Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Providence Sister ministers through Christian Base Communities in El Salvador
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the June 12, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
Providence Sister Fran Stacey, who ministered in many different roles in the Spokane Diocese, has been serving in El Salvador for 13 years. (IR photo courtesy of Sister Fran Stacey SP)
Sister of Providence Fran Stacey has been ministering in her community’s mission in El Salvador for 13 years. Recently, during a short visit to Spokane, she made time to talk about her life there.
Sister Fran explained that she had a normal ministry background before moving to El Salvador. For years she was a teacher, then directed the Diocese of Spokane’s adult religious education programs. Later, she helped to develop the Diocesan Pastoral Council. She also put in a brief stint in campus ministry at the University of Great Falls, in Montana. In the mid-1980s, Sister Fran’s community asked her to do vocations work, and in 1989 she began serving on her community’s provincial council.
During her time as a provincial councilor, Sister Fran asked to go to Chile to learn to speak Spanish. “While I was doing all those other things,” she said, “I kept experiencing this thing inside which said, ‘Learn Spanish, learn Spanish.’ I didn’t know what for, but at the end of my term on the provincial council, I asked to go to Chile to study Spanish. While I was in Chile I got a letter from the general superior, the Provincial, saying that the community was going to start a mission in El Salvador, and would I like to go there.”
Sister Fran grew up in southern California, where she had learned some Spanish in grade school and high school. “I’ve never thought of myself as having a gift for languages,” she said, “but I guess I do because simultaneous translation came very easily for me. But you learn the language by being immersed in the environment. I lived in a house for kids from unusual circumstances in Chile that is run by our community. I also spent two six-week sessions in a language school in Bolivia, run by Maryknoll for missioners. So I learned the language as I went along. I was in South America for about a year and four months.”
At this point, as part of a community-wide discernment process, everyone in Sister Fran’s community was asked to think about whether they would like to go to the new mission in El Salvador. “Those who sent in their names,” she said, “were invited to a meeting in Edmonton (Alberta, Canada), and that’s where the group that would go to El Salvador was selected, and I was one of the five selected.”
Sister Fran Stacey (IR photo by Mitch Finley)
The group of Sisters moved to El Salvador in January of 1995, in the Bajo Lempa region, she said, within the department of Usulutan – the equivalent of a state in the U.S.
Her main ministry is working with Christian base communities. “Our parish includes 45little towns and villages, and I work with eight of those,” she said. “My work is coordinating the adult leadership of the Christian base communities in each village. We have regular meetings to build community among ourselves. Every Christian base community has meetings where people get together once a week on a weekday, and they reflect on the Scripture readings for the upcoming Sunday. They relate the readings to what is happening in our homes, in our village, in our country, and in our world.” Meetings last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.
The 45 villages in the parish where Sister Fran serves have two priests officially assigned to the parish, plus there are two Dominican priests who live part-time in the Bajo Lempa region and part-time in the capital city of San Salvador. “People do not have daily Mass, ever,” Sister Fran said. “That’s why the development of lay leadership is critical, and it’s a major part of my job description and of everybody else’s who is on the pastoral team. We don’t even have weekly Masses in all places. We have central areas where Masses are held weekly. If the people in the villages where I serve want to go to Sunday Mass, they have to take a bus.” The bus ride costs about 50 cents, paid by people who earn the equivalent of $3-4 a day working in the fields. “If they want to go to Mass it’s a significant financial sacrifice.”
Providing some relief for this situation has become a part of Sister Fran’s ministry. “The largest number of people who go to Mass from my area are those who live in my village, because I take two truck-loads of people to Mass every Sunday,” she said. “I drive one truck, and a Salvadoran gal who can drive takes the other truck. We can get about 20 people in each truck-load. Our Mass is at 9 a.m., and it takes about 15 minutes to drive there.”
After Mass, Sister Fran and her helper drive their two loads of people back home again. Then Sister Fran returns to pick up a group of budding musicians who stay after Mass to learn from the young adults who provide music for the liturgy. “Part of the music group for the Mass,” she said, “is a group of about six boys who are taking guitar lessons. So they stay after Mass for about half-an-hour to learn, and I go back to pick them up when they’re done.”
Decent quality guitars don’t come cheaply. “They’re donated,” Sister Fran said, “by people who support the Sisters of Providence and their mission in El Salvador. I’m the one who buys the guitars, and they are available in any of the major cities. Because I play guitar myself, I know how to choose fairly good guitars that don’t cost too much. I’ve also learned where the less expensive guitars are that are also good quality. I get little ones for the little guys, and I get medium-sized ones for the bigger kids. Youngsters learn so quickly. I taught some of the young adults who play for the liturgy, but they’ve way surpassed me.”
Sister Fran also said that Spokane’s St. Aloysius Parish – which has a sister-parish relationship with Sister Fran’s parish in El Salvador – donated three electric pianos. Now 10 teenagers are learning the instrument, with lessons from “a Belgian woman comes down from northeastern El Salvador … on the weekends.”
In her ministry on behalf of Christian base communities, Sister Fran’s primary focus is helping to develop youth groups and working with youth and children. “We have a pastor who is very talented – as a writer and as a human being. We have a series of catechetical books that we use, and I’ve worked with training catechists. This is what I’ve been doing for 13 years.”
Each Christian base community meeting, Sister Fran said, is organized around the classic Catholic Action methodology of “see, judge, act.” Part of each meeting is a discussion of what the people can do about the problems they see around them.
As a result, “there is a consistent outreach to the sick,” Sister Fran said, “and it’s quite a sophisticated system called the Emergency Healthcare Fund.
“Every year we fast during Lent, and the money people save from the food they don’t buy goes into this fund. It’s incredible how the people can do this. I couldn’t believe that they fasted. I mean, by our standards they fast all the time, but during Lent they eat even less.”
There was a real concern about health care costs of health care privatized. A small fund was established to help with medical emergencies – for instance, a young girl who was transported to Florida for a heart transplant.
“When people who come to visit us learn about the program, they are so impressed that 2,000 families in our parish, many of whom live in adobe huts with dirt floors, give – and this is a very big deal – 25 cents per month. They are providing healthcare for people that they don’t know.”
An ongoing issue, Sister Fran said, is hunger. People simply do not get enough to eat.
One village did a survey of those in need of food. “There were families that didn’t have any animals at all; then the next level up the family that had a couple of chickens; the next family up was a family that might have chickens and a pig; the next family up the ladder would have a cow; and if you have more than one cow you’re on the rich scale. They discovered that most of the families that didn’t have any animals at all, no chickens, nothing, were the elderly.”
In response, the village developed a food bank, especially to help the elderly. “When we have a food shortage, those who are in pastoral work – and this doesn’t just mean me, it means all the people who attend the Christian base community meeting – we go house to house in the village and beg. People who are poor know what it means to be poor, and they give. I cry every time. We do this at least three times a year.”
Many of the social and economic issues that the Christian base communities deal with every day can be traced to ineffective or unjust government policies, she said. “Please ask people to pray,” Sister Fran said, “because with the upcoming national election there is a possibility of true change if the elections are allowed to be fair.”
Various martyrs in El Salvador in recent memory set vitally important examples, “not only (Archbishop) Oscar Romero and other well known martyrs, but several priests who also are martyrs. They provide the Christian base communities with the model of how we are to act.”
(Donations for the Sisters of Providence mission in El Salvador may be sent c / o Jennifer Roseman, Provincial Administration, Sisters of Providence, 9 E. 9th Ave., Spokane, WA 99202.)