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Two sisters take final vows as servants of the sick

Sister Laura Muñoz says she finds a level of fulfillment in carrying out her community’s ministry of providing overnight care to the terminally ill that she probably would not be able to realize were she working during the daylight hours.

“Usually the night is when many people do bad things – when somebody goes out at night, it’s often not for a good reason,” observed Sister Laura after the Sept. 15 Mass at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in New Orleans in which she and Sister Miriam Rivera professed perpetual vows to spend the rest of their lives as Sisters Servants of Mary. “So I was thinking that the night would be a time for me to make a reparation for (that sin) and to praise God at night. When people are sleeping, we are working. Every single person we serve is God’s gift to us!”

Emulating Mary

Archbishop Gregory Aymond, the Mass’ main celebrant, thanked the two sisters, both certified nursing assistants and natives of Mexico, for their “yes to God,” and for the love and encouragement of family, friends and coworkers who helped them realize their life’s dream of service to the sick and dying. The New Orleans community, based at a convent at 5001 Perlita St. in Gentilly, is composed of 10 sisters, including Sister Elvia Navarro, superior.

“We thank you for your open hearts and your open ears that have heard God’s call,” Archbishop Aymond said. “Like Mary, you embraced the call, you embraced the mystery and you let go of your hesitancy. Like Mary, you come saying, ‘Yes, here I am, Lord. You have called me. I am your maidservant. Let it be done to me as you will.’”

After publicly professing the three vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, each sister received a gold ring as a sign of her fidelity and signed her profession of final vows at the altar.

“We thank you and we send you forth from this celebration to bring comfort, hope and the love and compassion of Christ to those who are ill, to those who are in need of Christ and the church, (while) sitting at their bedside,” the archbishop told the two sisters, reminding them that “someone else” was making a vow to them on their special day: God.

“As God hears and receives your vow, he will whisper to your heart: ‘I vow to be with you always; I promise to walk with you in your ministry to the sick; I vow that I will rejoice with you in times of joy; I promise that I will be constant in you in the routine of life and the mystery; I will carry you when you are burdened, when you are challenged and when you are confused,’” he said.

Heartfelt callings

Sister Laura, 31, said she had not considered the possibility of religious life until she was a 22-year-old college student. Despite the benefits of having a wonderful family and an interesting course of studies, she felt unhappy until her cousin suggested that she start looking at various religious communities clustered around her native city of Leon. She entered the Sisters Servants of Mary convent in 2003, progressed to their Oxnard, Calif., novitiate, and joined the New Orleans community in 2009.

God assuages fear

“At first I was afraid of working with the dying, but now it’s my apostolate to send (the terminally ill) to God; I feel that is what God wanted from me,” said Sister Laura, noting that she and her fellow sisters kneel before their convent’s statue of the Blessed Mother to ask for strength before they go out on their nightly vigils over the sick.

“I think every night is a miracle – every single night,” she said. “The Lord has something for us every day and every night, too, if we are alert to see it.”

Sister Miriam, 28, discerned her calling as a child growing up in Ocotlan, a city outside of Guadalajara. Sister Laura, who was very ill in infancy, was consecrated by her parents as a newborn to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and entered the sisters’ Queretaro, Mexico, convent as an aspirant at age 14.

“I always wanted to do something for the Lord,” recalled Sister Miriam, who joined the New Orleans community in 2010. “My parents were very generous teaching me the faith, and to do the good. I felt the call (to religious life) in my heart, but I didn’t know how to do it.”

Her vocational path become clearer when she was asked at age 13 to help her great-grandmother and another elderly woman who “just needed somebody to be with them, to listen to them, to hold their hands and to pray with them,” she said. A year later, she met a Sister Servant of Mary who was vacationing with her family in the house across the street.

“When I met her I knew that that was what God wanted of me,” Sister Laura said. “I think the Lord was preparing the way.”

“The miracle (of my ministry) is seeing the presence of God in the person you are serving,” she said. “You can see the face of Jesus in the sick. Sometimes, when it is hardest part of the night, you feel the strength of God. It’s not you. It’s the strength of God that’s giving you the grace to stay there and take care of him.”

Locals feel ministry’s impact

At the reception following the Mass, locals whose loved ones had benefited from the sisters’ care marveled at their gentle spirit, boundless kindness and ever-present smiling faces, even in the toughest of circumstances. Frank Burnett, a parishioner of St. Philip Neri, said the care the sisters gave his mother-in-law over the seven months leading up to her October 2011 death made him vow to help them in any way he could for the rest of his life. Burnett and his wife Terry prepare a monthly meal for the sisters and take them on errands.

“My family and I adopted the Sisters Servants of Mary. They took care of my mother-in-law, and they changed our lives,” Burnett said. “As long as my family’s here, they are our family.” Burnett said the sisters made it easier to accept was was happening to his mother-in-law by casting death as part of “the Lord’s process.” He recalled how his mother-in-law, who suffered from dementia, would smile and recognize the sisters when they came into her bedroom, rubbed her head and spoke quietly with her.

“God speaks to them,” Burnett said. “It’s is a calmness they have in the way they handle the sick, in the way they handled my mother-in- law, in the way they can walk out the room after handling your relative and talk to you; you just feel calm. They’re a special group of people, because when you’re dealing with the sick and the dying every day, you’ve got to have a special calling from God to do that. They are just unbelievable.”

Dr. Vincent Culotta Jr., had been aware of the sisters’ presence in New Orleans since the early 1960s, from the time he served Masses in their chapel as an 11-year-old St. Frances Cabrini altar boy.

Culotta re-encountered them in 1995, when his ill father received their overnight care for three months in shifts that went from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The sisters’ only request was transportation to and from the home, and a donation – whatever the family could afford.

“They took care of my father so my mother could get a good night’s sleep,” said Culotta, recalling how one of the sisters was praying the rosary with him and several family members as his father drew his last breath.

“My dad knew he was dying. He said, ‘I don’t want to go back to the hospital anymore. I want to die in my house and in my bed,’” Culotta said. “My recollection is that as he was dying, he had a smile on his face.”

For more information on the Sisters Servants of Mary, call 282-5549