ROME—Putting an exclamation point on a conclusion most people had drawn a long time ago, Pope Francis on Sunday formally declared Mother Teresa of Calcutta a saint. Yet two days before, unbeknownst to the world, another Catholic nun lost her life, murdered with two gunshots to the stomach by men who took her purse and the handful of dollars she had in it.
Sister Isabel Sola Matas of the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary was killed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Friday, Sept. 2, by unidentified men who shot her while she was driving.
A Spaniard born in Barcelona, she had been living in the country since 2008, two years before the small island nation, the poorest in the Americas, was hit by an earthquake largely considered one of the world’s worst catastrophes.
On January 10, 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake hit the island. Though the statistics of the destruction are many, only one is needed: close to 200,000 people were killed.
Yet Isa, as her friends and family called her, and as she asked to be called, couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
“The only thing that mattered to her was serving others,” said Javier Sola Mata, her brother. “Being useful to others, that’s what she believed was important. How to serve others who really couldn’t help themselves.”
According to Sola Mata, that was the only way his sister would describe her life as worthy: “It had to be rooted in service.”
There will be no cries of “Santa subito!” (Saint now!) in St. Peter’s Square for her. Her life was cut short, before she got to be on the cover of Time magazine or win a Nobel Peace Prize. Although she gave her life to serve the forgotten, in whom she saw God’s face, there will be no campaigns to declare her a martyr.
Yet as those who knew her told Crux, they have no doubt that on Sunday she was next to Mother Teresa, overlooking St. Peter’s Square, when Pope Francis honored them both, as a reminder of what religious women silently do around the world, day in and day out.
“I would like to remember those who spend their time in the service of our brothers and sisters in difficult or risky environments. Let us pray especially for the Spanish missionary sister, Sister Isabel, who was killed two days ago in the capital of Haiti,” Francis said.
Jose Beltran, director of the Spanish magazine Vida Nueva, was the last journalist to talk to her, almost a year ago. He defines Isa as a restless woman.
“It was difficult to rein her in when she had made up her mind,” Beltran said. “She’d open up a project, work with the local community to be able to pass it along, help it become independent, and moved on to the next big thing.”
Isa joined the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary when she was 19, with the dream of being a missionary in Africa. Her dream came true, and she worked in Equatorial Guinea for 15 years, leading a school for underprivileged students.
In 2008, she moved on to Haiti, a country which for centuries has been castigated by some of the world’s biggest evils: slavery, corruption, colonialism, violence, poverty, catastrophes, foreign exploitation, and the back turning of the international community.
In a video special from Spanish network TVE back in 2011, she talked about her experience in the earthquake, about running to the school she was working in to try to save her students, about hearing their screams and attempting to get them out from under the rubble.
She also talked about the total silence that followed when an aftershock hit the country soon after the first quake. The school she’d been working on for almost two years became a graveyard.
The following days, she had to put her nursing knowledge into practice, herself amputating limbs of the wounded, with endless days and restless nights, during which she experienced the hunger that pushes one over the brink.
“She had a deep faith and transmitted hope to those around her,” Beltran said. “Despite the horror of living in such a country, seeing how everything she’d built was so easily torn down, I asked her how she could understand God’s absence.”
The question came to the mind of many at the time, just as it did weeks ago when an earthquake in central Italy destroyed the town of Amatrice, and killed close to 300 people.
Yet her response, Beltran told Crux over the phone on Monday, was vintage Isa: “I have never seen God more present [than after the earthquake]. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing many miracles.”
She would also often dismiss the title of “missionary,” arguing that she wasn’t sure who was evangelizing whom.
As she wrote in one of her blog posts, she didn’t believe in “throwing in the towel” because “if God doesn’t give up on anyone, why would I?”
After the earthquake, she focused on providing practical responses which would help those affected.
The religious woman first created a workshop to provide prostheses to those who had lost limbs, and trained some local people so that they could continue the work, under her supervision, but give her freedom to undertake her next challenge: a mobile clinic to bring medical care to rural areas. For this one too, she found local doctors and personnel, including pathologists. Whenever she could, she’d provide small credits for people to start their own businesses.
When she was killed, she was trying to come up with the funds to set up a new school, perhaps to replace the one she lost that January 10th.
The missionary woman, like the 20 other Spanish missionaries currently living in Haiti, knew that she was at risk — not for religious reasons, since more than 75 percent of the population is Catholic, but because of the country’s chronic violence, corruption and instability.
“The fight for survival means that life has a minimum value,” Beltran said. “Who’s been without eating for weeks, is capable of killing for $3. It was a fortuitous attack. Her assassins had been robbing all morning.”
Yet as Beltran said, “she wasn’t an island working in Haiti,” but one of the many “Teresas of Calcutta who are hidden in the world,” doing God’s work.
In various posts on Facebook and other social media, those who knew her defined Isa as a “missionary of today,” because she didn’t only evangelize those who she helped, but friends and foes back at home through her blog, her Facebook, and Flickr, where she posted pictures that mirrored the beauty she saw in the Haitian people.
“We lost a woman who had made a bet for the forgotten ones, those who no one wants and who are in no one’s agenda,” one of the many posts reads.
Among those honoring her was Paloma Garcia Ovejero, recently appointed by Pope Francis as the Vatican’s deputy spokeswoman. In her Twitter she shared: “Profoundly sad. Absurdly killed her. Rest in peace, Isa. And you know: #DontForgetHait.”