(Crisis Magazine) — In early June, the worst secret in the world broke.
It spread like Canadian wildfire smoke into the hardscrabble cities of Chalco and Guadalajara, Mexico. It filtered southeast into the terraced hillsides of Guatemala and Honduras, and then it began to spread into Brasilia and São Paulo, Brazil. It finally settled across the Atlantic Ocean in the dry lands of Tanzania.
The secret? Father Dan Leary, the spiritual father and chaplain to many thousands of poor Boystown and Girlstown students, was leaving. It reached the ears of his young ones like the sudden, thin, plunging blade of a guillotine. In an instant, their souls began to split apart – one half would hold memories, the other was left to mourn their chaplain who would soon become a ghost. When their emotions settled, a concrete thought began to harden in them: “Why would Padre Dan abandon us?”
I was a bystander at the Girlstown community of Villa de Las Niñas in Chalco, Mexico, a few hours before Leary boarded a plane to return to diocesan ministry this past week. After serving as chaplain to the Sisters of Mary for three years, he was asked to resume his life as a pastor at St. John’s in Clinton, Maryland. Overnight, he was given approximately 18,455 fewer souls to care for.
The children he cared for are the poorest children in the world; they are the rescued ones from the movie Sound of Freedom.
Released to wide acclaim this past week, the film features actor Jim Caviezel – portraying Tim Ballard, the founder of – risking his life to save a single Honduran trafficked girl. In his indomitable war to save a single soul from a jungle kingpin, Caviezel travels by boat into a Conrad-like Heart of Darkness, a thin waterway splitting a Nariño Province jungle in Columbia, one of the most dangerous places in the world.
In an act of unflinching bravery, Caviezel ends up – against every conceivable odd – saving the girl and bringing her back into the arms of her harrowed father.
For many years, the Sisters of Mary, too, have traveled by boat to reach children. But it is usually the sisters’ climbs up tree-choked mountains that rescue the children. Two-by-two, the sisters ascend the most dangerous places in the world during “recruitment week.”
Shoulder to shoulder, they walk narrow paths that split the seams of mountains bathed in human monsters – traffickers, gang members, murderers, and drug runners – to get to the oppressed villages that house the most vulnerable boys and girls in the world. These mountains and villages are minefields. Sisters have been kidnapped and held up at gunpoint. To date, none have been mortally harmed. God is with them, they say, on these blood trails.
When the sisters step past the threshold of these poor, mountainous hovels and lean-tos, it is as if they step into the airlessness of a closed casket. Inside these tiny, dark homes, they look into the eyes of a small girl or boy– or many – submerged and suffocated within the violence of poverty.
Aware of the sexual malevolence some of the children have endured at the hands of alcohol- and drug-fueled men, the sisters smile radiantly, like Our Blessed Mother looking at her cradled Infant. “Your mama has been praying we would climb your mountain. She’s asked us to take care of you. Will you come down with us?”
Usually, the girl or boy will look to their teary-eyed mom, who nods consent. Thereafter, children – thousands each year – walk down these mountains and towns holding the hand of the habited sisters who came to rescue their bodies and souls. They board old buses that slowly navigate dirt roads with potholes the size of elephants – and presto – the grip of traffickers, rapists, drug runners, gangs, and murderers loosens.
Many hours later, these buses pull past the guarded walls of authentically-Catholic Boystown and Girlstown communities. For five years, these children are mothered back to health by sisters who seem more like blue-collar martyrs or bands of Simon of Cyrenes, who throw out their shoulders to bear the full weight of the children’s leviathan crosses.
These boarding schools are humble kingdoms of resurrection, saving grounds of good will. These faithful women educate, nourish, counsel, catechize, jog with, play sports with, and pray with the students; they never stop. It is a divine paradox in these communities, where the sisters die so the children might live. It is the sisters’ aim to heal and form their souls and then send them back out as Catholic missionaries.
In May of 2020, the first girl I met at Villa de Las Niñas in Chalco – a 12-year-old named Zayra – told me that before she entered Girlstown, she was chased an hour up a mountain by a human trafficker. Because Zayra lived near the top of the mountain, she knew “the mountain’s hiding places” better than her pursuer. Her grandfather, with whom she lived, was drunk most nights. “I would kneel in front of the statue of Mary,” Zayra told me, “and pray the fights and the drinking would stop.”
For the past five decades, more than 170,000 of these teenagers have graduated from fifteen Boystown and Girlstown schools founded by Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, a priest born in the Great Depression in the slums of Washington, D.C. The majority of graduates attend universities. Some go on to run companies. They become teachers and bricklayers and run family farms. They are today’s auto mechanics, policemen, and dentists. They are lawyers, orchestral musicians, and architects.
Some enter seminaries and cloisters to become priests and nuns. Others move into parishes and volunteer as catechists, lectors, and spiritual big sisters and brothers to the poor. Thousands of them, of course, would likely be dead, trafficked, or in the midst of enduring a lifetime of looking for the next meal were it not for the Sisters of Mary’s redoubtable instinct to save them.
As of this writing, 381 sisters care for 18,799 students in Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Tanzania, and the Philippines. For five years, these youngsters do not play video games or browse social media. They do not have earbuds or cell phones.
Each evening, at 7 p.m., they pray the Rosary together in a chorus that reverberates like thousands of bees. Thereafter, they adore the Blessed Sacrament, where they often stretch out the tips of their fingers to the base of a monstrance – like bands of hemorrhaging women – and beg Jesus to release them from the memories of their pasts. These children attend frequent weekday Masses, heal before the monstrance at adoration, regularly confess their sins, and are daily catechized by the sisters, who offer their lives seven days a week for these love-starved children.
Until a few days ago, Fr. Leary was the spiritual father to each of them. He had worked mostly seventeen-hour days the past three years to spiritually and mentally prepare the teenage girls for what awaits them as graduates and when they return to some of their poor villages.
When Leary arrived in Mexico in 2020 as a new chaplain to the Sisters of Mary, several teenagers had trouble sleeping. Many awakened in terror and pulled open windows, where they sucked in the night air in gulps as if it were an elixir that could erase memories. These nightmares were of the worst variety because they stemmed from real evil inflicted upon them; countless teenage girls here have been harmed by men in unspeakable ways.
Hyper-tuned to the interior spiritual battles taking place in the students’ minds and souls, the priest realized that the finest remedy for them would be to provide near-constant exposure to, and adoration of, Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. He was certain that silent time at the feet of Jesus – assisted by spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation – would be the best way to heal their memories and enormous wounds.
Thereafter, little by little, he began to watch as thousands of teenagers seemed to reverse in age. Lined faces softened, ringed eyes brightened, and stooped postures regained their proper form. Girls who always looked into the ground raised their chins to show him clear and joy-filled eyes.
“We think of Christ on the cross here, the Christ who suffered torment, but also the Christ who rose,” Leary said. “Because of the heavy trauma, many of these girls have spiritually and emotionally died. It is work to enter into the wound of abuse, to allow a man – even a priest – who desires to spiritually help them to enter into that dark place. But these girls are also smart; they know they have to live.”
“When they fully open themselves to healing, this dark place of theirs becomes a place of the empty tomb; where death and evil lose, where the girls begin to crawl out of their caves.”
Several sisters wept and confided to me of their love for Leary. “He has awakened me – he has awakened all the Sisters – to the sacrificial love of a father,” Sr. Marilyn said. Sr. Margie Cheong, the woman who once headed all the Sisters of Mary communities throughout Central and South America, said Leary’s fatherly presence – especially as it relates to his emphasis on healing in front of the Eucharist – has transformed the entire community.
“Even if I asked [Leary] to slow down, I couldn’t do anything to stop him. It is very strange; his work ethic to help the children and the sisters seems a supernatural grace,” she said. “All of us need an hour or two to ourselves to break away, but not him. He keeps going… Many Sisters have told me that his priesthood and his spiritual direction have changed their lives.”
A dozen or so priests, a bishop, and seminarians have visited Leary over the past few years to assist with the mountain of his spiritual work. “I was wiped out after a few days,” said a priest from Washington, D.C.
Fr. Dan’s work is non-stop; simply, it is a supernatural grace that sustains him. The devil is relentless, and Fr. Dan’s work in these villas is proof that with God’s supernatural grace, a single priest can be an instrument that brings large and relentless measures of love and healing.
All day long he works with kids who’ve been beaten up, and individually, he listens to them all. But here’s the thing; these kids are healing. He’s equipping them with the spiritual tools to live again and be productive members of their villages, colleges, and communities. In some measure, he is helping to rebuild the Catholic Church in Mexico through these children.
When world-class composer and pianist Eric Genuis discovered the children’s sorrow upon the news of Leary’s departure, he hurriedly arranged a four-member concert for three thousand-plus children in Chalco at the beginning of the month. Musicians from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Texas, and Kentucky converged in the poor Mexican town to do their best to cheer the children and sisters in an impromptu concert.
The musicians – an elite pianist, cellist, violinist, and vocalist – performed for the children and 55 members of the religious community for five hours. The 3,271 girls sat transfixed; they had never heard such sounds. Their faces became radiant and their eyes blazed, like a three-thousand-strong rack of flickering votive candles. It seemed it would have been okay if time had stopped that Saturday night, where these once-bullied children gathered elbow to elbow in what suddenly seemed to become an overlooked Milky Way galaxy – a place where the Eucharist sparks to life each morning at the sacrifice of the Mass and the daily healing of wounds unfolds like never-ending comets.
In a way, that night some of the girls began to understand that their heavenly Father was closer to them now because He knew their spiritual father was departing. They are already thinking and praying more vertically today.
Leary could faintly hear the concert from his confessional, where a sister told me he had heard nine hours of confessions on his last day. This wasn’t exceptional; he had averaged four to six hours of confessions each day for three years.
Following the concert, he celebrated Mass for Genuis and a few others. At around 12:45 a.m., the musician asked Leary how he was feeling, knowing that he would be leaving the community for Washington, D.C., the following day. “I go back in obedience, and obedience is a path to holiness, so God has a plan in this,” he said. “God brought me to the poor, and I need to trust Him now. I will always serve the poor, so I have a deep peace within.”
Why is this important? The Sisters of Mary are the pre-emptive workers saving potentially trafficked youth. They are the brave ones “on the wall” for the vulnerable and exposed poor young ones. If you’ve been motivated to aid trafficked children by watching Sound of Freedom, I urge you to share a portion of your tithe with the Sisters of Mary. These heroic women are the ones who risk their lives to save the little ones.
If a comic strip bubble could float a single message above these fifteen Boystown and Girlstown communities spread throughout the world, it might proclaim a single thing: God’s children are not for sale.
Note: World Villages for Children (WVC) is a non-profit organization that financially supports the Sisters of Mary as they help children break free from a life of poverty and trafficking and lead them to Christ. WVC provides food, shelter, clothing, medical expenses, Catholic education, and vocational training to more than 18,000 children in Boystowns and Girlstowns in six different countries around the world. To donate to the Sisters of Mary, please go to www.worldvillages.org/poverty.
Reprinted with permission from Crisis Magazine.