Caring for the dying is life-giving for Servants of Mary
The interior of the Sisters Servants of Mary’s convent on Perlita Street in Gentilly is glistening and white, as are the bleached, crisp habits and shoes they wear while keeping overnight vigil with the terminally ill in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
In the bleak hours after the levees broke in 2005, brackish water rushed into the first floor of the convent, forcing the sisters who had ridden out Katrina in their sturdy residence to climb stairs to the chapel choir loft.
A few days later, a boat floated up to the chapel door, and the sisters, still in their white habits, positioned a ladder near the second-floor landing and shimmied down into the boat.
It was only a temporary retreat.
After the water cleared and left New Orleans a brown, lifeless mess, the Servants of Mary made a life-giving decision, not unlike the thousands of life-giving actions they have taken since coming to the archdiocese 100 years ago to care for those facing imminent death.
On the iron gates outside the convent, the sisters hung a sign: “We will be back!”
“Many people said it was like hope for them,” said Mother Rosa Valadez, local superior of the Servants of Mary. “They were tempted to leave, but they said, ‘No, the sisters are coming back, and we will stay here.’ It was like an inspiration. They trusted in God.”
In their rich history, the sisters have faced even worse challenges. At the height of the Mexican Revolution, the Catholic Church and its visible ministers – priests and nuns – faced harassment and death. By 1914, the Servants of Mary had 22 convents throughout Mexico, but the revolutionary government continued to strengthen its oppressive measures, and the sisters became sitting ducks.
American soldiers who came to protect the town of Vera Cruz in 1914 suggested that the sisters consider relocating to the U.S. for their safety, which is how six Servants of Mary arrived in New Orleans that September.
Since then, uninterrupted except for a few months by Katrina, the Servants of Mary have cared for the sick at night, allowing weary family caregivers to catch a few hours of sleep.
The 11 Servants of Mary now serving in the archdiocese are either registered nurses, licensed practical nurses or certified nursing assistants. They sleep during the day, arise in the late afternoon for prayer and dinner, and then keep bedside vigil at the homes of ill patients from 8:30 p.m. until 5:30 a.m. the next morning.
They never charge for their services. God – and grateful families – provide.
Each sister is responsible for the care of two patients, rotating nights. Because the need is so great and there are only 11 sisters, the waiting list of needy patients now stretches to nearly 175.
“It’s very sad for me to tell families there is a waiting list,” Mother Rosa said. “Sometimes they cry because it is a very needy situation, but we don’t have the sisters. We have to pray for vocations.”
Their care goes far beyond physical and medical needs. Sometimes, Mother Rosa said, the patients initially are hesitant to be visited by a religious woman.
“But when we start working with a patient, that is our life,” Mother Rosa said. “When they are suffering – especially in the beginning – they sometimes say, ‘Where is God? I don’t understand why I am in this situation.’ But when we start talking to them, they start changing and praying and thanking God for what they are going through. They turn their sufferings into prayer. They teach us a lot.”
Sister Susanna Orozco said one of her patients did not want the sisters to come and made that point very clear.
“I just said, ‘Your loved one needs some rest, so I will just come and check in on you in case you need some help,’” Sister Susanna said. “He was closed inside himself. I asked him if he would like to say three Hail Marys. Every night, I would kneel down and pray the Hail Mary. I brought him some holy water. I always bring holy water. I kept praying all the time. Soon enough he did accept that I was praying with him. He looked at peace.”
The man died a few days later after receiving the sacraments.
“When we come to a patient’s home, we turn that patient’s room into our little chapel,” Sister Susanna said. “The patient becomes Jesus to us. We are caring for Jesus in he interior of the Sisters Servants of Mary’s convent on Perlita Street in Gentilly is glistening and white, as are the bleached, crisp habits and shoes they wear while keeping overnight vigil with the terminally ill in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
The sisters live frugally. They take donated paper that already has been run through a printer by businesses and feed the blank side through their copier when they need prints.
They beam with gratitude for God’s goodness.
“The families we serve are wonderful and grateful that we can help them,” Sister Susanna said. “They thank us for being there in those moments.”
And they have been here in those moments for 100 years. After Katrina hit, the sisters were showing their devastated convent to a representative of Helm Paint, who offered them free paint from the cans that had been rusted by the floodwaters. The paint was perfect.
“When they saw the convent, they thought there was no way we could rebuild,” Mother Rosa said.
Wrong. Every day, people in the neighborhood and families for whom the sisters had cared brought food.
“We didn’t have to cook anything,” Sister Susanna said. “It’s amazing the goodness of people. When you help them, they want to do something for you. We help them a little bit, and they help us a lot.
“Mainly, what we want is for the person to grow closer to God, especially in those moments when they are ready to face the Lord. We want them to know there is a God who loves them, who is very good and merciful, waiting for them. We don’t want them to be fearful. That’s why St. John the Baptist is our patron – he prepares the way for the Lord, and we are preparing the way for the patient.”