CHALCO, Mexico, May 27, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Last week, I was deep into the Mexican interior on a long and radio-less car ride from Guadalajara to Chalco. My traveling companions were tired and quiet as we passed brushfires high up on mountains, lonesome haciendas, and sombreroed cowboys minding slender cattle. Within that quiet place, my mind traveled to what I’d absorbed the previous two weeks.
I considered the Sisters of Mary and the many thousands of young men and women I’d encountered in Catholic Mexican Boystowns and Girlstowns. I’d glimpsed things no one sees. I’d witnessed what seemed to be miracles.
After an hour or so, though, of some of the warmer remembrances, I found myself considering the tension between who they are and who I am not. As rusted rectangular road signs pointed to unpronounceable villages, I looked inward. These once tormented children knew resurrected joy, and conversely, the sisters knew the life that came from dying — and I was just a Catholic man doing okay in the world.
My thoughts began to settle on the sisters and their crucified path in life to Heaven. No corner of their hearts was left for themselves, I knew; they’d surrendered their lives to stand at the iron gate of children’s damaged souls. Every child enters the community shouldering a gargantuan cross — the sisters throw out their arms to bear its weight, until, like Simon, the cross becomes theirs. I began to pray: Dear Lord, have mercy on me. These little ones are the answer to the world’s pain; they were dead and now alive. These humble sisters are the answer: they were alive, and now they die. Don’t let me float insufficiently in the middle.
How does one end up in Mexican scrubland, praying in a car, during a pandemic?
In April, I had the thought to travel to Chalco to be with the Sisters of Mary. The idea was simple. With Americans video-conferencing in pajama bottoms, I wanted to be in the company of those whom I’d recently come to discover as blue-collar martyrs. Their congregation is scattered throughout South and Central America and the Far East like spilled chalices of the Lord’s Blood. They are bright Alleluias set into devastated souls. It is grueling work. The Sisters of Mary are considered by many to be the hardest-working congregation in the world. They wouldn’t exist without the Father of Orphans, Fr. Al.
I wrote a book in 2019, The Priests We Need to Save the Church, that saw some success, and afterward, I discovered this priest — Venerable Aloysius Schwartz. You likely have not heard of “Fr. Al,” though he is as impactful as any priest — perhaps any man, save Jesus — who’s ever lived.
One night in a chapel in weather-miserable Banneux, Belgium, the Washington, D.C. native consecrated his life to the Virgin of the Poor. It was at her apparition site in the mid-1950s where the lone American seminarian in Belgium made a vow, a vow to spend the remainder of his life serving the humiliated, the disregarded, and the poor. War-decimated Korea was his launch point. On December 8, 1957, he looked into the faces of the Korean poor and for the first time saw that “eyes burned with a fierce, scared, hunted-animal expression.” It haunted him, so he worked at its removal.
For the remaining 35 years of a life cut short by Lou Gehrig’s Disease, he begged for hundreds of millions of dollars to build hospitals, dormitories, orphanages, gymnasiums, and churches. He formed the Sisters of Mary and an Order of Brothers who would also agree to turn their lives over for the poor.
“It requires faith of the deepest kind to see God present in the person of the poor,” he wrote during his first year in Busan, Korea. “It requires the faith of the centurion, for example, who could look up at the crucified figure of Christ upon the cross … who was a leper, as one struck by God, and say, ‘Indeed this was the son of God.’”
Fr. Al knew that his vocation would lack spiritual vibrancy, like governmental social justice departments, without it being rooted to the Virgin of the Poor and “Christ, the Starved Man.” So he did what he thought they would ask of him; he committed to mortifications and an intense devotion to the Eucharist and to prayer to act as seedbeds. He daily prayed the rosary and his Office. He made it a point to be available to the poor at all times.
Fr. Al was the mirror image of the priest I had begged for in my book — except he broke the bank. He’d managed to set up a schematic that pulled hundreds of thousands of the poor from poverty, many of whom lived in trash dumps with names like Smokey Mountain and Ragpickers Camp in Korea and the Philippines. Where Mother Teresa picked the dying man off the street, Fr. Al made sure he was never there. Boystown would help make the man an accountant, a masonry contractor, or even a priest. The possibilities for “man fully alive” were limitless to Fr. Al.
Before his death, he handed the baton to his spiritual daughters, the Sisters of Mary. As a writer eager to hold Fr. Al’s life up for the world to see, I wanted to see his heirlooms at work. I convinced Sr. Margie Cheong, the Korean-born sister and head of the Latin American communities of Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, and Honduras, to grant me access into their communities.
After landing safely in Mexico City in early May, I became subject to a new rite of passage at a nearby clinic — a pair of three-inch wooden Q-tips were pushed into the upper reaches of my nasal passages. The procedure would deem me COVID-free. “All for Padre Al,” I whined to Sherlyn, my translator, through watery eyes.
Once cleared of the virus, I entered past the iron gates and high stone walls of Chalco and became instantly flabbergasted. This was the first thing I saw: a fully habited sister jogging with more than 300 teenage girls in tow. Each looked to be smiling. Because American sensibilities were not yet shed, Rocky and those hundreds of city kids who tried to keep up with him as he leapt Philadelphia park benches came to mind. To my left, a fully habited sister was full-tilt on a soccer field filled with girls.
As the day unfolded, I became lifted into a different dimension, one unseen in America. For starters, 3,300 teenage girls were without cell phones. They prayed the rosary at 7 P.M. in a harmonious chorus that reverberated like orchestral hives of bees. As the setting blood-red sun shot its radiant light against twin snow-capped volcanoes in the distance, I watched the girls press into the gymnasium for catechism. An hour later, they poured out like happy saints, smiling, waving, and welcoming the stranger in their midst. The volcanoes seemed to stand prouder then, like watchful fathers admiring their daughters in the fading light. It would have been okay if time had stopped right then.
A few nights later, on the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, the 3,000-strong caravan knelt on hardwood before the exposed Blessed Sacrament for the better part of an hour. I didn’t observe any fidgeting; it was as if they were kneeling on cashmere-line pillows. None, I saw, rubbed her knees as they exited the Noah’s ark–sized gymnasium. I was reminded of the Major League Baseball player who, after getting hit in the forearm with a mid-90s fastball, doesn’t give the pitcher the satisfaction of knowing that it hurt.
Girlstown in Chalco and Boystown in Guadalajara are saving grounds, sanctified fields of goodwill and resurrection. Children throb with a startling type of joy, heightened by the knowledge that they were lifted from harsh lives of poverty. It took a while to figure out why the teenagers addressed each of the sisters as Madre. “We are spiritual mothers to them first,” a sister told me. “They have been through too much.”
Many have worked fields, barefoot, at the age of 8 or 9 and returned home to find no food on the table. Almost all have had the fear of not knowing the whereabouts of the next meal. Zayra, one of them, revealed to me that she was chased an hour up Loma Larga Mountain by a human-trafficker. Her grandfather, on that mountain where she lived, was drunk most nights. “I would kneel in front of the statue of Mary and pray the fights and drinking would stop,” she said. Antonina, an orphan, told me her father was shot dead in the street. Her mom, she believes, burned to death.
But oh, how Zayra and Antonina smile now — not a painted-on Catholic Branch Davidian type, but a smile that speaks of how the mothers have placed Christ back into His rightful place in their scraped up souls. For the five years the sisters will have them, they educate, nourish, catechize, play with, jog with, and pray with them; they do not stop. The eloquence of their maternal love — given ever so slowly, so tenderly — pulls away layer after layer of wounds and horrors too graphic for this writing.
Each of the sisters greeted me as mothers do their sons arriving home from war — but I knew I was just in the way. Their duty was the children. “Time here is like Magdalene’s perfume; it is precious for us,” Sr. Margie said. “We give all we are to them.” The sisters know the secret: persevering love stirs hearts to healing.
I had befriended cheery-eyed Brazilian-born Sr. Marinei (pronounced “Mar-en-ae”), who prepared my meal each evening. In a moment of boldness, I asked what she had yet to die to – and a sudden curtain of awkward silence dropped. Barking dogs in the countryside became the only sound. Her hesitant eyes told distinctly different stories: her self-consciousness at being caught in the teeth of her weakness and of her desire to fully expose it.
Finally — “I am sensitive,” she whispered with the awkward smile of a kindergartner at her first picture-taking. “And I know I must give that up, too. My thoughts, my hurts — it is all nothing. I must die to everything to be filled with Christ.
“To live poverty means that I must accept a certain death … now, it is not easy for me [Sr. Marinei laughs as the tension breaks], but I know I need to die several times a day. I need to leave behind everything that I am.
“But that is the Gospel — I leave everything — mother, father, all that I have. This is what Jesus asks. It is difficult, but these difficulties are great gifts. Because they allow me to offer myself fully to Him and these girls.”
This statement. The crucified sisters who persevere as steady tides of unconditional love.
These resurrected girls, these resurrected boys who lay down their crosses.
It is Jesus Christ, spread out everywhere. And it is within this holy paradox of living and dying — this surrendering of torment (for children) and comfort (the sisters) — that seems the most reasonable thing in the world.
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. WVC provides food, shelter, clothing, medical expenses, Catholic education, and vocational training to over 20,000 children in Boystowns and Girlstowns in seven different countries around the world. If you would like to donate to World Villages for Children, please go to www.worldvillages.org/donate
Kevin Wells is a Catholic speaker, writer, president of the Monsignor Thomas Wells Society for Vocations, and author of the bestselling book The Priests We Need to Save the Church (Sophia Institute Press, 2019).