By Catherine Walsh, Features Writer
“Along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.” (Laudato Si’, paragraph 231)
Something special has happened over the years since the Sisters of Mercy first started ministering with the people of the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, near the U.S./Mexico border, in 1875.
The sisters and the women, children, and families of the Mexican immigrant community have formed a tight bond. And in recent years they have forged a mutual commitment to the Mercy mission of caring for Earth. In fact, they have put Earth at the center of their work together this year at four ARISE Adelante community centers that are co-sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. Since January a group of Mujeres de la Misericordia—Women of Mercy at ARISE who commit to living according to the Mercy charism or way of life—have focused their monthly meetings on the needs of our common home.
Not all the women are Catholic or familiar with Pope Francis’ encyclical. But tending to Earth’s needs makes sense to people who call the Rio Grande Valley their home, says Lourdes Flores, ARISE president.
“We are people who like to work the Earth, la Tierra,” she says. “We talk about our ranchos in Mexico, where the Earth became part of us as we grew corn, chilis, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables. We long for the Earth, even though we don’t have as much space here. So, the idea of teaching our community that we can do small things, from recycling to gardening, and that these things can affect the bigger picture, is exciting. People feel good about doing their part.”
An Earth-themed Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) on Good Friday was planned and led by the Women of Mercy, and drew more than 100 people, says Lourdes. “We prayerfully looked at how factories impact our Earth and what we can do locally to help bring about change worldwide. Our Via Crucis was a powerful experience of prayer, action, and education.”
Sister Patricia “Pat” Mulderick, who has been ministering on the border since January 2021, after more than three decades in Peru, points out that the women collaborated on every aspect of the Via Crucis—especially the stations. “In the past, the Stations of the Cross focused on walking with our immigrant brothers and sisters,” she notes. “But the women said they wanted to focus this year on the Mercy critical concern of Earth, because the Cry of the Suffering Earth is like the Cry of the Poor.”
The environment and health of the community are among the pillars of ARISE, which was co-founded by Ramona Casas, ARISE’s social justice organizer, and the late Sister Gerrie Naughton in 1987. According to Ramona, Sister Gerrie believed that caring for Earth was an integral part of personal and cultural empowerment. “She emphasized taking care of plants and flowers, as well as respecting our traditions, culture, and values,” recalls Ramona, who credits the sister with recognizing her leadership skills. “Sister Gerrie once said, ‘Before you cut a flower, ask its permission.”
Each ARISE center actively promotes caring for Earth, from composting and beautifying its offices with art created from recycled products, to planting community gardens and educating people on how to use solar water heaters in their home, Ramona continues. “Our colonias (neighborhoods) have had many changes, due to climate change and the development of the land into sub-divisions. We have half the fields that we used to have years ago. At ARISE we want to teach communities about clean energy and the need to adapt how we build our homes so that they are cooler in the summer and conserve water. Drought is a big problem here.”
Seeing the passion with which the women at ARISE care for Earth inspires Sister Pat. “They have a deep commitment to our environment, a lived commitment. For these women, caring for Earth is a ministry.”
Editor’s note: Three Sisters of Mercy—Sisters Pat Mulderick, Theresa “Terry” Saetta, and Rose Weidenbenner—live and minister in the Rio Grande Valley and invite other sisters and volunteers to join them for a time. Sister Rose has lived in the valley for nine years and serves on the ARISE board of directors. Sister Pat started volunteering on the border in January 2021 when the pandemic prevented her from returning to Peru, and Sister Terry joined her that spring; both women responded to the call of the Leadership Team of Women Religious (LCWR) to assist migrants who were arriving there in great numbers, due to immense violence and poverty in Central America, Haiti and elsewhere. Please contact Sister Pat at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in volunteering.