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Cover story

Mexican nuns pray to stay in teaching’s ‘tough, hard work’

NCR Staff
El Segundo, Calif.

Twice in their first quarter-century, the Sisters Servants of the Blessed Sacrament watched their convents ransacked, their schools closed and their sisters jailed.

The fledgling congregation was barely six years old when the militantly anti-Catholic 1910 Mexican Revolution erupted and had less than a decade to recover by the time the repression returned under the Calles and Obregon regimes of the 1920s and ’30s.

“Our fathers wanted us to come home, for safety, because it was so dangerous to stay in the convent,” recalled Sr. Aurora Gonzales, then a novice and now, in retirement, director of religious education at St. Anthony Parish here.

“But some preferred to stay and suffer. We dug holes in the convent walls, covering them with dressers,” she said. The holes led through passages to other buildings and then, by ladder, up into the ceiling with a ladder at the other end to get down into the street -- to safety.

“Often the soldiers would just come knock on the door,” said Gonzales. “We had to leave right away.” Many sisters were jailed, but none were executed or hurt.

“We hid the religious education books in haystacks, anywhere, but we kept on teaching, clandestinely. When I left Guadalajara in 1936 [for the United States],” she said, “they were still being persecuted. And they still cannot wear their habits.”

The congregation was founded out of response to a special kind of violence -- a sacrilege.

Carrillo was an active priest who founded lay movements and literacy programs for adults, opened schools for girls and an industrial arts and trade school for boys. One night in July, 1901, a thief stole a ciborium and consecrated hosts from his Purisima chapel. As an act of reparation, Carrillo organized a perpetual adoration for parishioners before the Blessed Sacrament, and out of that, in 1904, grew the idea for the congregation.

During the troubled 1920s, the first sisters sent to the United States worked as domestics for bishops in Chicago and Oklahoma City until, in 1927, Los Angeles’ Bishop (later Archbishop) John Cantwell invited the congregation to open a school in Calexico on the U.S.-Mexican border.

“We have still kept to the schools,” said U.S. viceprovince superior, Sr. Ana Rosa Aceves, in El Segundo where the province is based as it readies new quarters in more rural Bonita.

“And we still go where we are sent. In the past, sent, in the present, asked,” she added. With the exception of Sr. Aurora working as a director of religious education, the sisters have stayed close to school work.

Asked why the sisters have not branched out into other areas of mission, Aceves gave a no-nonsense answer: “The number of sisters in Catholic schools is declining. The work is hard, tough, very demanding. That’s why we’re here. We’re set up to do that.

“We cannot assume these other responsibilities,” she said. “We have to make a choice. Do we take a principal out of school and make her a DRE, or continue on?”

Aceves, professed in 1959, said that in three decades the disintegration of the family has completely altered the pressures on classroom teachers.

“Children in the 1960s came to school not facing problems of parents not living together in harmony. Families then had time to come to school and work with their children.” These days, said Aceves, “we are limited by the legal aspects of some situations. You’re not free to say what you really want to say. Not free to tell the parents what you really think they should hear. That’s having a significant impact on education in general.”

How do the sisters, having to be part social-worker, part psychologist, avoid burn-out?

Their university education for U.S. schools is different from that in Mexico. “The Mexico degree from the teacher training college has no value here,” said Aceves. Here the Mexican sisters go through the U.S. degree system, “and they do take psychology classes, etc.,” she said.

“Lately, though, I think more than everything else it is the religious training in the convent that really helps us to deal with the problems of the school.”

That, she said, and the time daily spent before the Blessed Sacrament, which is exposed three-hours daily and attended by sisters not in school. On school days, teaching sisters are expected to pray there for 30 minutes.

“We pray together. I feel that a lot of the energy that comes into the apostolate -- not just my own work -- is energy from the group, and we have been able to keep that.”

The vice-province draws enormous strengths, too, she said, from shared experiences among members of the archdiocesan vicariate for women religious.

What the sisters working in the United States have not done, because of advice they early received, is join the Social Security system. “By the time we were properly informed,” said the superior, “it was too expensive to consider.”

Over the decades, nuns in teaching orders frequently received only a tiny stipend for their work in Catholic parish schools. Salaries have improved, said Aceves, but in the old days “you took it for granted that you got a convent and the parish paid for it. These days we rent the convent. We’re trying to buy convents so they are ours. We have two, so far.”

Because they have no Social Security, individual sisters -- even if like Sr. Aurora they have 40 years of teaching in the United States behind them -- have no claim on U.S. government retirement assistance.

What will the vice-province do as sisters age?

“We keep the sisters in the community as long as possible,” said Aceves, and of the 62 U.S. sisters, “only two are not working.”

The congregation has opened an infirmary in Guadalajara, “which is not as expensive as alternatives. Some sisters needing it go to convalescent homes, but the fees are high.” The problem of the aging sister, she said, is not completely solved, but partly solved.

The other solution rests in the fact the order has had no decline in the numbers of working sisters. Vocations continue, as is the case with some more traditional or conservative orders that keep close together in community and retain their habits.

“The habit is important to the identity of a nun,” Aceves said as, smiling fleetingly, she continued, “and when it comes to poverty, a habit (in the long run) is less expensive” than ordinary day wear.

“So we are, yes, conservative to some extent. But not to the extreme,” she said, smiling again.

The Sisters Servants of the Blessed Sacrament
Founded: In Guzman City, Jalisco, Mexico, in 1904 by Fr. (later Bishop) Silviano Carrillo and nine young local women. Sr. Teresa Del Rosario was the first Superior.
Carrillo’s canonization is being considered.
Membership: 710 sisters, 62 in the United States. They live in 58 communities -- eight in California, two in Guatemala, one in Peru and the remainder in Mexico. There are seven congregational houses of formation (one in the United States in Simi Valley), with 69 novices and postulants and 21 junior profess sisters. The average age is 55; in the U.S. viceprovince it’s 48.
Apostolates: The mission was and is to teach. Today’s sisters are present in 70 schools. The sisters in California are in 10 schools, staffing seven of them: Our Lady of Guadalupe Academy, Calexio (1927), Vincent Memorial High School, Calexio (1966), Our Lady of Mount Carmel, San Ysidro (1966), St. Mary’s, El Centro (1969), St. Peter’s, Sacramento (1971), Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, Sun Valley (1980), and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bakersfield (1989).

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999