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Church ends 70-year program of religious service

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Aug. 9, 2013 at 3:09 a.m.

Sisters Adela Benoit, 55, Rafaela Landeros, 79, Juana Jaimes, 82, work on crafts with other sisters at the Missionary Catechists of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary Convent in Victoria.

Surrounded by five religious sisters in the entryway parlor of the provincial house on Aloe Road, Sister Pilar Socorro Garcia, 84, pauses to remember her arrival in Victoria.

It was 1962, the year she departed her native Mexico to serve God and the Catholic church in a neighboring land.

Part of the Missionary Catechists of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Garcia was eager to venture beyond the Mexico-Texas border and work with communities of Hispanic Catholics in Texas, helping them grow in their faith.

She wasn't alone; many other Mexican sisters from the order followed, but she knew her life in the United States would be a new and exciting adventure.

"My responsibilities at that time were to teach the (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine)," said the retired Garcia, mentioning she would sometimes instruct hundreds of children during the week in the early days of her arrival. "We did a lot of home visits, and we would counsel the families. We loved to do it."

Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Victoria summoned the religious sisters to Victoria almost 70 years ago. There was a need for Spanish-speaking personnel in the church and a need for additional religious education in the Hispanic communities.

Since the program started, generations of Catholics in the area have grown attached to the sisters and their presence at Sorrows and Santisima Trinidad.

But a few weeks shy of the sisters' 70th anniversary of service, Our Lady of Sorrows decided not to renew the program.

"It's very emotional," said Garcia, pausing to wipe a tear from her eye. "It's very difficult to know that 70 years ago, we were called to serve here, and today, we're no longer needed."

For the past seven decades, Victoria has been a central hub for Garcia's Catholic sisters, a beloved junction of sisterly service. Each of the women travel from Mexico to Victoria, and some would stay and serve. Others would be reassigned to service in other cities, but at some point during the year, they would always end up back in Victoria.

"We think of it as the mother house," Garcia explained. "Victoria was our first home."

Arturo Lara, 61, was a student of Garcia and others in the house and said he is deeply saddened the sisters, some of whom have only been serving in the United States for a couple of years, will no longer be teaching future generations.

"There are a lot of religious groups the sisters have been aligned with, and they look forward to the sisters to be here to facilitate those groups. They've also worked closely with families, providing instruction on marriage and how to build strong families," Lara said. "That's all going to be gone because they're going to be gone."

He said the program ending at Our Lady of Sorrows is a sign that religion is no longer sacred in the United States.

"It tells you something about the times. People say it's just fiction (that the church is dying), but it's not fiction," he said.

Our Lady of Sorrows was contacted for a statement about why the program was ending. The Rev. Daniel Houde said he did not think it was appropriate to comment because he was newly appointed to the church. He also said there was no one else at the church who would comment about the sisters' departure.

"We had a farewell Mass for the sisters the past weekend on their way to new assignments. So I think we've said all we've had to say about that," Houde said before abruptly ending the phone interview.

Lara said the sisters received a letter that the church no longer has the finances to support the sisters serving in Victoria, who are working collectively for a modest stipend.

Maria Perez, the provincial of the Victoria home, said even though their service is no longer needed in Victoria, the sisters will continue to serve in other states because they are all in the United States on valid visas or have become naturalized citizens. But Perez hopes there will be a way for the sisters to remain in Victoria, where it began seven decades ago. There is still work to be done among the Hispanic community, she said.

"We're missionaries, so we go where we're needed," she said. "But we know God opens other doors for us."

Garcia, now retired, said she is proud of the program's long tenure and the footprint it has left behind on the city.

And she said even though the program is no longer needed, she does not regret one day in Victoria.

"Not at all," she said. "I would do it all over again."

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