of the Brazil mission, recently helped peacefully resolve a dispute between poor farmers and a rancher that had turned violent. And Sister of St. Joseph Virginia Schmitz, who worked in education in Brazil from 1965-77, said she helped form small Christian communities, groups of a people who work together to improve their spiritual lives as well as their handicraft skills.
“It was a wonderful way to have contact with the families,” she said.
Along with Sister Schmitz, three other sisters who were veterans of the mission currently live in the Diocese of Rochester — Sisters Mayer, Ann Lafferty and Mary Anne Coughlin. Sister Bellini and Sister of St. Joseph Maureen Finn, who does pastoral work, still live in Brazil.
Sister Lafferty, one of the first Rochester sisters to serve in Brazil in 1964, worked there on and off for a total of 18 years, she said. She and Sister Coughlin both noted the striking differences between Brazilian Catholic culture and the Catholic culture in which they were raised in the United States.
“They were very much into processions, images, decorations, banners,” said Sister Coughlin, who worked in Brazil from 1968-72. “I think we were not so demonstrative.”
Sister Finn added that she remembered a rather explosive time when a group of Brazilian Catholics publicly recited the rosary.
“There was a shooting off of fireworks between every decade,” she said.
The sisters shared numerous stories of their times in Brazil, with one nun saying her mission area looked like a campsite, and another joking that they were all “wild women.” Those now home seemed nostalgic for an admittedly rugged place that nonetheless had spiritual charm.
Sister Mayer, who worked in Brazil in the 1970s, recalled working in pastoral ministry, training catechists and helping out with a mothers’ club. She grew used to dirt floors and no electricity, she noted.
“We did our stuff at daytime or at night with a candle,” she said. However, she recalled that her hosts’ poverty never affected their hospitality or dignity, adding that “if they had dirt floors, those floors were clean, they were spotless.”
“I never went to a home where they didn’t say, ‘Would you like some coffee?’ There was always a joy of seeing you.”