CASPER, Wyoming — Imelda Munoz Hernandez was bundled up in two heavy fleece sweatshirts and another jacket over the top. She had been in Casper for four weeks, and the weather was vastly different from her native Mexico City.
Hernandez came to Casper with a mission.
“In religious life, we are given the means so that we can have a deep encounter with God,” she said in Spanish. “(My) mission is to help and … to be devoted to God and help other people and just be a big construction for peace and … safety for everyone.”
Hernandez is a woman religious, a Catholic nun who has been serving a church in Mexico since she was in her early 20s. She and two other religious sisters, Josephina Guzman Ayala and Alejandra Austria Garcia, will be living in Casper for the next five years to work with the city’s Latino community through St. Anthony of Padua.
Religious advocacy group Catholic Extension Society worked with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to pay for 30 sisters from Latin American countries to serve parishes across the U.S. through its exchange program.
During their time in Casper, the sisters will be required to develop outreach ministries directed at Casper’s young Latino leaders, teach classes and attend community events, all with the goal of lifting up Latino leaders in a predominantly white city.
But what motivates three women from a warm, Spanish-speaking climate to leave their families and friends for a frigid Western state where nearly everybody speaks only English?
“(I) feel (I) have been chosen by almighty God, that (I’ve) been sent here,” Garcia said. “The Lord is calling (me) to grow closer to him spiritually but also to grow as a human being, to grow as a person.”
For Garcia, this is a dream come true. She knew from an early age she was called to serve the church, but when she went to her mother and grandmother to seek their approval, they told her it wouldn’t be possible. It was too expensive, they said, and the family was too poor. Some religious orders ask new sisters to pay a dowry of sorts before they are able to join.
After she was told religious sisterhood was out of reach, she began to work and attend school. Her work included helping at a local church. She longed to minister to the groups that came to the church and after a conversation with another person, she decided she would do whatever she needed to make that happen.
“It was so great; (I) had such a powerful personal experience of God’s love that (I) was no longer comfortable living in (my) home. (I) just wanted to do something about God’s call,” she said.
She visited priest after priest, explaining just how strong God’s pull was on her heart, and how desperately she wanted to serve a congregation. Finally, one of them told her he would help introduce her to a congregation.
She lived and worked alongside a religious sisterhood for an entire year before becoming part of the order.
She hopes to bring the same devotion to her work in Casper.
“(I) want to discover this country also as God’s country, as sacred. In which case (I’ll) have a sense of awe and reverence that (I) was able to walk among (you) here,” Garcia said.
Ayala, another nun who is spending five years in Casper, grew up in a very religious family. It was a constant for her as a child. That exposure affected her, and she said she found her vocation when she was only 8 years old.
Over time, her love for God and the church grew and she became more and more eager to serve the church. As a teenager she had boyfriends and gentlemen callers. But she didn’t find that lifestyle fulfilling.
“I wanted more,” she said. “I just didn’t want to have a husband and children. I wanted more than that.”
Her priest signed her up for a retreat, and the rest is history. She’s been a woman religious since 1986.
While all of the sisters are eager to put their skills and their love for service to use in Casper, they’ll first spend a few weeks training, learning about U.S. culture and practicing their English. They’ll spend five weeks at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio before traveling to Boston where they will begin course work at Boston College.
That’s the other side of the Catholic Extension program. All 30 sisters participating will walk away with either a bachelor’s or master’s degree from the school. Ayala and Hernandez will earn their master’s degrees, while Garcia will start by earning her GED and then will earn credits toward a bachelor’s degree.
The education component is the piece that will serve the sisters and their home communities once they’ve completed the five years.
“The focus of the education is really leadership and human development,” said Erika Cedrone, senior director of mission at Catholic Extension. “Of sisters working in the U.S., Latina sisters come in with the least amount of education.”
Cedrone said the idea is to equip the sisters with degrees they can utilize in the work they’re doing with the exchange program and then bring back to their congregations at home.
Catholic Extension pays for the sisters’ education, as well as their travel visas and salaries.
When the sisters return to Casper in early March, they will begin developing their ministries. Part of that work also means making more room for Spanish speakers at St. Anthony of Padua.
Father Ray Rodriguez said that work has already begun. When he first came to Casper this summer, St. Anthony only had one Spanish language Mass. Now they’re weekly.
“If you want to get yourself run out of town as a pastor, change the Mass times,” he said. “That’s a good way to get yourself killed.”
Plus the church will begin doing bilingual Mass for certain situations where they can’t do multiple gatherings. Rodriguez said he expected Christmas to be the first real trial.
“If you’re fearful of change, that’s tough,” Rodriguez said when asked about the heightening tensions around immigration and the Latino community. “So we’re learning to make room for each other. Ultimately that’s an act of love.”
The sisters may also serve to assuage some of that fear, he said.
Hernandez said she’s already noticed divisions in her time here. She said they seem to fall along the lines of language — a disconnect between English speakers and Spanish speakers.
“(I) hope to not be separated by language,” she said, “but unified by God’s love.”
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