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Oblates of St. Martha serve in distant, exotic mission country - Portland, Oregon
Kristen Hannum

By Kristen Hannum

Of the Sentinel

The Servite Brothers' dog, You Too, lies furry and panting on the cool flagstone floor of the Monastery of Our Sorrowful Mother courtyard. It's the kind of Oregon day that makes the winter's rain worth it, a day of warm sunlight through the lush maples, cedars and firs that tower over the old stone buildings.

Inside the monastery - on the grounds of the Grotto - the Oblate Sisters of St. Martha work away the hours in a routine that keeps the quarters clean and the priests, brothers, dogs and cats of the monastery fed and - depending upon the species - laundered. Sister Francisca Cabrini Lira, the superior, cleans up after tuna-salad sandwiches in the kitchen, Sister Esperanza Lima irons a pair of jeans in the laundry room, Sister Humbelina Hernandez vacuums stray crumbs from the floor in the dining room, and Sister Ana Maria Renteria is on her way to the Grotto's chapel, to ensure that the sacristy is in order.

'Their care for us has been tremendous, and we're very grateful for what they do,' says Father Jack Topper, prior.

These daily chores, which keep the sisters true to their patron, St. Martha, are not the sisters' main work in the world, says Sister Francisca. 'The most important thing we do is to pray, for the Church, the priests, the bishops.' she says.

Even so, their daily work makes a big difference in the lives of the Servites. Sister Esperanza's care for Brother Mark Holmes, who died in May, allowed the 93-year-old brother to remain at his home at the monastery for months, perhaps even years, longer than would have otherwise been possible. 'She was practically a hospice nurse to him,' says Father Topper.

'It was a privilege, an opportunity to serve Christ through Brother Mark,' says Sister Esperanza.

Father Topper had worked with the Oblates of St. Martha at Servite High School in Anaheim - where they worked in the kitchen for 25 years.

When Father Topper came to the Grotto, the Servite Sisters, another order of women religious from Mexico, cared for the priests. When it became clear that the Servite Sisters would have to pull out because of their declining numbers, he turned to the Oblates of St. Martha, whose motherhouse is in Saltillo, Mexico.

The order carefully investigates where the sisters are sent to ensure that their duties will be in accordance with the order's charism - which isn't purely contemplative, like the Carmelite sisters, yet is not as active as the Holy Names Sisters. The Servite monastery at the Grotto was judged to be a good fit for the sisters, four of whom moved into the Servite Sisters' new convent in 1993. Three of those sisters - Sisters Francisca, Esperanza and Ana Maria - are still here.

The order was founded in 1949, and celebrated its golden anniversary last year, with a major celebration at the motherhouse in Saltillo, Mexico, in July. The order looks back to Conchita Cabrera de Armida, and Father Felix de Jesus Rougier, founders of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, for its roots, because a Holy Spirit Father founded the Oblate Sisters of St. Martha. Sister Esperanza, one of the original members recruited from the City of Puebla, gave a history of the order at a jubilee celebration at the Grotto last year.

She explained that the order's founder, Holy Spirit Msgr. Felipe Torres Hurtado, was apostolic administrator of Baja California, Mexico. In collaboration with Maria de Jesus Rodriguez, he founded a congregation called Missionaries of Our Lady of Peace. One of the early members of this order was a woman from Texas, María de Jesús Guerrero Rincón.

Msgr. Torres opened the Diocesan Seminary of Tijuana and asked Mother Rodriguez to take care of it.

She did not feel that the monsignor's request would be appropriate for the sisters' mission. Msgr. Torres then asked the Franciscan Friars to supervise Mother Rodriguez's order. The Franciscans agreed, and changed the order's name to the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady of Peace.

Msgr. Torres had been asked by his superiors to leave Baja. He told Sister Guerrero that 'God's will for you is to leave this community to found a new congregation. We are going to San Jose de Costa Rica.'

Sister Guerrero left with two other sisters, bound for Costa Rica. When they arrived in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, however, the bishop there retained Msgr. Torres and named him vicar-general and vice-rector of his seminary.

Before classes began that year, Msgr. Torres told Sister Guerrero, 'On this date on which the Virgin Mary was born, a new congregation is also born. This congregation will serve the priests of the seminary and collaborate with them, but do not forget that the congregation will have various apostolates. Your patron will be Our Lady of Sorrows in her solitude years. In the same way will be St. Martha who was a good friend of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and she served him and his apostles.'

Sister Esperanza joined in 1951. She knew the foundress, Sister Guerrero, well, describing her as the person who formed her in religious life. The other three sisters stationed at the Grotto joined at the same time in 1960. Sister Ana Marie was just 14 years old. They too knew Sister Guerrero, who died in 1982. The congregation was founded as a pious union in 1949; in 1952 their novitiate was founded and the congregation was given its present name. The congregation was elevated to the status of a Pontifical Institute by Pope John Paul in 1982. The constitutions of the congregation were approved by the Vatican in 1990.

Today, the congregation has a membership of approximately 175 members with 35 communities in Mexico, five in the United States and two in Rome. The Grotto is one of their most far-flung missions, an exotic locale for the sisters. They've become accustomed to Oregon's weather, and laugh that now, when they visit Mexico, they miss the rain. The motto of the congregation is Unum es necesssarium ('Only one thing is necessary').

While that is no doubt true, many things are necessary to keep the monastery running smoothly. The sisters rise at 5:30 a.m. every day in order to be ready for the 6 a.m. prayers in their convent chapel that begin their day. They finish their prayers at 6:45 a.m. and head to the monastery to begin their day's work. The sisters serve as eucharistic ministers at the daily noon Mass at the Grotto chapel. They break for lunch at 12:45 p.m., after which it's back to work until an hour of prayer that begins at 3 p.m. They return to work at 4 p.m. and stay on the job until 7 p.m., when they stop for their dinner. The sisters also share evening prayers.

Their routine is broken in mid-summer, when the sisters leave the monastery. They each spend two weeks with their families, and for the entire month of July, all the members of the order gather in Saltillo for ongoing spiritual formation at the motherhouse. The Servites hire temporary replacements for the sisters while they're gone. 'But they say that when we are gone, it seems sad,' says Sister Ana Maria.

Sister Ana Maria has augmented her other work with catechetical work this winter. She enjoyed teaching Spanish-speaking children and hopes to continue. The sisters took it as a great stroke of good fortune when the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, their brother order, arrived in the archdiocese. The Holy Spirit brothers attended the sisters' jubilee celebration last summer and visit several times a year - giving the sisters some Spanish conversationalists.

'I think my Spanish gets worse as the years go by, and their English gets worse,' jokes Father Topper.

Fortunately, prayer and ministry transcend language barriers.

'We are very happy here,' Sister Francisca says.

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