“Very beautiful years” – Sisters of the Precious Blood continue ministry in Chile

The setting sun, reflected on the snow-peaked Andes Mountains, cast a rosy glow over the sprawling city of Santiago, Chile. Slowly, in homes large and small, artificial lights replaced the sun’s radiance announcing the completion of another day. Throughout the country, in cities, towns and villages, in homes, local chapels and parish churches, many Chileans turned to their evening devotions to the Precious Blood of Jesus.

In addition to symbols of the cross and chalice and images of the Madonna adorning the walls of churches and homes, often a picture of Maria Anna Brunner, the fundadora de las Hermanas de la Preciosa Sangre, holds a place of honor. …

So begins A Mission of Love / Una Misión de Amor, written by Sister Helen Weber in 2007 to mark half a century of ministry in Chile by the Sisters of the Precious Blood. Today — through numerous changes in the church and society, and still in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — Precious Blood Spirituality continues to be a life force in Chile’s Christian communities and in the lives touched by Sisters through the years.

Sister Maria Luisa Miller grew up in Ottoville, Ohio, where some of her schoolteachers were Precious Blood Sisters; in the eighth grade, her teacher Sister Leonita Westerheide asked if she had ever considered being a Sister. That seed grew, and young Maria Luisa left Ottoville in 1950 to attend high school as an aspirant at Fatima Hall, the Congregation’s former school in Dayton.

She entered the Community in 1954 and soon after put in her name for consideration as a missionary to Chile. After teaching in the U.S. as a young Sister for nearly a decade, Sister Maria Luisa was called back to Dayton in 1965 to take Spanish classes at the University of Dayton and begin preparing for mission in Chile.

“My mother was a stay-at-home missionary, and my missionary vocation came from her,” Sister Maria Luisa said. “She did all sorts of things to raise money for the missions, and we prayed for them and read about them.” Her mother also knew the Congregation’s superior, Mother Aquinas Stadtherr. “I think because my mother had had Mother Aquinas as her teacher in Ottoville, and Mother Aquinas would be with us in Chile, my parents were comfortable with my going so far away.”

She arrived in the country, along with Sister Marita Beumer, on February 11, 1966. “It was a special date in Chile, as the Chilean Sisters had been received into the novitiate and made first vows that day — so that was especially memorable,” she said. Sister Maria Luisa spent 19 years teaching elementary students at St. Gaspar School, founded by the Missionaries of the Precious Blood in 1954. Sisters of the Precious Blood had joined the faculty beginning in 1957.

All the Sisters’ ministries, which included teaching, catechesis and pastoral ministry, were interrupted to varying degrees by a bloody military coup in 1973, led by General Augusto Pinochet. In the months and years that followed, thousands of people were killed, disappeared, tortured or imprisoned. Sister Maria Luisa said that in the early years of Pinochet’s dictatorship, a nightly curfew meant that Sisters and parishioners were not able to hold pastoral meetings in the evening.

Even so, the Sisters continued to carry out their ministry and share Precious Blood Spirituality with the people. That sharing took root in Groups of Prayer and Friendship, numerous small Christian communities that have taken on Precious Blood Spirituality. “The groups developed over time,” Sister Maria Luisa said. “The people captured the spirituality and wanted to continue it.

“The church was very close to the poor,” she said, noting that the bishop himself lived in a very small house and was very active pastorally. The Latin American bishops had mandated that religious become one with the people. “The work was very beautiful.”

After serving for two years in the small city of Curacaví, she returned to Santiago in 1987 to serve as the Congregation’s coordinator there. She also conducted many different types of ministry, including working for the Conference of Men and Women Religious. Since retiring in 2011, Sister Maria Luisa has stayed active in pastoral and retreat ministry.

Sister Maria Luisa said she has also enjoyed the camaraderie and collaboration of the Family of the Precious Blood in Chile, a coming together of the Chilean Sisters of the Precious Blood, a diocesan community founded in Chile in 1887; the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, who first arrived in 1947; and the Sisters of the Precious Blood, who first arrived in 1957. The congregations along with the laity have activities, retreats and faith sharing.

Throughout her many ministries in Chile over the past 55 years, she said, “They have been very beautiful years working with the Chilean people.”

Sister Marita Beumer also arrived in Chile, along with Sister Maria Luisa, on Feb. 11, 1966. She spent a decade there, which she said had a profound impact on her life and ministry.

A native of St. Peter parish near Fort Recovery, Ohio, Sister Marita taught primary school in Indiana and Ohio before going to Chile. “Shortly after arriving in Chile, I was immersed in a culture and language previously unknown to me, which enabled me to broaden my worldview,” she said. “The experiences with the Chilean Sisters, people and culture have enriched all parts of my life and have given me an awareness and sensitivity to be more intercultural.”

In addition to her intercultural experience, being engaged in a variety of ministries and congregational duties served as “springboards” for her life back in the U.S. One of these ministries was the involvement with Comunidades Eclesiales de Base, Basic Church Communities, in a priestless area of Santiago called a diaconia. “In one of these areas of about 100,000 people, little by little the groups met in homes for our weekly gatherings of evangelization, trying to reach as many as possible. Then the people became the ‘missionaries’ among their own,” she explained.

“The inspiration of the integrity and authenticity of the leadership of the Chilean church and my experiences with the farmworkers/campo and the Basic Church Communities were and are bedrock for my ministry in the United States,” she said. Indeed, after leaving Chile in 1976, Sister Marita ministered with Spanish-speaking communities in Arizona and California. Today, she continues to minister with the Spanish-speaking at St. Mary Catholic Church in Dayton.

In the first three years of her mission in Chile, Sister Marita taught third grade at St. Gaspar School. “Teaching was in English,” she said. “It was the second language for the boys and in third grade, their grasp of English was minimal. And I didn’t yet know Spanish!”

In 1969, she was assigned to the Congregation’s Novitiate house in Santa Ines and became administrator of the Community’s small vegetable farm; she also supervised the completion of construction of a new, large novitiate building. In the evenings, she helped with literacy classes for farm workers in the area.

In 1972, Sister Marita was elected Vicariate Coordinator, and the Santiago Archdiocese asked the Congregation to take responsibility of the parish located in Los Bajos de San Augustin, near Santa Ines.

“Most of the Sisters agreed with this new ministry in the church. Sister Rosalina Gonzáles became the coordinator of the parish and received permission from Rome to baptize, witness marriages and preach when a priest was not available,” Sister Marita explained. “Usually once a month a priest from a neighboring parish came to our parish. In that campo area of the Archdiocesan Vicariate there were several parishes similar to Los Bajos that had religious Sisters in charge.”

At the same time, the political situation in the country was intensifying. After a trip to Dayton in the summer of 1973, Sister Marita discovered upon her return to Chile that “there was literally nothing in the Sisters’ kitchen refrigerator because of all the scarcities and political squabbles. They had a large bag of rice and beans from which they were making their food.”

On Sept. 11 that year, the president was deposed in the coup led by General Pinochet, and a military dictatorship took over. “As an everyday occurrence, I was in the line waiting for bread when it was announced over loudspeakers. Foreigners had been frowned upon, but we tried to be prudent and give hope to the people. This was our first experience of ‘war’ — lockdowns, curfews, being watched — that extended for months and some for more than a year,” she said.

Most foreigners, especially from other South American countries, were deported or asked to leave, and many retreat houses became places of refuge. “Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, an example for me of Jesus on Earth, asked the superiors of women’s and men’s congregations to help with the refugee resettlement. Another new ministry for me!” Sister Marita said. “Many of the refugees had to look for a different country rather than their own. With United Nations coordination, we communicated with the refugees and took them where they needed to go for interviews or in order to leave Chile for resettlement in a refuge country. Their stories were unforgettable as we talked with them and drove them around, trying to give them hope and avoid a stop by the police.”

Through all her experiences of teaching, catechesis and supporting their Chilean neighbors in times of crisis, Sister Marita, like others, felt that her faith and her call to mission was upheld by a love for the people. “What encouraging memories to be and feel with the groups as their stories unfolded and their lives began to be put together again — to be Church!”

Sister Regina Albers spent a decade in Chile, from 1968 to 1980, and like Sister Marita, she said her experience had a lasting impact on her faith and her worldview. After her time in Chile, she ministered to Hispanic communities in Michigan and Ohio and ultimately returned to west central Ohio in 2001. There, she organized Spanish-language Masses and formed relationships with people working in Mexican restaurants, often helping them prepare for sacraments.

“I think what was the biggest gift for me that came of my experience in Chile was that I learned Spanish extremely well, which rather surprised me. I didn’t know that I would do that,” she said. “It was also the love of the people — I even became the godmother of two children.”

Sister Regina carried out a variety of activities throughout her ministry in Chile: She taught at St. Gaspar School and in the village of Purranque; carried out pastoral work, helping people prepare for sacraments; and served as coordinator at Los Bajos de San Augustin, the “little country parish” outside Santiago where Sisters took responsibility for pastoral activities.

“It was always a wonderful spiritual experience to see the faith of those people,” she continued. “They had a very deep faith. Because the priest could only come occasionally, people really didn’t get to know him very well. I remember this one gentleman was dying and he wanted so much to have the last sacraments. But the distance … I just knew there was no way we could get the priest to come in time. And so, I prayed with the man and told him that God would take care of him. These things were difficult to handle when you knew that the priest couldn’t be there.”

Sister Regina said she learned to be adaptable, bicycling from village to village to help parishioners prepare for marriage or baptism, or provide whatever spiritual support was needed. Families often invited her to stay for a meal while she was with them. “I knew that if I didn’t eat what was on the table, they would think I didn’t appreciate it. So, whether I liked it or not, I ate what was on the table! I learned not to be a picky eater,” she said.

At the same time, she relied on her faith not only in guiding parishioners, but also in her day-to-day life, praying to St. Joseph to protect her from the dangers of traveling alone through the countryside every time she prepared to go out on her bike for the day. She recalls that on one occasion, she stopped by a home and guard dogs began to charge at her — until she said aloud, “St. Joseph, protect me.” All eight dogs continued barking, but stopped and hunched down on their hind legs.

“And you know, the strange thing was, I had no sense of fear,” she said. “It was God’s gift. It told me St. Joseph loves me and God protects. I have no doubt.”

While growing up in Egypt, Ohio, Sister Regina often heard stories of the missions from the Precious Blood Messenger. “Every month they had a story about Chile. I am not certain why, but my mother would read some of those stories after supper. And I would listen and think, ‘Wouldn’t that be something to go down there?’ I never dreamed I would actually go.

“I think that is where my vocation started, too — my thinking about it while listening to those readings. I really don’t know why my mother did that. But I enjoyed listening to them. I wouldn’t have sat down and read them myself at that age.”

Like Sister Maria Luisa’s parents, who knew the Sisters and were supportive of the missions, Sister Regina’s parents knew some of the Precious Blood priests who had been in ministry in Chile. “And then when I was asked to go, I didn’t have difficulty in saying yes; I was willing to go. It was amazing to me that I would be asked,” she said.

“I loved teaching,” she added. “I always felt respected in Chile and I never had difficulties in the classroom. I really do feel that the people appreciated us, what we did.”

Sister Edna Hess, the Congregation’s current president, first ministered in Chile from 1977 to 2003. After serving on the congregational Council in Dayton for eight years, she returned to Chile in 2012 and stayed there seven more years. She came to Dayton in 2019 to begin her term as president.

In Chile, she taught at St. Gaspar School and carried out pastoral outreach and catechesis on the weekends. She also worked for the Conference of Men and Women Religious, teaching English to seminarians and New Testament to postulants. In pastoral ministry, she worked with catechesis, youth groups and women’s groups, some of which continue to this day; she and Sister Maria Luisa also helped direct weekend retreat programs for laity.

Originally from Carthagena, Ohio, Sister Edna’s earliest introduction to missionary life came from Extension magazine, a periodical about the missions that her grandmother received in the mail. “I loved to read it, and I always thought I’d like to be a missionary,” she said. She left home at the age of 14 to attend school at Fatima Hall as an aspirant to the Sisters of the Precious Blood. “That was already a major change because Dayton was ‘the big city,’ ” she said. “So I’d had some introduction into living in a city — but going to Santiago was like changing worlds.” At that time, Santiago was about 15 times larger than Dayton.

Despite her interest in missionary life, the prospect of learning another language struck her as exceptionally challenging. Even so, before making her final vows, Sister Edna made a 30-day directed retreat focused on being open to what God was calling her to do. “After that, it seemed like I happened to keep meeting people from Chile. And because I’d also always had that missionary desire, I spoke with the Community’s president at that time and she said, ‘Go ahead.’ So I went.”

She arrived four years into the military dictatorship, and an indelible impression was left by some of the images and experiences of that era — such as the violent, often bloody, protests against the dictatorship that took place in the early 1980s. “You saw armed military on the street, which was a shocking experience. And I quickly learned that you had to be very careful about where you expressed your thoughts and opinions, because at that time people could denounce you.

“But the Catholic church really supported the families of those who went missing; it really stood against the military dictatorship. Because of that, many people participated in the church,” she said.

Many of the scary experiences during the dictatorship were not talked about because “we didn’t want to worry the Community or our families — if they had known some of those situations, they would have been so worried.”

When asked why the Congregation didn’t call Sisters back to Dayton, Sister Edna said the Community’s leadership team may not have realized the extent of the dangerous conditions in Chile at that time. “However,” she added, “I don’t think we even thought about coming back home. We felt we were accompanying the Chilean people to recover their democracy.”

In spite of those hardships, Sister Edna said the Sisters carried on with their ministry. “The leadership of the Archdiocese spoke against the military dictatorship and approved our support of parishioners who had problems with the government. We felt safe because we knew the church had our back. And so catechetics and Masses went on as if life were normal.”

Today, there are many things Sister Edna said she misses about Chile. “I miss looking out and seeing the mountains. And the people are very welcoming. People will bend over backwards to help you. It’s a more relaxed culture than ours; the person is more important than efficiency,” she said.

Through 34 years of ministry in Chile, Sister Edna said the biggest impact the experience had on her was that it brought her to a deeper love of Precious Blood spirituality. In the midst of the political protests, the cry of the blood was very real, with “a lot of killing and death, and shedding of blood,” she said. And even as the protests and the shedding of blood in the streets subsided, the spirituality of “blood as life” deepened for her through faith sharing and study with other religious communities and the laity.

Sister Ann Clark spent just under one year in Chile, from September 1979 to May 1980 — but even in that relatively short period of time, she, like others, felt that the experience had a powerful impact.

“It helped me to appreciate many things. Our Sisters in Chile all worked very hard,” she said. “I was impressed with how much Precious Blood Spirituality meant to them. They learned about it, shared it, and they lived it.”

Spending time in Chile during her novitiate also helped her appreciate both the universality of the church and how it adapted to each culture — and allowed her to learn to appreciate other cultures, and how much learning a new language “opens up your world.”

“I went along with the Sisters when they went to their ministries,” she explained. “I went to St. Gaspar School occasionally with the Sisters who taught there. I went with Sister Regina when she went on her pastoral visits. I went with Sister Mary John Brandewie when she visited and took Communion to the sick. I spent some time in Los Bajos de San Augustin with Sisters Rosalina, Marifé Hellman and Iris Flores, where they did pastoral work. I spent some time in Froilán Roa, where Sister Carmelita Monnin, Sister Noemi Flores and Sister Mary Anne Westerheide did pastoral work. I also lived in the central house with Sisters Dorothy Schmitmeyer, Maria Luisa, Cyria Huff, Pilar Moreno and Mary John. They all had different ministries,” she explained. “I had an excellent experience.”

While she was discerning ministry in Chile, her discernment called her to minister to Hispanic people in the U.S. She earned a master’s degree in Hispanic Ministry and served in that area for many years. Currently in Dayton as a member of the congregational Council, she and Sister Marita traveled to the U.S. border with Mexico to minister to migrants in 2019.

Originally from Valparaiso in Chile, Sister Rita Manríquez Silva said that as a young woman, she took part in different vocational encounters with other congregations and participated in a secular institute for three years.

“But there was always something that was missing in the spiritual; my heart said there is something else. When I met the CPPS Sisters, what attracted me most was the Spirituality of the Precious Blood and their charism around the Redeeming Love of Jesus,” she said.

She met the Sisters in 1989 through vocational meetings made in conjunction with the Missionaries of the Precious Blood and spent over a year getting to know the Congregation. “After this experience, I withdrew from my job and entered with the Sisters, even though many people told me it was crazy to leave such a safe and stable job.”

Over the past 27 years, Sister Rita has served in several parishes in Santiago, specifically in the Municipality of La Florida, performing pastoral services such as children’s catechist for First Communion and youth pastoral adviser, and accompanying participants in retreats and conferences for Precious Blood spirituality groups, accompanying small Christian communities, preparing youth for confirmation, supporting Ignatian weekend retreats and many more. She also used her gifts as a secretary at the Conference of Men and Women Religious and in the Archdiocese of Santiago. Most recently, in 2019 she accompanied the Fraternal Aid Team of the Parish of Our Lady of the Precious Blood.

The Precious Blood Sisters in Chile recently moved to a new house within Santiago and became parishioners in the Parish of St. Isabel of Hungary; due to the pandemic, they have not yet been able to start any pastoral care, but Sister Rita said they look forward to becoming more active in the future. Despite the pandemic, in November last year, Sister Rita was able to join the Archdiocese as a subdirector in the Department of Biblical Animation for pastoral care, working remotely.

Sister Rita said that these current challenging times “have given me the most life and hope, and have strengthened my faith, by joining the Bible Department and participating in an online Bible course. These experiences have given me the opportunity to delve into the Word of the Lord and renew some knowledge — and also reflect more calmly on the unconditional and deep love of God the Father and his saving project for our humanity.

“With a grateful heart I thank the Lord of Life for calling me to live in the Congregation under the Spirituality of the Precious Blood, which has filled my life with many divine graces and joys — such as having met and lived with my Sisters, different experiences in our pastoral ministry in the different parishes, having learned from them how to transmit the Spirituality of the Blood in different ways. These experiences have brought many joys to my life.”

In closing, Sister Rita asked to share a prayer “born of a grateful and joyful heart that my Lord of Life gives me every day.”

My God and Lord, my heart is full of gratitude for all that I have lived during these years in the Congregation of Your Precious Blood.

Lord, my heart rejoices with you for all the gifts and I thank you for receiving freely all you send me to put at the service of my brothers and sisters.

My Lord, may my heart be full of hope and dreams and always be aware of your loving presence.

My Lord, may your all-encompassing Redeeming love sustain all my Sisters of our Congregation that, as women Consecrated to your Precious Blood, we may continue to shed the perfume of your Saving Love so that many more may live this fullness of Joy and Gratitude. Amen.

Story by Mary Knapke with Sarah Aisenbrey; photos from the CPPS Archives collection. Thank you to Sister Maria Luisa Miller for assistance with translation.

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