Sister Laura Cecilia’s face sparkles with the joy of life, perhaps not what you might expect from one who runs a hospice for AIDS sufferers and a home for abandoned elderly men.
On the second day of our visit to the Venezuela parish where priests from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have served for 40 years, she and five other Missionaries of Charity made room for us Minnesota visitors in the tiny room that’s their chapel this morning. The perspiration dripped off our North American faces, but the heat and humidity — even at a 7 a.m. Mass — didn’t seem to phase the women who are following in the footsteps of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Bishop Lee Piche presided. He noted how much he appreciated being able to lead our prayer in English, since that’s the main language of Mother Teresa’s order and since he’s still working on his Spanish.
Afterward the bishop actually got along pretty well understanding the Spanish-speaking AIDS patients and “grandfathers” — that’s what the Missionaries of Charity call the abandoned elderly in their care — when Sister Laura Cecilia gave us a tour of their facility in a crowded barrio in San Felix.
A hospice full of life
The Missionaries of Charity have served the poorest of the poor there for 12 years now, and although death is never far off in the work the sisters do, the plant-laden inner court of the hospice is filled with the sounds of chirping parakeets, crowing roosters, clucking chichens and a parrot that says “Hola.” Grapes grow on vines draped above for shade, patients roll around in wheelchairs, and “grandfathers” are quick to wish you a “Buenas dias” and reach to shake your hand.
One even pulled a fast-one on our bishop.
An elderly man with a cane who was creeping along the inner pathway seemed to be losing his balance, and our ever-helpful auxiliary bishop reached out and steadied him, helping him walk until there was a place for him to get a hand-hold.
“He’s pretending!” Sister Laura Cecilia said. And sure enough, the sly old grandfather winked. He was just looking for attention, and he found the perfect sympathetic foil!
How can these nuns do it?
I couldn’t help but ask this smiling nun why she does what she does, caring for those that society can’t get far enough away from, taking in those even their families don’t want, and giving them all the love you would give to the person you loved the most.
“It’s for Jesus,” she said simply.
“I have realized that Jesus hides himself in the disguises of these gentlemen. Since I believe that God loves everyone, then God loves them, and that means they are of great value, even though society may not value them at all and shows them no dignity. It is such a privilege to help them recover that dignity.”
Of course, despite her smile, Sister Laura Cecilia said there are trying times in the kind of mission work she and her sisters do with the men, especially when they are dying and cannot be helped.
“Many times they get angry and depressed, and in their anger and frustration they throw things at you. And that’s when I remember what Mother said: ‘Love until it hurts.'”