In September 2016, Sisters Ange Mayers and Janice Wiechman joined Sister Mary Dumonceaux at Casa Franciscana in San Rafael de Galeana, Mexico. Sister Ange soon became involved in youth ministry in the parish. During Advent and Lent, she helped prepare 69 young people and adults to serve as missionaries in seven villages in the high Sierra Mountains during Holy Week. Sister Janice accompanies the pastor on his rounds to say Mass in various villages of the parish. She herself visits the sick in their homes and gathers with the people for Bible study. Sister Mary continues working with a team of adult leaders who prepare parents and godparents of the First Communion and Confirmation students from all the villages of the parish. This team will offer a retreat in 13 centers for 500 adults.
The ministry of providing support for young women living at Casa Franciscana while they attend high school is also changing. Understanding that there will be a day when the Franciscan Sisters may not be physically present, a lay woman has been engaged as sub-director. She has formed a team with three other employees: the administrative assistant, the overseer of food preparation and housecleaning, and the person who maintains the plant and the vehicles. Together, this team is in charge of the day-to-day care and guidance of the students. Sister Aurora Tovar, while not routinely present, still serves as the director of the program. The three resident Franciscan Sisters—Ange, Mary and Janice—are, of course, present to the students daily.
There is always good news to share: three of the current students will graduate from secondary school in July. They plan to continue their studies: two in nursing and one in business administration. Among former students, four will have graduated from nursing programs by the end of this year and several more will complete their studies in business systems and computers. Still others, of course, have started families and serve in their villages.
These ministries in the parish of San Rafael continue to be strong and support the growth of the Catholic Christian community of the whole area, as well as open new opportunities for young women.
San Rafael Mission, the beginning
In 2003, the Franciscan Sisters accepted a call to serve San Rafael Parish, which is located in a very poor, rural area in the Diocese of Linares in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. They founded the Franciscan Missionary Center and created programs that train lay people to be religious leaders who serve the pastoral and spiritual needs of the people.
San Rafael Parish is located approximately 250 miles from the Texas border, about a six-hour drive from McAllen. The parish is spread out over many miles which makes ministry a challenge. When the sisters arrived, there was just one pastor serving the parish of 10,000 members in the town of San Rafael and 54 small, outlying communities. With poor road conditions and few cars in the region, each small village is somewhat isolated from the next. Pastoral care and religious education were limited throughout the parish, and some villages only saw a priest three times a year or upon request for special events.
The sisters have been successful in training committed lay leaders who carry out the work of the Church in many of the small remote villages. Trained catechists and celebrants of the Word provide a strong Catholic presence where people enjoy meaningful worship, participate in Bible study and receive preparation for the sacraments. Catechetical programs and small group ministries enable parishioners to grow in their Catholic faith and their relationship with God. The sisters develop teen leadership with over 200 youth through weekly gatherings and retreats. The fruit of the teen leadership is that some 70-80 teens are leading the worship services in small communities of the mountains during Holy Week.
The people are committed Catholics, longing for pastoral and spiritual care during times of crises, sickness and death as well as structured religious education for their children. They seek a better understanding of Scripture and ways to grow stronger in their faith. A significant Catholic presence and spiritual renewal throughout the parish are helping the people grow in community and self-sufficiency.
Students in Residence program serves up to 20 girls each academic year.
Access to education is very limited throughout San Rafael Parish, especially for women and girls. To respond to this need, the Franciscan Sisters started the Students in Residence program in 2006. The goals are to provide opportunity for girls from poor families to attend high school, to educate the students in life skills, build self-esteem, and help them see their potential for future success in life.
As the sisters visited the homes of the parishioners in the outlying areas, they detected a need to promote high school education, especially for women and children. At this time, Casa Franciscana serves up to 20 girls, providing room and board, mentoring, tutoring and other services. The girls live in community with the sisters and learn the Franciscan way of life as well. The program recruits students from the villages within the parish. It’s common for the smaller villages to have an elementary school, but no middle or high school. Because of poverty, lack of transportation and a positive vision for the future, very few children, especially the girls, have the opportunity for an education beyond the 6th grade.
On March 31, Sisters Isa Berrones, Aurora Tovar and I, along with three companions, arrived at our destination: the 19th century—but a recently renovated church of St. Catherine of Siena, Ocampo, Coahuila, Mexico. The five-hour trip, in a pick-up truck borrowed from the mission in San Rafael, was mostly through desert, ringed by the magnificent western Sierra Madre Mountains. The Bible with its numerous references to mountains and deserts, must have a message for us, I thought. Isaiah says it best in 52:7: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings.” May it be so!
The area is known for its dusty winds. The sisters who preceded us left in early January, so, we had dust and leaves to attend to. With catechist helpers, mostly high school students, we began to make this place our home. Our house, adjacent to the church, has a lower level with kitchen, office area, small living room and chapel whose doors all open to a tree and flower filled patio. Our sleeping rooms, up 18 outside steps, are nicely tiled, each with a bathroom, sometimes with water.
On our first Sunday here, Father Hector Raciel, one of the three pastors who tend this enormous area with its many communities, presided at two Masses. We each introduced ourselves and expressed our desire to get to know the parish, its way of being a community and our commitment to accompany them in their daily lives as best we can.
It has been the custom that one of the parish groups provide a breakfast between the 10 a.m. and noon Masses for the priest and sisters. We found in our kitchen a lovely breakfast. Then, to our surprise, after the noon Mass, everyone present was invited to a gathering in the parish meeting room. There was another delicious variety of foods—a lovely welcome.