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December 27, 2021, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – During the time of year that focuses on the birth of Jesus, Sister Carol Gross, OP, gave a live stream presentation on a central figure of the nativity: Mary, the mother of Jesus and our mother.
Sister Carol’s talk, “Devotion to Mary in Latin America,” was presented on December 9, 2021, the day after the patronal feast of the United States, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and three days before the December 12 Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who is especially revered in Mexico and by many Hispanic people in the United States.
The talk was part of a series of presentations organized by the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Spirituality Committee. Sister Carol spoke from her home in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Sister Carol described in general the Marian piety of many of the people of Latin America and the Caribbean – a popular piety involving the heart. In times of need, she said, this devotion to Mary “soothes pain and strengthens hope – the loving, healing, consoling power of God or God’s mother, who is the stand-in for God at the center of Latin American culture.”
Throughout the centuries, Sister Carol said, Mary has appeared to suffering people in a variety of images – suited to the people of a particular culture to help them to understand God’s love for them. “Myths and legends attributed to an icon of Mary speak to the needs of the people,” she explained.
Sister Carol highlighted a number of images of Mary that are popular in various parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Our Lady of Altagracia (“high grace”) is the cultural image of Mary in the Dominican Republic. She is known as the Protectress of the Dominican Republic, Sister Carol added. The image was originally brought home by a merchant to his daughter in the Dominican Republic. A basilica now houses the image, and about 8,000 people visit the basilica every year. On January 21, the Feast of Our Lady of Altagracia, people who cannot visit the basilica take part in Masses, novenas, and processions at their home parishes.
Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mary appeared as a pregnant Aztec woman in 1531 to St. Juan Diego, an Aztec who had converted to the Catholic faith, at Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City. Because of her appearance, Sister Carol said, “The native people of Mexico began to recognize the Catholic faith. They say, ‘This virgin looks like us. She is ours and we are hers.’” The Patroness of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe “is our mother,” Sister Carol said. “As a mother she understands, relates, protects, listens, comforts.”
The Immaculate Conception: Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, is the Patroness of the United States and of other countries, such as Nicaragua, who revere her as La Purisima, the most pure one, Sister Carol said. At sundown on December 7, the eve of the feast, people in Nicaragua “flood into the streets in groups, singing hymns to La Purisima,” Sister Carol said. The feast refers to Mary’s conception without original sin, not to the conception of Jesus.
Learn more about various Marian devotions in Latin America in the recording of Sister Carol’s presentation, found below.
December 6, 2018, McAllen, Texas – In a situation that many might assume is desperate and hopeless, five Adrian Dominican Sisters found hope, gratitude, and resilience among immigrants whom they volunteered to serve at hospitality centers in McAllen and El Paso, Texas.
The Sisters were responding to the call by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) to serve immigrants passing through the hospitality centers before joining their sponsoring family or friend. Sisters Patricia Erickson, OP, Mary Kastens, OP, and Nancy Murray, OP, served for 20 days at the McAllen Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, while Sisters Judith Benkert, OP, and Maurine Barzantni, OP, served at various times at Annunciation House, a hospitality center in El Paso, Texas.
From left: Sisters Maurine, Judith, Patricia, Mary, and Nancy
The two hospitality centers serve immigrants – mostly from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – released from detention centers and heading to the homes of family members or friends who are sponsoring them. The hospitality centers offer the immigrants food, clothing, showers, shelter, and a ride to the bus station or airport from which they will travel to their sponsored home in the United States. The immigrants – sometimes as many as 300 in one day – stay at the hospitality center until they have money to travel to their sponsored home.
Typically, the Sisters in McAllen worked from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., with a break for lunch, and spent the night in the Pilgrim House at the San Juan Shrine, about a 20-minute drive from the hospitality house. Sister Judith typically worked the 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. shift and stayed in a hotel.
The Adrian Dominican Sisters were among numerous other volunteers – other women religious, high school and college students, and concerned local residents – who took the time to offer the immigrants whatever services they needed.
“We didn’t have any specific duties per se,” said Sister Pat, a nurse practitioner. “Sometimes I would be in the coat and sweater room, helping people get the coats and sweaters they needed, or in the dining room, giving out tortillas and soup, or helping people in the clinic.”
At the same time, the Sisters and other volunteers served wherever and however they were needed. “There were no job descriptions or outlines of tasks to be done,” Sister Nancy said. “You can’t always analyze but you have to get things done. You have to set the table before you sort the clothes, and in between other tasks when you could get the towels washed.”
Sister Judith said a particular challenge for her was encouraging the sponsors – who often needed help making airplane reservations for the incoming immigrants – to seek help from a local friend or family member. Many had never used the Internet or made reservations and were not fluent in English, she said.
The Sisters were impressed by the patient and grateful attitude of the immigrants. “They always came with shoes that didn’t have laces,” Sister Judith said. “Laces and belts were taken away from them,” out of fear on the part of the detention center personnel that the immigrants would “do something drastic” with them.
“The highlights for me were the people who came through,” Sister Mary said. “They were very patient, gracious, grateful for anything you would do for them. It was special to see the fathers who came through with their children and how patient they were with their children – and how concerned.” Because all of the immigrants who came to the hospitality centers had a sponsor, they were filled with hope, she added. Those who had no one to sponsor them were often deported.
In spite of busy days and exhaustion, the Sisters learned much from their experiences with the immigrants. “I would put this as probably one of the greatest religious experiences of my life,” Sister Mary said. “My whole life has revolved around upper-middle class existence. … Here were people with one bag that held all their belongings. There was such a beauty from these people.”
Sister Judith said she learns from people in situations such as immigration or jail. “What matters in life is being together and having only what you need,” she said. “I’m always learning how to simplify my life, accept things that are important, and let go of other things that don’t matter.”
The Sisters also have suggestions for anyone who might consider volunteering at the hospitality centers. “It’s a great experience,” Sister Pat said. “Go without any expectations and be open to whatever comes your way. … You’re just there to be with people and to do whatever you can to help.”