Sister Margarita brings faith formation to children and parents

Ministry in Walla Walla

Sr. Magarita Hernandez
Sr. Margarita Hernandez

As of September 1, Sister Margarita Hernandez has been serving for one year as director of religious education for grades K through 8 for three Catholic parishes in Walla Walla, Wash.  This is her first full-time job and she serves with the parishes’ pastor, Father Matthew Nicks, and its two vicars. She also is charting new waters in trying to do faith formation for Hispanic parents along with their children. It is the kind of parish work she loves and is well prepared for with her degree from the Catholic Leadership Program at the University

When Sister Margarita first was offered this job she turned it down because she still had two years of classes ahead of her. Undaunted, Father Pedro told her, “I can wait for you,” Sister Margarita recalled. She requested and received permission from Provincial Superior Judith Desmarais to accept the offer, even though it would mean living in Walla Walla by herself. Summer classes speeded up her graduation date, but by the time she was ready to take the job, Father Pedro had moved elsewhere. “He really worked hard to get me here,” Sister Margarita said.

Sister Margarita shares information about classes with Berney Neal and her daughter Cecilia.
Sister Margarita shares information about classes with Berney Neal and her daughter Cecilia.

And she is not living alone in Walla Walla, after all. Sister Margaret Botch accompanied her there, where both live in the rectory at St. Francis Parish, whose congregation is predominantly Italian. Sister Margarita’s office, also on Alder Street, is at the predominantly Irish St. Patrick parish, the largest of the three and the only parish where Mass is celebrated in Spanish. Further down the street is Assumption parish, which is the most diverse parish.

The realities of this ministry became clear right away. Pastoral work is a full-time job, sometimes without a break. Sister Margarita offers the Hispanic program on Fridays and Sundays and her days off are usually Saturdays and Mondays. But God’s people have needs that are not constrained by any clock or calendar. She often works some of those days off plus long hours and weekends. “If I ask for a day off, Father Nicks never says no,” she said. “He knows I am here working hard.” Hers is not the only sacrifice to make this ministry possible. Sister Margaret, who takes communion to shut-ins, admits that she finds herself in the unaccustomed position of being lonely because her housemate spends so much time working that even sharing a meal together is an infrequent occurrence. “I have never been lonely in my life,” Sister Margaret said.

Another Sister of Providence, Sister Helen Mason, is a longtime resident of Walla Walla whom they see in church each week and on other occasions. Sister Margaret said she is adjusting as she gets to know people in the community.

The Lady in Red, a statue from her native El Salvador, is one of Sister Margarita’s favorites.
The Lady in Red, a statue from her native El Salvador, is one of Sister Margarita’s favorites.

Sister Margarita’s predecessor as director of religious education served for 20 years and then retired. During those years, an English and a Spanish program in religious education were offered, but the director was not bilingual, but had a Hispanic assistant. “There was no communication with the director in Spanish,” Sister Margarita explained. “Hispanics came to class and that was it. They had to try to understand and keep up. What surprises me and is really scary is that Hispanic children were preparing for first communion but didn’t even know what it means. That really got my attention. I said, ‘I need to meet with the parents’.”

Her faith formation for Hispanic adults includes confirmation and first communion. Anglo parishioners go to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Sister Margarita coordinates both the English and Spanish programs and hopes to offer a combined program for Anglo parents and their children, perhaps next year. She is pleased to have a new assistant to help with the Spanish program, Emelda Robles. Emelda, who has a two-year community college degree in the culinary arts, is assigned to work 12 hours a week but is putting in more time than that. “She did not have a lot of computer skills to begin with, but caught on right away,” Sister Margarita said. Emelda calls Sister Margarita “a good boss . . . Our community is blessed to have Sister Margarita. She brought a totally new concept of how to do things, to work with the community and inspire people to participate. She is willing to try to do something different.”

Sister Margarita shares prayer time with Sister Margaret Botch.
Sister Margarita shares prayer time with Sister Margaret Botch.

Other help comes from Karen Western, office manager for the three parishes. &ldqldquo;I think she’s wonderful to work with,” Karen said of Sister Margarita. “She has a goal and is focused. She is very nice to the people, but she’s still holding them accountable. And she does it with a smile.” Karen said Sister Margarita also is “very diplomatic,” a boon when working with three diverse parish communities with their own ideas and histories. She added that Sister Margarita began what hopefully will be a new tradition of children, parents and the catechists blessing each other that really moved people. Sister Margarita has created a place where Hispanic parents and children can come anytime, starting by rearranging her office to keep her desk from separating her from the people. “They feel very good and so free, comfortable coming to talk.” Some of them expect nuns to be strict and mean. “I laugh and I listen, and they say, ‘but you are not that kind of nun, Sister.”

Sr. Margarita Herndez, SP
Sister Margarita works with Father Matthew Nicks, pastor of three Walla Walla parishes.

In the hallway where the classrooms are, Sister Margarita has a small table outside each door covered with a cloth in liturgical colors. On top of each is a statue of a virgin or a cultural figure like her favorite Lady in Red from her native El Salvador.

The tables were donated, as is a copying machine in the resource room full of supplies for catechists. Visitors to a large room filled with books have called it “just like Amazon!” A special classroom decorated for the littlest children shows just how special they are to her heart. There’s something special for parents, too: a Parents’ Corner, with family sharing time forms they are asked to fill out and turn in. “This is not just the child’s responsibility; it is the family’s,” Sister Margarita stressed.

She finds joy in this work. “I just feel it. I have time to be with people, to go to their houses and to help them build a better relationship with God,” she explained. “Sometimes parents can’t drive and I go to their house to visit and will even teach classes at home.” She began a new initiative when she discovered that many of the adults don’t know how to pray as a family. “They just pray the ‘Our Father’. I say, ‘I will go to your house and pray with you’.” Her focus is on being present to them and helping them to become more integrated into the overall community.

That attempt at integration is, itself, new. Religious education classes always ended with a celebration party, but there was never one for Hispanics before, Sister Margarita said. “Father and I said we will do it for the whole community or for nobody.” Putting on a celebration for 350 people involved in sacramental preparation and their parents was a lot of work and full of surprises. The Anglo people never saw how many Hispanics there were in the classes before. One of the little ones said, ‘Are all these children going to receive the sacraments? Oh, my gosh, that’s a big group!’ They were excited. It was nice to see that.”

Sr. Margarita Hernandez, SP
Sister Margarita brings faith formation to Hispanic children and parents.

There is a challenge for religious in “getting across the wall between the people and us,” she said. She is direct, but some of the Anglo adults, as well as the parents who home school, are very traditional, Sister Margarita said. It can be hard to get into their lives, their own beliefs and their world. “If they disagree, they go to Father, and he says, ‘Go back and talk to her.’” Father Nicks said Sister Margarita is “very professional, very positive and very diligent about the community, what she is planning, what she is trying to do and where she needs help.” She also is “very frank,” he said with a smile. “I never worry about her holding back, which I really appreciate.”

The pastor said she has forged personal relationships with parents and other community leaders and is actively involved in community events everywhere, earning broad community support. His hopes are to create “a different sort of arrangement with three distinct parishes with their own identities and histories and their own ministerial structures. The goal is to achieve unity and a common mission and purpose “that we work towards in a way that respects the differences.”

This is a time of intense change for Walla Walla, with two bishops in just five years, Father Nicks said. One of the challenges is that “in general, religious education at the parish has not proven to be successful for children. They do not go to Mass as adults, marry in the church and pass on the faith. I don’t know the answer. That is a huge challenge.”

The challenge is even greater in the Hispanic communities because of the multicultural and multilingual dynamics. “We are seeking to develop a union of faith and life, faith and culture,” he said.

That is why Sister Margarita was delighted when five Hispanic parents volunteered to be among the 32 catechists. It was important to determine their levels of education and to make sure they were well-prepared, so for the first time the Hispanic catechists spent 1 ½ days at a separate retreat in Cottonwood, Idaho, paid for by selling tamales, holding raffles and raising donations.

Given her exhausting schedule, the questions comes up: What does Sister Margarita do in her spare time? The answer is: What doesn’t she do? For starters, she was co-chair of this year’s Sisters of Providence Provincial Chapter and now she travels to Seattle once a month, prepping for her role as chair of next year’s gathering. She also was appointed by Spokane Bishop Thomas A. Daly to be part of the diocesan leadership team of the national V Encuentro, which will be held in Dallas in 2018. Each diocese in the United States has a team working on developing a pastoral plan for how to minister to and address the pastoral needs of Hispanic and Latino Catholics, especially the younger generations. Sister Margarita has asked Sister Marisol Avìla, who is involved in Hispanic youth ministry through La Red, to be part of the team, as well.

If Sister Margarita ever really has any “free time,” you may find her leaving Walla Walla for “the big city,” making the three-hour drive to Spokane to visit Sisters of Providence there.