The three sisters ministering at St. Mary Church in Batesville and St. Cecilia Church in Newport, live out the motto of their religious order: “All for you, O Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
“All for you,” after more than a year living with the COVID-19 pandemic, has taken on a more urgent meaning: figuring out new ways to bring the faithful back to Christ and the Church.
“The greatest gift we can give is to share the love of Jesus manifested in his compassionate and merciful heart, that restores the person and dignifies him to bear permanent fruit,” said Sister Ana Luisa Chávez Leos, 42, in an interview via email.
The Catholic Teachers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Maestras Catolicas del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus) came to Arkansas in January. Sister Ana Luisa came with Sister María del Refugio Caldera Monreal, 29. Sister Ana Lilia Mares de Luna, 41, arrived in March. Their arrival from Mexico was delayed because of the pandemic.
“We serve the whole community, Anglos and Hispanics, because communion is the sign that we know distinguishes the Church,” she added.
The sisters came as part of the U.S.-Latin American Exchange Program, launched by Catholic Extension, to send Latin American sisters to some U.S. dioceses to help cultivate growing Hispanic populations in the Church. Other members of their order served in Russellville, Danville and Dardanelle as part of the exchange program from 2014 to 2019.
“The most spiritually satisfying part of serving in Batesville and Newport has been meeting a community with diverse realities, families in need of being heard, young people and leaders with great desire to collaborate in the Church,” Sister María said. “Finding the face of God calling me to be a sign of listening and accompanying families and of collaboration in their formation, to facilitate a personal encounter with God that leads them, at the same time, to want to bring other people closer to God.”
As part of the exchange program, the sisters will stay five years and are studying for their master’s degree in integrated studies-human services and pastoral care at St. Mary University of Minnesota, primarily online. They are also studying English locally.
Pastor Father Stephen Gadberry said it’s the first time they’ve had sisters in Batesville for an extended period of time. He called them “a breath of fresh air” and pointed to the importance of their work in faith formation, religious education, sacramental preparation and administrative assistance.
“In Genesis 1, our Lord called Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. This multiplicity is not only biological. It is also spiritual,” Gadberry said. “The sisters have brought a motherly presence to the parishes in Batesville and Newport. Their complementarity to priestly ministry has been very fruitful.”
For the past five months, much of their in-person work was on hold while vaccine distribution was still in the early stages. However, they continue to work on a parish plan for the diocese, already in its third year, that surveys the needs of the parish and develops specific steps to make sure goals are achieved for ministries.
“Now it is time to reorganize the parish through a plan structured in such a way that everyone can participate responsibly in the life of the Church and relive the faith with greater commitment. People need God; the worship chapel is often visited,” Sister Ana Luisa said. “People ask for community meetings, ongoing training, workshops, spaces for prayer and faith sharing.”
One of the key ministries has been working with children and teens, who are vital to the future of the Church.
“They are the second bilingual generation, born in this country and heir to the culture of the country of their parents. They are the strength, the life and the solution; either we serve them or we will lose them,” Sister Ana Luisa said, adding that the young boys specifically have grown from being shy to expressing their desires to serve.
“They are like that teenage Jesus who seeks, gets lost, doesn't ask permission but still has a lot to learn,” she said.
Beyond formal programs, the sisters have listened to the struggles of those in the community. Sister Ana Lilia said she felt a helplessness hearing about suffering, with no concrete solutions available.
“Seeing their pain in several cases, due to the illness and in another due to the injustice in the immigration situation confirmed my call to console, listen, accompany, give hope and above all to promote faith and trust in God, our Father who always walks by our side,” Sister Ana Lilia said. “These situations of pain also stirred in my interior the need to be closer to God to pray for the needs not only of these people we met but of all those we do not know and go through similar situations; likewise to prepare myself more, both spiritually and professionally, to know how to help them better.”
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