Sisters provide respite, support for ‘granddaughter’ community in city consumed by violence
By Katie Hyde
Special to the Leaven
Torreón, Mexico — Walking through the streets of Torreón, it was hard for visitors not to see the signs of violence all around them. Three giant, black SUVs with darkly tinted windows rolled through the streets, one after another. Armed, masked men leaned out of windows and sat atop the vehicles, pointing AK-47 assault rifles at civilians.
It was not always like this in Torreón, a city in the state of Coahuila, Mexico.
Five years ago, the community was safe and vibrant.
Children laughed and played soccer in the street. Elderly couples felt safe walking to church. Music blared so loudly on the weekends it was hard to fall asleep.
But the streets are empty now.
And Torreón is held hostage by Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, which have led to a 16-fold increase in murders in the city.
Once, Torreón was a thriving economic center.
Now, it is hell on earth.
“It’s a ghost town,” explained Sister Anne Shepard, prioress of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, who visited Torreón last November.
She and Sisters Loretta McGuire and Barbara McCracken, also of the Atchison motherhouse, traveled to Torreón to provide a little respite and support to the seven Benedictine Sisters of Pan de Vida Monastery living and ministering there.
During their stay, the Pan de Vida Sisters shared their stories of drive-by shootings, decapitated victims hanging from overpasses, and bodies dumped into dry riverbeds.
The Zetas cartel, notorious for being one of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels, holds an immense influence over the city and its inhabitants. Violent clashes for turf and power with its biggest rival — the Sinaloa cartel — have left thousands dead.
Despite promises from President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto and former President Felipe Calderón to combat the cartels, according to Sister Barbara, violence against innocents continues.
“It seems most households have been touched,” she observed upon her return. “If not by losing a family member or having them ‘disappeared,’ [then by] shootouts witnessed and dead bodies they have seen that leave them traumatized.”
Sister Anne compares the suffering of the citizens of Torreón to the scourging of Jesus.
“The people in Torreón are being scourged right now,” she said. “They are whipped by having their kids disappear, having their own children killing other children, having neighbors disappear, having neighbors turning on neighbors, being gunned down in the neighborhood for no reason.”
A light in the darkness
Sister Patricia Henry, OSB, saw Torreón for the first time on a cold, dusty evening in 1993.
Someday this neighborhood may become familiar to me, she said to herself.
I will know the people and it will feel like home to me.
But when will that day ever come?
Though she doesn’t know the exact moment when Torreón became home, Sister Patricia knows that today, she would do just about anything for the people of her community.
“I can’t say when it happened, but it did. And now, 20 years later, even in the midst of the violence that racks our city, this is our home, and these are our people, and we will stay with them through thick and thin,” she said.
And it has become very thin indeed. More than 60,000 have died and 1.6 million people have been displaced since 2006 in this country gripped by violence.
The Pan de Vida Monastery was founded 20 years ago when six Benedictine Sisters from the motherhouse in Mexico City — itself founded by the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison — dug into the dry soil of northern Mexico and planted roots.
Two of those founding Sisters were Sister Patricia, who is now the prioress of Pan de Vida, and her sister, Sister Michele Henry. Both women attended grade school and high school at St. Joseph in Shawnee, and attended college at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison.
“We came to form a monastery in a low-income, working-class neighborhood — to live, pray, and work with our neighbors and focus especially on the development of women,” said Sister Patricia.
Twenty years later, the Sisters are still doing just that.
The seven members of Pan de Vida Monastery work tirelessly — teaching catechism, facilitating workshops with women from different parts of the diocese, and meeting the needs of the community.
The monastery’s principal mission has been running El Centro de Desarrollo Integral de las Mujeres Santa Escolástica — St. Scholastica Center for the Integral Development of Women — or CEDIMSE. The center works to combat many symptoms of social injustice in the region, including the feminization of poverty, single motherhood, rejection of the rights of women, education disparity between men and women, and gender-based violence.
The Sisters do everything from teaching computer skills to educating workers on labor laws in Mexico to reaching out to victims of domestic abuse.
“I think we have been able to participate in some small way with peace-building in our area because our activities flow from community prayer,” explained Sister Patricia. “As we share the word, people also talk about their daily lives, the violence they have experienced, the support they have received from the community, the need for forgiveness, etc.”
The Sisters especially reach out to youth in an attempt to keep them away from drugs and violence, hosting fiestas on weekends to keep them off the streets.
Their presence in the neighborhood not only directly benefits hundreds; it also provides a sense of safety to the community.
“The [townspeople] know the Sisters and they respect the Sisters,” said Sister Anne. “They would protect us if we were with the Sisters. And here they are, half our size.”
Though the threat of violence against them is serious, the Mexican Sisters are tireless in their work, according to Sister Loretta.
“It was heart-wrenching to hear these Sisters — committed to staying where they are, committed to peace, committed to the prayer life they have, and committed to one another and to the people there,” she said.
‘We are the Veronicas’
Many of the Sisters of Pan de Vida have witnessed the violence in Torreón firsthand. They’ve seen people shot and killed across the street from their own house. One Sister was once caught in a crossfire of bullets while riding on a bus.
These encounters take their toll both physically and emotionally, draining the women. So when the Benedictines of Atchison traveled to Torreón, it was with the hope that they could care for the caregivers, in a sense — provide relief and hope to the Torreón Sisters, and to the wider community there.
“We are the Veronicas,” said Sister Anne. “Our job is to hold the cloth. What else can you do except be with them in this suffering? Because it’s awful. It’s just awful.”
“You don’t know what you can do, but you can let people cry,” she continued. “You can wipe their faces. You can give comfort anyway you can give comfort.”
One form of comfort came by way of a retreat for the nuns of Pan de Vida, addressing topics ranging from the power of forgiveness to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Each visiting Sister was able to translate her own professional work into a relevant message to the women of Torreón.
Due to her background in peace education, Sister Anne spoke on the ability of women to end violent situations, drawing on historical examples all over the world. According to her, women who are empowered to stand up and demand change have the ability to end violence.
“Women have made a difference in the world in being leaders of peace,” she said. “Women — they’re the ones who have said, ‘This is enough.’”
Sister Loretta, whose background is in grief counseling, addressed the symptoms of trauma, specifically the symptoms of PTSD. According to her, when communication between God, self, and others is disrupted, isolation can lead to trauma. Therefore, Sister Loretta encouraged the women of Torreón to stay in community.
“We’ve got to empower the women to claim their own inner strength to continue to build communities,” said Sister Anne.
Sister Barbara, who works at the Keeler’s Women Center in Kansas City, Kan., and whose background is in education and peace, incorporated messages of self-care into her talk.
“I think [CEDIMSE and Keeler Women’s Center] are both a point of refuge for people who live with too much stress, anxiety, and commotion in their lives,” said Sister Barbara. “Women need to find a place of peace and acceptance and safety.”
Their efforts, said the Pan de Vida prioress, were both appreciated and successful.
“The greatest gift the Sisters brought was their capacity to listen to our stories — both within the monastery and at our center,” said Sister Patricia.
Even amid the stories of violence and grief, the 10 Sisters shared many a laugh, a few at the expense of the Benedictines from Atchison, who were teased about being the “grandmothers” of the Torreón Sisters, since Pan De Vida Monastery is the daughter house of the Mexico City monastery, which is itself the daughter house of the Atchison monastery.
“‘How can you call me grandmother? Four of you are older than me!’” asked Sister Anne with a laugh. But it was all in good fun.
“I know they do it on purpose just to get my goat,” she said, “but, literally, there is a connection to them that is very close.”
The visiting Sisters also threw a party for the community that included a local mariachi band.
“It was amazing to see,” said Sister Anne. “After a heavy day like that, they were all dancing.
“Everyone was dancing. They just grabbed people and brought them up to the dance floor, even some of the elderly.”
The Sisters agreed that they were not the only visitors to Pan de Vita during their stay — Christ was with them always.
“I remember when I was telling people goodbye, I would hug them and put my hand on their heart, and then on my own heart, and say, ‘We are one,’” said Sister Loretta. “And it’s true. We are one.”
As the American Sisters took their leave, they also made a promise: They would tell the story of Torreón to anyone who would listen, and they would never forget what they’d witnessed there.
Now, back at their respective ministries in Kansas, the nuns live in the light of their solidarity with the women of Pan de Vida.
And they urge everyone to join them, and their sisters in Torreón, in working tirelessly for nonviolent solutions to the problems that plague the poor of Mexico — and, indeed, the world.
“When they’re hurting,” Sister Ann said simply, “we’re hurting.
“Because we’re all part of the body of Christ.”