Stories of Faith

God's Presence in My Missionary Life by Sr. Priscilla Burke, SSpS

Over the course of my 56 years in the community, the Lord has reminded me on more than one occasion that I am where He wants me to be. This is the story of one of those times.

In 1972, I had been in Vicksburg, Mississippi for five years; I had been principal and teacher at St. Mary's Elementary for four years; and after we closed St. Mary's in favor of integrating the Catholic schools, I was a counselor at St. Aloysius High School.

I was returning to Vicksburg in July when I heard that one of the students who had been in our school had died.

John had been born in May 1957, the child of a single mother who had been a student in St. Mary's School at the time. Raised by her mother, she was forced to walk the distance of several miles, while she was in labor, to the county hospital to give birth without any help from her mother. She died giving birth and the child lived. The grandmother took the boy to raise and had another child, a daughter, herself the following year. The two, John and Gail, were raised as brother and sister and were very close. Grandmother did not let John go to school until Gail was ready to start first grade, so they were both in the same class. When St. Mary's closed its doors they were in third grade. They both went to public school.

The grandmother worked nights, taking care of a well-to-do family's children, while her own spent the nights alone. She was very strict with the two of them. They played quietly in the apartment while she slept. They could not get anything to eat without her permission and only ate what she told them they could eat.

That July day, they were at home and she was at work at a new fast food restaurant. They called her to ask what they could have for lunch. She told them they could have one apple, cut in two, for lunch.

Well, they got the apple out of the fridge and cut it in two, and then they got into an argument as to whether she would want them to peel it before eating it. In the course of the argument, they both reached for the knife and in the tussle, Gail ended with the knife between her ribs and in her heart. Scared to death, John washed the knife and put it away. He then called the grandmother to tell her that "he had been in the bathroom and someone broke in and stabbed Gail." Naturally, the grandmother rushed home, called the ambulance and the police and Gail was rushed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.

The story of what really happened came out and the grandmother wanted nothing to do with John. All night he cried, "Gail come back. Gail come back." By the time morning came, the jail staff thought he had suffered a nervous breakdown, so they took him across the state to the mental institution in Meridian. The only person related to John was the grandmother, and since she wanted nothing to do with him, they figured he could stay there for the rest of his days, as many inmates did.

I arrived back in Vicksburg before Gail was buried. The sight of this very small girl in an adult size coffin was in itself sad. After the funeral Mass at St. Mary's Church, she was taken to the cemetery, a small, ill-kept one outside of town. At that point, we knew that John was no longer in the jail, but no one knew where he had been taken.

In the next block from the convent lived a recently retired PhD. She was not a member of our parish and we did not know her before, but she contacted me because she felt for John, that this was an accident and not murder. Surely anyone who grows up with a sibling has a scar or two from sibling squabbles (I know I do). After some investigation, I found out that John had been taken to Meridian, and I drove there to visit him.

At the time, we had two SSpS Sisters in Meridian at St. Joseph Parish. They arranged to pick John up every Sunday morning at the institution, bring him to St. Joseph Church where he served Mass and then after having him join them for dinner, took him back to the mental institution. Naturally this was a spark of hope for him. And for me, it was a sign that God was taking care of him.

Meanwhile, I made appointments to see anyone I could regarding John's case - the sheriff, the judge, the welfare department. While I was doing that, the Lord was assembling others to act as tutors on Saturdays for kids who were in trouble with the courts - mainly because they did so poorly in school. She recruited me as well. Her husband was a lawyer and they decided to gather some young lawyers who would do their work for these kids without charge. A lawyer who had recently returned to town after some years agreed to represent John. Another group gathered to become mentors for these young people. A recently retired Army Colonel, Money, returned to town at this time and agreed to be John's mentor. So the Lord had gathered the four of us - the PhD, the lawyer, the mentor, and I - to fight for this young boy whom the authorities had taken to the hospital in Meridian figuring he would spend the rest of his life there.

We heard from the hospital that they wanted to release John and have him return to Vicksburg for the spring session of court. When I went to see the sheriff to see if I could go along when they went to get him, he informed me that he had been brought back that day and was in the Vicksburg jail. We wanted to get him out, but I could not post the bail. My PhD friend posted the bail and I brought John from the jail to our convent to stay. The grandmother was still so angry she wanted nothing to do with him and I could not ask the parishioners to take him. So John lived with us for the next six months.

The judge agreed that he would dismiss the case if the Welfare Department would place him with a family. The Welfare Department authorities, who had never laid eyes on him since the incident, said they would pay for his placement, but did not find any family in the state.

I approached Catholic Charities in Jackson, Mississippi and they agreed to find him a place, but could not pay for him. The Welfare Department would do that. However, I was not take have any direct knowledge of his placement.

John was taken to his new place of residence with his foster parents. They were a couple near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi who brought John to register at St. Rose de Lima School for eighth grade (a school run by our Sisters). So we knew where he was and he knew that he was in good hands!

John graduated from St. Rose, and from the local Catholic high school, and then went on to college where he received a degree in business. The last I knew he was working for a bank. The Lord's hand was so visible all through this time in my life and in John's. I knew I was in the place the Lord wanted me to be!

 

An Immigrant Who Touched My Heart by Sr. Sara Guardado, SSpS

While I was a postulant living in Mexico City, a man called at our convent. I could see he needed help. He was exhausted and his feet were badly wounded and swollen. At first I listed to his story. He had come from El Salvador and was passing through Mexico to go to the USA. In Mexico, a gang of youth had ambushed him and took the little money he had. The only way he had to go forward was to walk. He had no money for food or bus or train. He told me he had a wife and three children whom he loved dearly. His leaving was very hard for him and his wife, but they had nothing to feed or educate their children. He and his wife had decided that they needed to make a way for their children. They needed to sacrifice and maybe even give their lives for them.

I went to Sr. Emiliana and told her, "This man really needs help. He has nothing. Look at his feet." The man showered in the visitors' room and I took care of his wounded feet and gave him something to eat. He asked for further contacts of people who might help him. I gave him some train tickets I had and 50 pesos (about $5.00). After that he would have to walk again. I also gave him a blanket and a map to help him along his way.

I tried to give him hope. I told him, "I will pray for you. I am sure you will find a job. People will help you along the way." There were tears in the man's eyes and he said, "You think I will find a job?" He told me that he would never forget my help and his experience with the Sisters. Then I realized that the poor, like this man, need someone to listen to them and understand their story as much as they need food. I saw that such people need our help and to be true to our mission, we need to help them. This man really touched my heart. God gives us so much in our communities. How can we use our resources to help those in need?

 

Memories by Sr. Dolores Marie Kuhl, SSpS

As another Sister and I were taking our usual after-school walk, a middle-aged man stopped us, not far from our convent in Jackson, Mississippi. He asked us a question. "Where is Sr. Arseniana (Arlene)? She taught me when I was in the 4th grade at Holy Ghost School in Jackson and I loved her."

I'll always remember Sr. Arseniana becuase she often called her students to go to the chalkboard and write the times tables up to 12. Some could - some could not. Sr. Arseniana always came to their assistance and helped them even when they went into the 5th grade.

We told the man who had asked about Sr. Arseniana that she fondly remembered her former students, and that she had died a number of years ago.

I was teaching the sophomore class at Sacred Heart School in Greenville, Mississippi in the early 1960s. For an assignment, the students were to report about the Civil War which they had studied in class. During the next week, one student went to the public library to find good material for his report. The librarian told him he could not check out any books, but only use them in the library under close supervision. The student's report was very good. He received an A+ for his perseverance and determination.

 

My Vocation by Sr. Mary Helen Sullivan, SSpS

I first felt called to religious life around the time of my First Communion. I wanted to give myself totally to Jesus. There were Dominican Sisters, from St. Catherine, Kentucky, in our parish. But I wanted to give myself completely, either in the cloister or as a missionary, like Fr. Damian with the lepers.

This calling never left me, but I thought I should have more experiences in the world when I left high school. I finished high school at the age of 17. Then I went to Omaha to work. I lived in a boarding house with my older sister, Marg, and our friend, Marita.

My younger sister, Fran, finished high school and planned to go into Nurses Training. That would leave my mother, who had a heart attack, without any of her five daughters to help her. So, I decided to leave Omaha and go back home to help my parents for a while and then to enter the convent.

After being home with my parents for two years, Sr. Mary Charles told me that if I intended to enter the convent, I had better get going!

So, I entered the convent in Techny on September 12, 1951. After the postulancy and novitiate, I made my first vows on June 24, 1954.

 

A Missionary Walk by Sr. Engratia Gales, SSpS

It was a rather sunny day, full of warmth. A Sisters and I were treading our way along a railroad track toward the city jail in Greenville, Mississippi. It was in the early 1950's and our SSpS High School and Gradeschool (Sacred Heart) had been flourishing for many years for the black children of the area.

Sr. Immolata knew the young adult she was to visit in the jail. Acey had committed murder in a quarrel with a rival teenager. I went along for moral support and as a missionary pray-er.

Entering the jail, one door clanged behind us and locked. A second door, the same, bang, and locked. We finally were led into the cell where Acey was, but I was surprised to see a second elderly black woman lying on the second cot. I turned my attention to her, while Sr. Immolata greeted Acey.

The woman sat up, seemed very much afraid, whispered, "Sister, don't you hear them? They are setting up an electric chair to put me in it. They want to kill me." I listened, heard noises, but could not identify the source. I listened again to her fears. Then she reached under her mattress and pulled out some jewelry. Again a whisper, "Sister, take these with you or they will steal them." What was I to think? How true was her story? Jewels! Electric chair! I tried to calm her. I listened. Breathed a "Come Holy Spirit, what to do!" I knew I would not take the jewelry out with me. Again, I tried to calm and comfort her. Should I "ask" at the front desk about the electric chair?

It was time to leave. Saying our last words of hope, we again we were led out, clanging and locked doors behind us. Coming out of the jail, we met a woman and companion whom we greeted. They were here to visit their sister who was in jail. To our surprise, they were coming to visit the same woman I visited. I told them my story. "Sister," they said, "we know how she talks. She imagines things going on; her mind is crumpled with many visions. Do not worry about the things she told you." Suddenly, the sunshine seemed brighter!