by Marc and Julie Anderson
EMPORIA — Pillars of the community.
That’s how Armida Martinez, a parishioner of St. Catherine Parish in Emporia, described Sister Aurora Villamar and Sister Laurentina Garcia.
The two are members of the Missioneras Guadalupanas de Cristo Rey based in Mexico City. They were honored Sept. 15 for 25 years of service to the parish and community.
The celebration included a Mass of thanksgiving and a potluck luncheon. Near the end of Mass, the nuns were also serenaded by the congregation.
The nuns are the longest-serving members of any religious order to minister to the community and were invited to the parish by Father Pete O’Sullivan, former pastor assigned to the area in 1993.
At the time, the parish had closed, said Father O’Sullivan, but the city of Emporia had a huge Spanish-speaking population. He decided to approach Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher about the community’s needs.
“I thought we’ve got to do something,” he said. “Archbishop Keleher agreed.”
Prior to his ministry in Emporia, Father O’Sullivan had taught at Maur Hill Academy in Atchison. It was there he first encountered the nuns as they served in the kitchen of St. Benedict’s Abbey.
On July 4, 1994, Father O’Sullivan traveled to Mexico City and spoke with the order’s superior. He asked if she’d be interested in sending some Sisters to minister at the Emporia parish, assisting with needs ranging from catechism and visiting the sick to spiritual discernment.
Just two months after his trip to Mexico, Sister Aurora arrived in Emporia on Sept. 10. A year later, Sister Laurentina joined her.
“It passed too fast,” Sister Aurora said of her time in Emporia.
Sister Laurentina agreed.
“I don’t think so, but it’s true,” she said.
For 25 years, the two have invited people to Mass, served as catechists and religious educators, counseled people, instructed the faithful in prayer and devotions, visited the sick in the hospital as well as the homebound and, in general, just been present among the people.
“There are many things to do,” Sister Aurora said, adding she just loves the people.
In fact, according to Martinez, the nuns’ longtime presence has led to a significant increase in parish membership. Current estimates places membership around 400 people.
“They’re the pillars of the community,” Martinez said. “They just keep going and going.”
At 72, Martinez said she sometimes feels the effects of time on her body, but she is constantly amazed by the nuns’ energy. It seems, she said, the nuns are always there.
“They keep us going. We depend on them. We trust them to guide us,” she said.
Parishioner Teresa Rodriquez agreed and said the parish is fortunate to have such witnesses of Christ’s love for his people.
“We’ve been blessed that God sent them to us,” Rodriquez said.
In addition to being the parish’s pastor, Father Daniel Coronado also serves as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Olpe, south of Emporia. As a result, his time is often limited, so the nuns assist him in ensuring the parishioners’ needs are met.
“It’s great,” he said.
Father Coronado said the nuns’ faithful service extends his presence among the people by regularly opening the church doors, serving as sacristans, preparing parishioners for sacraments and, in general, letting him know of particular parishioners’ needs.
Parishioner Rosemary Sanchez finds the nuns’ faithful presence truly awe-inspiring.
“They’re here for you all the time,” she said, providing “a good example for the entire community.”
“They’re willing to help in any way,” added Sanchez. “They’re always here. They never say no.”