ORLANDO, Florida — A familiar Spanish saying defines the experience and worldview of Sister Teresa Maya, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word: “Ni de aqui, ni de alla” (“from neither here nor there”).
Before becoming president-elect of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2016, Maya collaborated with the religious conference in Mexico, an experience that taught her there are “two or three versions of the same story — whether it’s because there’s another language or cultural perspective or geography — and that’s important to keep in mind,” she said.
Maya, who is Mexican-American, made the transition to LCWR president Aug. 11, the final night of the conference’s annual assembly in Orlando. She will lead the organization as the rest of the U.S. Catholic Church starts to tip from a majority-Anglo to a majority-Hispanic congregation.
LCWR is an association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States. The conference has about 1350 members, who represent nearly 80 percent of the approximately 48,500 women religious in the United States.
Her position goes beyond simply representing Latina and minority sisters or the demographic changes of the U.S. Catholic Church. The perspective and attitude she’ll bring with her, her friends and colleagues say, are unique to a bicultural upbringing and friendly to the concept of change.
Maya, born Dec. 27, 1967, in Mexico City, lived in both Mexico and San Antonio because of her father’s work. Her introduction to religion came from watching her grandmother pray the rosary and accompanying her to church.
As a child, she developed an interest in religious life, but she muffled that thought until she was halfway through working toward her doctorate in Mexico City in 1994.
She told a priest that no one she knew wanted to be a nun and she thought something was wrong with her.
He advised her to try it, which she did.
Maya’s parents were initially disappointed that she wasn’t going to do more with her education, but years later they came to embrace her calling.
Maya graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale in 1989 and became a certified teacher at schools run by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and at the Monterrey Technological and Advanced Studies Institute in Laguna, Mexico.
At Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California, she earned her master’s degree in systematic theology in 1991 and eventually went on to the College of Mexico in Mexico City, where she got her doctorate in Latin American colonial church history in 1997.
“She’s a lifelong learner,” said Sister Glenn Anne McPhee of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, who met Maya in the early 1980s, when she came to the United States as a high school student from Mexico. “She’s a very high-energy person. It’s contagious, and it’s only gotten better over time.
“She’s just a woman who continues to grow and seize the moment,” she added.
While studying at Yale, Maya was a school volunteer in New Haven, Connecticut, working in inner-city elementary schools with Latino children. The experience “changed my life forever,” she said.
In 1995, she joined the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in Mexico City, where she went through formation and professed her final vows in 2002. Their charism — the Incarnation, the actualizing of God’s love as their mission — sold her, even after a lifelong Dominican education and visits to six congregations.
Once her congregation learned she could speak English and translate, she said, she began traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico frequently. She was elected to her congregation’s leadership in 2008, and in 2016 she was chosen as president-elect of LCWR.
“When I look back on the last few years, I realize my ministry is no longer education. It’s religious life itself: ensuring its viability, ensuring it stays focused on its mission, our own kind of love for our own life,” she said.
Arturo Chavez, president of the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, knows Maya through their common work with the college and the University of the Incarnate Word, as well as programs and associations intended for Latin American sisters in the United States.
“She’s both a bridge-builder and a change agent,” he said, echoing words others have also used to describe her.
While serving as president-elect of LCWR, Maya said, she learned about the “incredible potential” of collaboration between religious institutions and congregations.
Right now, she said, LCWR is “owning its historical moment.”
“The very fact that that this country has gone into this division and fear, I think it’s the world calling religious and our conferences to witness, to the welcoming of the stranger, to the unity of the diversity, to civil discourse, to being respectful even if we disagree,” she said. “I think there’s a mission in the moment that we need to own, and I see that being fundamental to the next few years.”
She believes women religious shouldn’t bemoan their decrease in numbers but instead should be willing to go where they are needed to be bridge-builders.
When asked about being a visible face for religious Latinas, Maya said her call is to be just who she is, “because it witnesses to other Latinas and to other women of color in religious life that we belong, that this is also our life, our church, our time.”
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This is an edited version of the story originally published in Global Sisters Report, a project of National Catholic Reporter.
Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report.