Mexican order serves spiritual needs in Pee Dee
Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a series on religious orders serving in the Diocese of Charleston.
CONWAY — Las Hermanas del Corazon de Jesus Sacramentado, known in English as the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, came to the Diocese of Charleston in the year 2000.
Some would say it was divine providence that brought the order to the attention of Father ‘Rick LaBrecque, pastor of St. James Church in Conway. He was in need of assistance with the growing population of Hispanic Cath olics when the sisters arrived in the area to visit relatives.
At the time, the number of Hispanic Catholics was estimated at about 150,000, a figure equal to the English-speaking population in the diocese. Mass in Spanish was celebrated in more than 20 locations.
Visiting Sisters Conchita Antunez Solis and Amalia Garcia quickly recognized the great needs in the Pee Dee Deanery and arranged a period of volunteer ministry at churches in the area. The following year, they returned to provide similar services for several months.
At that point, Father LaBrecque approached former Diocese of Charles ton Bishop Robert J. Baker about bringing the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to South Carolina on a permanent basis.
Traveling to the motherhouse
Las Hermanas del Corazon de Jesus Sacramentado are based in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. The motherhouse is in a populated urban zone, according to Sister Ana Gema Villafaña Ruiz.
In 1999, Father LaBrecque journeyed to Guadalajara for a meeting with the authorities of the order. Mother Olga and the general council were receptive, but faced the reality of a limited number of sisters to serve their many needs at home and abroad.
The order’s membership consists of approximately 325 sisters, according to an e-mail from Sister Ana Gema. Aside from South Carolina, the congregation also serves throughout Mexico and Peru, and in California and Angola, located in South Central Africa.
No matter where they serve, the sisters faithfully live their charism by dedicating themselves to service of the poor, just as they did when the order was first formed 90 years ago.
The order was founded in 1918 by Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado, with a mission to meet the needs of the church, especially in the poorest areas of the country. Father Robles was ordained in 1913, and was only 25 when he established Las Hermanas del Corazon de Jesus Sacramentado.
But Mexico, known for its Catholic heritage, descended into a dark period of persecution during the 1920s and 1930s, when thousands were killed for their Catholic faith.
It was during this time of political revolution that the new Mexican government sought to establish a “Mexican Church.” The bishops were appointed by the government and ignored unity with the pope in Rome. Pope Pius XI and the Mexican hierarchy attempted to defend the faith.
During that time, seminaries and convents were shut down and foreign religious were expelled. Priests were forbidden to wear their clerical garb, and nuns their habits. Catholic education was outlawed, as was holding Mass outside of the physical structure of a church building.
Father Robles was one of many priests who defied the government. He continued to celebrate Mass and offer aid and comfort to the poor and sick wherever they were, as did his sisters.
The priest was arrested in 1927 and hanged.
In May 2000, he was canonized by Pope John Paul II, along with 26 other Mexican martyrs. Father Robles belonged to the Knights of Columbus.
Today his relics are venerated at the novitiate house of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Guadalajara.
Living the faith
Like Father Robles, his order of sisters is intensely eucharistic. They live in community, even if it is just a small group of three, as is the case in South Carolina.
After the congregation evaluated the diocese and agreed there was a need, they assigned sisters to work with the parishes of St. James in Conway, St. Cyprian in Georgetown, and St. Philip in Lake City.
Sisters Ana Gema, Sandra G. Parra Morales and Angelina Robles Larios are the three sisters currently serving the area. Their primary responsibilities are to coordinate and organize Hispanic ministry through a variety of services and programs, Sister Ana Gema wrote in her e-mail.
They attend the weekly Spanish Mass and help preparations for the sacraments. They conduct Bible study and join their parishioners in English classes. They visit prisons, hospitals and families, where they comfort the sick and pray the rosary. The sisters also pray novenas, a nine-day period of private or public prayer to obtain special graces, implore special favors or make special petitions.
One of their largest tasks is to help with the annual celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe held each Dec. 12 to mark her appearance to Blessed Juan Diego in 1531 on Tepeyac hill in Mexico.
Another uniquely Hispanic event that the sisters help organize are Quinceañera celebrations, a religious and social occasion that marks a girl’s 15th birthday and her ascent into womanhood. Weddings, leadership formation, and a multitude of events and social activities round out the sisters’ calendar.
The work of many
As with many religious orders today, there seems to be more work and more people in need than the limited number of sisters could possibly help. But they do.
The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus have an extra responsibility here, away from their native language and culture. Here, they are charged not only with perpetuating the faith, but also of retaining their traditions.
At the same time, Sister Ana Gema said, it is important for the two cultures to integrate and work together toward the common goals of the church.
Father LaBrecque is grateful each day that the sisters were allowed to serve in the diocese.
“They are a gift from heaven,” he said.