Abundant blessings: Our ministry in Guatemala

We were in the car driving back to Dayton from the Su Casa Hispanic Center’s annual banquet in Cincinnati, where our Sisters had received the Organization of the Year Award. It was April 9, 2014. Sister Theresa Walter and I were remembering our time in Guatemala, Sister Terry as a clinical social worker in La Labor and other areas, and me as a nurse helping to set up a clinic in a parish in Mixco.

We had arrived in 1994. Two Sisters of the Precious Blood were there to greet us in La Labor. Sister Rosalina Gonzales had come to Guatemala in 1988 after many years in Chile to do pastoral work and spiritual direction in the parish with the Missionaries of the Precious Blood; Sister Mary Faye Hellman followed her from Chile a few years later and taught theology in seminaries. Sister Margo Young followed us in 1995 and worked as a medical doctor in clinics in the parish. In 2014, Sister Mary Faye was the only CPPS Sister still in Guatemala. Around the year 2006, she had started a school where young Mayan girls from the interior of the country with limited resources could complete the equivalent of their junior high (básico) and high school (bachillerato) education. The school was flourishing with the financial support of our CPPS Congregation along with donations.

That night in 2014, in the car after the Su Casa event in Cincinnati, Sister Terry and I talked about the fact that some of those graduating from the school had dreams of continuing their education at the free university in Guatemala City but had no place to live there. Sister Terry and I had both been exploring new options for ministries, and at some point in the conversation that night, we looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Let’s go back to Guatemala and start a house for them to live in!”

That was just the beginning of the dream, but after sharing this idea with the CPPS Community Council and in various congregational gatherings, along with a visit to Guatemala to explore the logistics of this with Sister Mary Faye and others, the Council gave us permission to move forward with their blessing and financial support. So, on September 1, 2015, Sister Terry and I moved to Guatemala City to start Casa Sofía.

For the first month, we stayed with Melvin and Cony, good friends of Sister Terry’s (and now mine) from her former years in Guatemala. Melvin is an architect, and he helped us find a large house to rent in the parish where the Precious Blood Missionaries were stationed and had their seminary. We lived there for five years and when filled to capacity, we had 10 young women living with us, mostly with two or three in a bedroom. In most of the bedrooms, that was a very tight squeeze! We developed friendships with many parishioners who helped the girls find part-time cleaning or babysitting jobs to help with their personal expenses. For several months, I studied Spanish weekly with a member of the parish. (My Spanish is still lousy, but as the words to a song go, “I get by with a little help from my friends”! And the Guatemalan people are so very understanding and helpful!) We also participated in some spiritual programs in the parish and began to have prayer vigils with the Missionaries at homicide sites in the parish neighborhoods.

Shortly after we were settled there, Sister Terry began doing counseling with patients in a separate room behind the house, and one day a week she went to the office where she had started a counseling program in La Labor when she lived in Guatemala the first time. She had worked with a psychologist friend, Guicela, to start PROMAB – Projecto Maria Anna Brunner, or the Maria Anna Brunner Mental Health Program — in 2006. When we returned to Guatemala in 2015, Guicela had been maintaining mental health services despite her own poor health. A psychologist in the parish in zone 16 had just started an association and was happy to take over and expand the mental health services, which now include five areas of Guatemala City. Sister Terry began teaching math one day a week at the school to relieve Sister Mary Faye of one of her multiple responsibilities there. I did some healing touch at the house and started teaching English at the school one day a week, also to relieve Sister Mary Faye, and taught some private clients at the house. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and put a halt to many of these activities for at least a year due to strict curfews, travel restrictions, social distancing and masks.

One disadvantage of the location where we were renting was that it was far from the University of San Carlos (USAC), the free university where many of the students were studying. If they studied at a private university, their families helped to pay tuition, or they were working to pay for their education. In any case, they were often traveling on buses at night and had to transfer buses in unsafe neighborhoods. Sometimes it would take them two hours to get home. The students never complained, but I would worry like a mom until they arrived home safely. It was actually a relief for them in some ways when classes went virtual during the pandemic. They had more time for their studies rather than travel.

We knew that providing safe housing and support for these young women to complete their education was a very important ministry meeting a great need and that it had to continue. But we needed a house of our own for stability and one closer to USAC and bus lines. We also realized the importance of forming a new legal association in Guatemala with a board of directors to include both the school and Casa Sofía so that these ministries could continue beyond the time when perhaps no CPPS Sisters were available to administer them. God was on our side when we found an old convent for sale with 13 bedrooms, two of which were large enough for two people. A few older Sisters from a Belgian congregation were still living there until new owners could be found. It was about a 10-minute bus ride to USAC and a short walk to the central hub of bus connections to other parts of the country. Other than being in need of many repairs, renovations, a larger cistern and stable internet in all the rooms, it was perfect!

We moved here to what is now our own Casa Sofía in October 2020. In April 2021, the Asociación para Mujeres la Preciosa Sangre was formed officially, and our CPPS Congregation purchased the house in the name of the Association. We formed a board of directors including CPPS Sisters and Guatemalans, and we have an attorney friend who believes strongly in our ministry to help us with all the legalities involved.

At one of our first meetings, the board wrote the mission and vision statements for our new Precious Blood Association for Women. They read as follows:

Based on the Spirituality of the Precious Blood, giver of life and reconciling presence, our mission is to promote and accompany transformative processes for women in the areas of education and formation to achieve equality through change in the social structure.

Our vision is to promote empowered women who achieve their place in a gender-equal society.

Sister Terry and I share duties as co-directors of Casa Sofía. She does the banking, and I am the house treasurer. Sister Terry, as the president of the Association, had the nightmare of getting the bank account for the Association set up and working smoothly. She is now on a first-name basis with several of the employees of our local bank! Now, in addition to our house account and our CPPS account, I also keep the financial records for the general association budget and extra donated money. Thank goodness we have an accountant, Manuel, who prepares the financial reports required by the government. I just need to see that he gets all the documents and receipts he needs regarding all our expenses.

Since last February, neither Sister Terry nor I teach at the school, now known as the Centro de Formación Multiple or simply the Center of Formation. It was getting too time-consuming for both of us. Sister Mary Faye retired in April 2021 after almost 30 years in Guatemala and returned to the U.S. It took three people to replace her: Marjory, who was one of the teachers there, is now the director of education; Zonia, one of our students at Casa Sofía who graduated with a degree in theology, is now the general director of the Center; and Norma, also one of our students who is here writing her final document to defend for her degree in education, is Zonia’s assistant. The Center had beds for 32 students and this coming year, they are making plans to convert a room to hold six more students!

At present we have eight young women living at Casa Sofía. Three will be graduating soon if all goes well with defending their thesis or taking comprehensive exams: Sindy in social work, Berna in nursing, and Lety in theology. Sindy also recently joined the board of the Association as an associate member. Four students are working full-time:

  • Sindy, as office manager for the Núcleo de Mujeres, a group of women who are theologians who present conferences on women’s issues in the church and more.
  • Berna, at an outpatient dental hospital as a surgical nurse assistant.
  • Karla, as a technical nurse in the emergency room of a private hospital while studying for her bachelor’s degree in nursing.
  • Keyla, who works in a business office while completing her third year for a degree in psychology.

Lena was studying agronomy at USAC until student protests against corruption closed that department, along with others, this past semester and probably for the next year. She has been teaching math at the Center four days a week. She uses her agronomy knowledge in taking charge of our raised vegetable and herb gardens on our roof terrazzo. Ana and Zoila are new university students this year, Ana completing her first year in psychology, and Zoila, in math education and physics. Zonia and Norma each come here for some days off from their work at the Center.

We live as a community with each person, students and Sisters, sharing responsibilities with cooking, cleaning and preparing the evening prayer as classes, work schedules and other commitments permit. Thelma, who lives up the street, comes two days a week to cook the main noon meal. The students are very good at helping out whenever needed. We all do grocery shopping: The girls go to the market within walking distance for fruits, vegetables and other foods, and Sister Terry and I drive to major shopping areas for more groceries, appliances, household items, etc. Terry continues to see clients for counseling and spiritual direction, and I help two students here with English.

We have a wonderful gardener, José, who was here for 10 years before we arrived. For several years he had been working only inside the house, helping the Sisters with cleaning, repairs and grocery shopping among other things. When we came, he returned to his gift of gardening and composting. He helped turn an insect-infested, overgrown mess into a flower lover’s paradise! On rainy days, he still helps us with things inside like carpentry work, hanging pictures, fixing a leaking faucet or doing some much-needed painting. He is definitely part of our community!

Last but not least is our sweet dog, Coco, who is two years old. He gets depressed when some of the students are gone. He loves to go for walks, but he cries and trembles when he gets in the car to go anywhere. We see his little face watching at the front window when we come home, and he runs to the door to greet us. He brings much life and laughter to a house of serious study.

God has blessed us abundantly and we trust that this ministry will continue with God’s grace.

— Story by Sister Joyce Kahle

On the cover (top): clockwise, from top left, Sisters Joyce and Terry, Magdalena Pedro Juan (Lena), Sindy Jacinto Borja (holding our dog, Coco) and Bernandina Matias Gómez (Berna); Zonia Garcia Reyes photo. Second, Sisters Joyce, Terry and Mary Faye with Delma at her graduation ceremony in 2016; third, Sister Joyce checks in on Sindy and Lena painting mobiles in 2017; fourth, Sister Terry teaching IGER math class in 2018; fifth, Sister Terry with Norma and Jen for their birthday celebration in 2021; bottom, Coco poses for his picture; contributed photos.

… at some point in the conversation that night, we looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Let’s go back to Guatemala and start a house for them to live in!”

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