The following is from the Summer 2021 issue of Vision.

Since 1971, seventeen Sisters of Charity from the U.S. have served in Guatemala in the fields of health care, religious education, pastoral care, formation, and integrated human and spiritual development. While never directly missioned to Guatemala, two additional Sisters of Charity greatly influenced the establishment of the missions in the Central American region. 

In the coming issues, Vision will feature these dedicated and courageous women who lived the mission of Charity in Guatemala, a mission that continues to this day.

Sister Marie Immaculata Burke, El Novillero, Sololá, 1971–2014

By Maryellen Blumlein, SC 

Born in Ireland, Brigid Burke went to England to receive her nurse’s training as a young woman. She later went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and served in The Bahamas, where she met the Congregation and became a Sister of Charity in 1953. She served in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, but soon the missions again called to her. She studied Spanish for a year and then responded to the call to serve the Guatemalan people in Novillero, Sololá. 

Sr. Immaculata was responsible for four clinics that served the needs of mothers and their children. She worked tirelessly to implement health initiatives to improve their nutrition and general health. 

In her forty-three years in Novillero, Sr. Immaculata saw the devastating effects of a brutal civil war and the massive destruction of an earthquake in 1976. Her dedication and devotion to the Guatemalan people was returned tenfold. She was beloved by the many for whom she cared and those with whom she worked. With great affection, she was known as “Madre (Mother) Immaculata,” a name that suited her well. 

Dr. José Miguel Vasquez followed Sr. Immaculata as director of the four medical clinics operated by the Sisters of Charity in collaboration with the Diocese of Spokane, Wash. He began his years of service with the sisters as a medical school graduate who volunteered to gain practical experience in the Novillero clinic in 1985. Dr. José cherishes the memories of serving alongside his mentor. Asked to share one memory, he shared three. He remembers Sr. Immaculata often saying, “Charity that doesn’t cost anything is NOT charity,” “We must always be generous,” and when asked how much she was owed, she replied, “One Our Father.” Dr. José added, “Before becoming a sister and until her death, Sr. Immaculata demonstrated that her surrender was complete. She even asked that her body be deposited in the local cemetery, buried with the poor.” 

Upon her death in March 2014, she was mourned by thousands. Many took turns carrying her coffin to her final resting place, a distance of almost two miles. 

In her time in Guatemala, Sr. Immaculata provided medical care, spiritual enrichment, and friendship to many people. She truly brought the charism of Charity to life. 

Sister Doris Pagano, El Novillero, 1971–1982; San Marcos, 1985–1996 

By Ellen Rose O’Connell, SC 

Sister Doris Pagano was one of the first missionaries who went to Guatemala in 1971. While learning to speak Spanish was difficult for her, she persisted in mastering the language. 

A life-long teacher, she spent 22 years in Guatemala—11 each in El Novillero and San Marcos. 

In 1976, the first of a series of earthquakes devastated Guatemala. Sr. Doris responded to the pastoral needs of the people; her ministry became the care of the people who had lost the little they possessed. She developed leadership skills among those she taught. She continued to build community among the people and the sisters in mission in Guatemala, especially Sisters Immaculata Burke and Connie Kelly. 

Sr. Doris was a pioneer in the Guatemala mission and enthusiastically contributed to its steady growth over the years. She especially longed for native vocations in Guatemala. In this regard, she saw the mission of the Sisters of Charity connected to the growth of the local Church in Guatemala. 

Sister Eileen Judge, Santa Cruz, El Quiché, 1998–2011 

By Lisa Shay, Associate 

Sister Eileen Judge, a nurse practitioner, went to Guatemala in the early 1990s at the at the invitation of Sr. Bobbie Ford. She made several visits but had no intention of missioning there as there was no need for her specialty—geriatrics—and she was not fluent in Spanish. But our God is a God of surprises! In 1997, Sr. Santiaga, an Incarnate Word sister, opened a nursing home in Quiché, El Hogar de Ancianos Sor Herminia, and needed a nurse. Although the home was not near where the Sisters of Charity lived, a friend, Sr. Janet Druffel, SSND, lived within walking distance and had extra space. Reflecting on the circumstances, Sr. Eileen says, “That was a call I could not ignore.” 

Sr. Eileen lived with Sr. Janet from 1998-2008, working full-time as the only nurse at El Hogar, then moved to the newly opened Sisters of Charity House of Formation. From 2008 to 2011, she continued to work part-time at El Hogar while she finished a nursing manual and concurrently served as the Director of Associates in Guatemala. She made an enduring impression on the staff and residents at El Hogar; when she and Associate Lisa Shay visited in the summer of 2019, they discovered her picture hanging on the wall in the dining room. 

Sister Virginia Searing, Lemoa & Santa Cruz, El Quiché, 1995–Present 

By Lisa Shay, Associate 

As with many Sisters of Charity, Sr. Virginia Searing (“Sr. Ginny”) first came to Guatemala in 1993 at the invitation of Sr. Bobbie Ford. Sr. Ginny fell in love with the people, who radiated peace despite crushing poverty, and with the beauty of the mountains, rivers and lakes. Her visit inspired her to accompany the people and understand their tremendous suffering from the genocide. Some of her most sacred moments were accompanying people through the process of exhuming loved ones from mass graves, celebrating their lives, and giving them a dignified ritual and burial. 

After several visits, Sr. Ginny committed to the mission in Guatemala in 1995. She and Sr. Bobbie Ford, along with Dr. Roberto Cabrera, developed a program of Integral Human Development that combined Christian spirituality with rituals from the Mayan culture. While the program might appear to be a break from her previous 30 years in education, she sees it as a natural evolution from living in an intentional community that had done its own healing work. Integral Human Development continues to be a major program of the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center, which Sr. Ginny has directed since its inception in 2009. “My life,” she says, “continues to be transformed as I walk humbly with these resilient Mayan women and men as we carry on the charism of Charity. 

Left to right: Sisters Maria Iglesias, Eileen Judge, Gloria De Arteaga, Mary Meyler and Virginia Searing before a display honoring Sr. Barbara among those who died serving the people of Quiché.

Sister Maria Iglesias, Chajbal, El Quiché, 2007–2011 

By Ellen Rose O’Connell, SC 

In 2007 Sr. Maria Iglesias was asked by Leadership to assume responsibility for vocations recruitment both stateside and in Guatemala. This was a difficult challenge because of the cultural differences among Hispanic cultures and North American cultures. 

As a native Spanish speaker and daughter of Cuban and Puerto Rican parents, Sr. Maria understood Hispanic as well as North American cultures. She had also previously studied at the Mexican Cultural Center and served in Las Hermanas, an organization of Hispanic religious sisters in the states. 

Sr. Maria began her vocation work in Novillero, sharing community with Sr. Gloria De Arteaga, newly appointed Aspirant Assistant. Both worked in pastoral ministry, knowing that a call to vocation as a Sister of Charity arises out of a call to service for others, especially those in great need. In time they moved with the aspirants to El Quiché. 

In reflecting on the move, Sr. Maria said, “We believed religious vocation in Guatemala needed to be situated in the candidates’ culture in order to develop a greater spiritual dedication to Christ and God’s people.” 

As the growth of the Sisters of Charity in Guatemala continues, Sr. Maria’s contributions remain one of its sturdy building blocks. 

Sister Mary Meyler, Lemoa & Santa Cruz, El Quiché, 1997–2013 

By Ellen Rose O’Connell, SC 

Sister Mary Meyler was a dedicated teacher in both elementary and secondary schools who brought her skills and creativity to the Guatemalan people in Lemoa, Santa Cruz and Quiché for thirteen years. Her years of service occurred when Guatemala was recovering from a bitter civil war. Former soldiers and their family members were dealing with trauma, violence, loss and multiple forms of addiction. 

In 1996, Sr. Mary was invited by Sr. Barbara Ford to join the Caritas Heath Team to start a program for Rehabilitation of Alcohol and Drug Addition. With the help of Caritas and the Sisters of Charity, she guided the construction of Casa Nueva Vida, a rehabilitation center for attention to the sickness of alcohol and drug addiction. Sr. Mary designed a new model of addiction treatment and education, a great need at the time. She designed a two-program approach—one for men and another for women—to address alcohol and drug addiction, as well as its effects on a country suffering extreme poverty and violence (especially towards women). Job development and training was also incorporated into the program, which received local and international acclaim. 

In 2007, Sr. Mary joined Sr. Virginia Searing in co-founding the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center, where healing and recovery programs continue to this day. 

Sr. Mary was beloved by the people she served. Cancer took her life in 2013 but her legacy lives on! 

Sister Anne Denise Brennan, Santa Cruz, El Quiché, 2009–2011, 2012–2014 

By Lisa Shay, Associate 

Sr. Anne Denise (right) with Sr. Gloria de Arteaga on the grounds of the Barbara Ford Center. 

Sister Anne Denise Brennan traveled to Guatemala several times before being missioned there in 2009. She was the novice director for the Sisters of Charity in New York and traveled to Guatemala to advise the sisters in Quiché about setting up a House of Formation at the Barbara Ford Center. Sr. Gloria de Arteaga had served in Guatemala for a few years as the postulant and vocation director and, by 2009, there was a need for a new novice director. 

Sr. Anne Denise served as novice director in Guatemala from October 2009 through the end of 2010, living in the newly constructed House of Formation with Sr. Gloria. She returned to Guatemala in 2012 to be the Charism Integration Director and Director of Associates. She set up workshops and programs in both Quiché and Novillero to introduce laypersons to the charism of Charity. As a result of her work, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life resonated with the people in Guatemala. As Sr. Anne Denise said, “It is a story that sells itself!” She is remembered fondly for her kind and gentle manner and remains in contact with many of the associates in Guatemala. 

Sister Nora Cunningham, Chajbal, El Quiché, 2011–Present 

By Maryellen Blumlein, SC 

Sr. Nora with Postulants Maria Pablo Andres Santos (left) and Manuela Tax Alvarez

After completing eight years as Regional Coordinator in 2011, Sr. Nora assumed the role of Director of Postulants and Novices in Quiché, Guatemala. Her ability to speak Spanish and her broad experience in formation ministry made her the perfect choice to work with the women discerning religious life. 

Sr. Nora’s love of and interest in people is a gift to those with whom she works and ministers. Casa de Formación is a short walk from the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center, so there is mutual support and frequent collaboration. 

To date, Sr. Nora has spent ten years in Guatemala. She enjoys her varied responsibilities and will continue with her many tasks for as long as needed. She finds the Guatemalan people kind, generous and caring. They are eager to learn and readily share their knowledge with their American friends. 

Asked to reflect on her work, Sr. Nora said, “In September I will be celebrating 60 years as a Sister of Charity. As I look back I see my life as an adventure, post Vatican II, full of surprises, changes, sorrows and joys. I started out in the streets of Manhattan and the Bronx, journeyed to the mountains of the Catskills and back; and the biggest surprise of all—I am now living in Guatemala. 

“During my ministry I have lived with inspiring sisters, worked with dedicated associates and met wonderful people and, alongside my special family, have enduring friendships. At the center of my life is a passionate God of love and the mission of Jesus to reveal that love— in a classroom, a parish, a novitiate house, a boardroom or a mission outside the USA. I have been so blessed; now it’s all joyful gratitude.”