Sisters find a home inside the school community of Holy Family in Topeka
by Marc and Julie Anderson
Special to The Leaven
TOPEKA — Following a vocation as a woman religious means living in community. Three Sisters at Holy Family School here have discovered that it can also involve a much larger community. Best of all, it can feel like family — like home.
A cradle Catholic and the oldest of six, Sister Rebecca Granado was somewhat active in her Arizona parish but did not consider the religious life until much later in life.
About 25 years ago, while living in Phoenix, Sister Rebecca said she experienced a time of tremendous spiritual growth.
“I was part of a small faith-sharing community, and the community encouraged vocations,” she said. “In 1993, I had a most meaningful experience while at World Youth Day in Denver. The youth who were considering a religious vocation were asked to stand. I was close to 50 years old, but I stood . . . and that started a beautiful journey.”
Over the next several years, Sister Rebecca applied to two different religious communities, spending time with both. The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Boulder, Colo., appealed to her greatly.
“I’d never seen happier people in all of my life,” she said. “These women were fulfilled.”
In the end, however, neither community wanted to accept a late vocation.
Sister Rebecca constantly prayed for God’s direction but, after trying two communities, she didn’t think God was calling her to the religious life after all. A phone call, however, changed her life.
In 2004, Sister Maria Luz Hernandez, a member of the Augustinian Recollect Missionary Sisters founded in Spain, had moved back home to Topeka with permission to found an order. Sister Maria learned of the future Sister’s efforts and invited her for a visit.
“At first, I turned her down,” Sister Rebecca said, telling Sister Maria she’d been turned down by two other orders due to her age.
On July 9, 2010, Sister Rebecca took her final vows as a member of the Augustinian Recollect Sisters of Our Lady of Consolation of Kansas.
Due to its size, these Augustinian Recollects are not officially a community, but a public association of the faithful. It has a rule, a constitution and its own unique mission: to serve the city’s Hispanic community in whatever way God calls them. In Sister Rebecca’s case, that means serving as a second-grade teacher at Holy Family School.
Sister Rebecca taught for 32 years in Arizona public schools. While she enjoyed it, she feels truly at home at Holy Family. Not only do the teachers all teach, she said, but the teachers and staff truly care about their students and reach out into the community to help families with their material needs — such as helping parents find housing or extra ways to earn money for groceries.
“The teachers and staff are my brothers and sisters, and the unity of spirit that exists here is just wonderful. It’s such a beautiful school,” Sister Rebecca said. “This has become a family now.”
Like Sister Rebecca, Sister Juanita Banuelos is not originally from Kansas but she, too, said her “family” — the association and the school — is now here.
Sister Juanita grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Although she attended Catholic schools up through high school and knew the Sisters at her home parish of San Miguel, the thought of becoming a Sister never came to her. She eventually started working with the religious education program and the youth group.
“There was a little spark there,” Sister Juanita said.
Somewhere along the line, Sister Maria came to San Miguel Parish. Eventually, Sister Juanita was attracted to the Augustinian Recollect Missionary Sisters.
“I saw the work [Sister Maria] did with the Latino, gang-infested community, and I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” said Sister Juanita.
In 1994, Sister Juanita made her first profession of vows. Afterward, she taught in her alma mater for 12 years until December 2006, when she moved to Topeka.
At first, Sister Juanita’s ministry involved visiting the sick and serving as a part-time tutor. In August 2007, she became a second-grade teacher at Holy Family School.
“I love working with the children,” Sister Juanita said, adding, “I thank God that he guided me here. I feel as if I am making a difference with the little ones.”
Making a difference is a goal shared by Sister Angela Rose Barbieri, also a teacher at Holy Family School. Sister Angela Rose belongs to the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, an order known for staffing hospitals and schools.
A veteran of 56 years in education, Sister Rose is in her fourth year at Holy Family School. As a math and reading specialist, she spends time with various grade levels throughout the day, helping those who need a little extra help.
“I learn every day from the kids,” Sister Rose said, adding she has always loved spending time with children. “I think the best part for me is the children, especially when the light bulb goes on for them.”
Having served God’s people in places as varied as Montana and Illinois, Sister Rose said she truly enjoys teaching in a Catholic school because she can not only challenge the students and encourage their creativity but can also help to form their character as Catholics. Every day she reminds herself that the children she teaches today will be the leaders of the community tomorrow.
“That’s what teaching is all about,” she said.
For Lee Schmidt, the principal, the three Sisters bring something special to the school.
“Each of them brings their unique professional talents to the school, but it is their values of faith, love and charity that are most significant,” he said. “To be taught by someone who lives his or her faith as strictly as the Catholic religious is a privilege.”
The privilege of teaching in a Catholic school is something all three teachers hold dear. In a particular way, perhaps due to teaching in a public school for three decades, Sister Rebecca has a unique perspective.
“I am to incorporate the faith into everything I teach,” she said. “Every moment of the day, and in everything I say, I have to the opportunity to speak Christ’s love. . . . That’s got to be the best part of being here.”