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Feature Articles

A Sister to All – S. Carol Wirtz

Where are you currently ministering?
I have been living and ministering at the U.S.-Mexico Border for the last 26 years. We have been at the Santo Niño Project in Anapra, Mexico for 16 years, working with special needs children and their families. We Sisters of Charity began the center in response to one of the mothers who was coming to a little clinic where we did massage and basic medical care. She was pregnant and her baby was born with Down Syndrome. She brought it to our attention that there were no services for special needs children. She started telling other families in clinics she visited that they should take their children to us. They just started coming, and so we decided maybe God was calling us to change our focus and we started the Santo Niño Project.

We probably have 20 children total that we work with and they range in age from infants to 30 years. On any given day there may be 15-20 children at the center, along with their mothers and siblings. We are there Tuesday, Thursday and every other Saturday. I also go over on Wednesdays to stay with one of the families in order to be integrate myself in the culture. The center is about a 30-minute drive from our home in Anthony, New Mexico.

Many of the children have been coming for nine or 10 years. The ministry is not just about the therapy, although they do get really good therapy, but our main focus is building community with the mothers and children. You can’t just work on a child without working on the whole family. We try to create a place of support and camaraderie, a place where the moms can come and also be nurtured. We have taught many of our moms how to work with the children, as well.

Can you talk a little about your education and background which led you to your current ministry?
I have a degree in elementary and special education from Carroll College in Helena, Montana. I taught for five years and then went to massage school because I was interested in alternative medicine and that was an entryway. Eventually I became certified in lymphatic drainage therapy, working mostly with breast cancer patients. Four years ago I learned about the Anat Baniel Method of neuromovement education. I saw a TED talk where Baniel used this approach – which focuses on the child’s brain and its ability to change and learn – with special needs children.

I learned more about this approach which doesn’t focus on the child’s limitations but looks at what is possible for each particular child. The whole idea is to create new brain connections. I had a little toddler who had a seizure disorder. He came to the clinic when he was 14 months old.  He wasn’t crawling, walking, or talking and wasn’t using the left side of his body at all. I started with neuromovement lessons, and pretty soon he started using the left side of his body, then crawling, and now he’s running and walking all over the place. His EEGs are normal. The brain sometimes needs different information to learn.

Your home in Anthony, New Mexico, is also the Formation Home for young women interested in the Sisters of Charity Community. What is it like to be part of the discernment process of young women?
To me it’s a very important part of my ministry. It keeps my own discernment fresh. Any time anyone new comes into the house it’s an opportunity to mutually discern. We try to build a community life of mutual care, support and service. For me it provides visions of what community can be. So many of these women come with a wonderful spirit and new ideas! It’s such an opportunity for the Community, an opportunity for all of us to grow, and an opportunity to let go of things that need to be let go of. God sends new people with gifts we need to go forward. We have people come into the house and ask if we can try something new, and we say we haven’t done this for 15 years but yes we can try. And many times it’s good. They want to live radically and it stretches us. It’s a challenge – a good challenge. I find it very life-giving.

How do people respond to you as a Catholic Sister?
I think I have had every response you can imagine, everything from “What? You can’t be!” to “You don’t look like a Sister,” to “Why would you do that?” More recently I’ve had people say, “Tell me about that. That is interesting! What do you do?”

How did your family respond?
My family was very supportive. Dad wanted me to be happy. My mom wanted to be a Sister herself so she told me I was living her dream. My sister knew that secretly I always wanted to be a missionary so she encouraged me. She knew a part of myself that I didn’t want to admit or wasn’t sharing with others. My brother was also totally supportive.

I grew up in a tiny farming community in Montana. The only time I saw Sisters was two weeks in the summer. They used to come for Vacation Bible School when I was in grade school. I really didn’t even know until I went to college that there were different communities. Prior to my senior year in college, my best friend was killed in a car accident. It made me more reflective in thinking about what I was going to do with my life. All my friends were getting jobs, and they were all excited, but I wasn’t. I met this Franciscan Sister and she told me about a mission school they had in New Mexico. It was a Catholic school with sisters and priests. I had always wanted to be a missionary, or to serve, and so I thought this was something I could do.

Sister Rose Marie Hewitt was principal at the school, and one morning I came in and on my desk was a packet of information about the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. I started looking through it, and I just got this heart-jump of inspiration. I started going to Albuquerque with her and there met more SCs. Sister Sally Duffy was the vocations person. Through our conversations I realized we had many similarities and it soon felt like the path I was to take.

What would a world that’s truly just be like?
If I could see a world that’s truly just, everyone would have what they need to live. Resources would be distributed more fairly. Individuals should have the opportunity to reach their potential, to explore their dreams, and to feel safe and loved.

What does it mean to you to be part of the sisterhood? What is it like to have a spiritual bond with other Sisters?
As I was walking out in the cemetery this morning, I was thinking of this question. I was looking at the names of those I didn’t know, and the names of those I knew vaguely or really well. Part of that is the lineage of all the Sisters I am connected to. We share a spirit of service and awareness of God’s presence in all things. To me I can’t imagine not having that connection. When I take a look back and think of all the amazing things these Sisters have done, it makes me grateful to be a part of this family. I’m grateful for the call to be part of this charism and to share that lineage with those who have gone before and those who are to come. Seeing our new members come with such great spirit and commitment gives me a lot of joy. I want more people to feel that – that they are called to experience the sisterhood.

What is your hope for the future of religious life?

I believe there’s great potential in who we are and in what is to come; perhaps, even more than what we have been in the past. I hope that we can be open and good stewards to welcome the challenge and vision of what’s to come in the future. And even though we can’t see it, totally, I hope we can gracefully enter into and nurture that, to let go of what we need to let go of, and to be open to what we need to be open to in change. It’s a good thing; it’s part of being alive and allowing the Spirit to grow us. I wouldn’t invite people and I wouldn’t be so hopeful and excited about the future if I didn’t believe there was something much more than what is even happening now. In looking at the past, how could there not be? I’m sure there were periods of time when people wanted to forge ahead and there was fear, but maybe there’s enough of the push and inspiration to take that risk and to say yes to what’s next. I believe there’s a lot more willing souls who want to be a part of this.