SALEM – Sister Mary Ann McFadden’s ability to speak Spanish has improved since she returned from a month-long immersion experience in Guatemala, but she says her understanding of the Guatemalan people and culture grew even more.
Now Sister Mary Ann, a Sister of Notre Dame, has a fresh perspective as she ministers to Guatemalans living in Salem.
“My goal is to encourage people to accept and see the gifts that these people bring to us,” Sister Mary Ann said. Asked to explain those gifts, she said Guatemalans are family-oriented, deeply spiritual people with simple needs and desires.
During her six years as pastoral minister at St. Paul Parish here, Sister Mary Ann has been working with the city’s growing Hispanic population, estimated at about 3,000 today. Guatemalans make up a sizeable portion of the community. As they settle in a place, their friends and family tend to follow, she explained.
St. Paul and other Christian churches have assisted newcomers by transporting them to medical appointments, getting children enrolled in schools, offering English as a Second Language classes and meeting other household needs.
Sister Mary Ann has visited the homes of Guatemalan immigrants. She has heard their stories, developed relationships with their children, and was present at the births of two babies. “Some of them feel like my grandchildren and others seem like friends,” she said.
Guatemalans come here in search of work, so they can help their families back home, and to find better schools for their children. “They live very simply,” Sister Mary Ann said. They are not at all materialistic and go shopping only for necessities. Their participation in English as a Second Language classes depends on their work schedules, as many work seven days a week at seasonal jobs. Learning English also is challenging because the Guatemalan culture includes 57 dialects, many of which are rooted in the Mayan language. “English is important to them, but educating their children is really important,” she said.
Guatemalans have left their birthplace not only in search of jobs and educational opportunities, but also because of gang activity and ultimatums by gang leaders to participate or risk having harm come to their families, she added.
Wanting to speak Spanish more fluently, Sister Mary Ann began to look for a language school last summer. Finding that opportunity in Guatemala was serendipitous, she said.
Sister Mary Ann arrived in Guatemala last Dec. 17. She and another guest stayed with the Consuelo de Lopez family in Antigua, Guatemala’s former capital city. The Lopez family leads a middle-class life, and the economic status of Antigua’s residents is higher than that of rural mountain dwellers, she said. In Guatemala’s mountainous communities, a man receives between $2 and $4 for working a 10-hour day, she noted.
Antigua has about 30 Spanish-language schools. Sister Mary Ann attended Cooperation Individual Education, or CO-IN-ED, four hours per day for four weeks. She and her classmates learned not only about the Spanish language, but also about Guatemalan culture and events that have shaped it. Watching movies about civil war during the 1980s and 90s made Sister Mary Ann appreciate more deeply the struggles of Guatemalans in Salem. She knows one man who came to Columbiana County with his sons, but left his wife and two daughters at home. They have lived apart for eight years now, she said; his youngest daughter was five years old the last time he saw her.
Guatemalan schools compare to those Sister Mary Ann toured in another Central American country, El Salvador, on an earlier trip. Children attend two-room schoolhouses and are considered fortunate if they are educated through the sixth grade. “We don’t know what it’s like to have little opportunity to get an education,” she said.
In Antigua, Sister Mary Ann saw many churches, with parks next to nearly all of them. Those parks were packed on Sundays as families relaxed together and patronized the many food vendors. There also were many small stores and an open-air market full of goods, where lots of bartering occurred, she said.
Staying in Guatemala during the Christmas season, “it just felt like the whole city was Catholic,” Sister Mary Ann recalled. On her first night in Antigua, she participated in the Posada, a days-long Hispanic custom leading up to Christmas. Reenacting Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus, she and others traveled from home to home, singing at each doorstep and asking for “a place to stay.” Once they were received in a home, the group prayed, talked, performed a short Nativity play, sang some more and enjoyed food and drink. On Christmas Eve, people processed to church for 9 p.m. Mass. There were fireworks along the way and children playing marimba in church. Afterward, the Lopez family had a midnight feast – tamales first, then a turkey dinner – and opened gifts
Many churches also had Eucharistic chapels, and Sister Mary Ann said she wasn’t alone in visiting them. Older couples, parents with young children, even teen-age couples would stop by to pray and reflect. “Their faith is home-centered, too,” she added; many families have shrines in their homes, and photos and statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas.
Immigration is a divisive issue in the United States, but “in Guatemala, I felt welcomed. People were friendly and gracious,” Sister Mary Ann said. Asked if she was treated differently because she is a woman religious, she said “no,” noting that she doesn’t wear a habit and wasn’t introduced to everyone she met as a nun.
Since her return, Sister Mary Ann has been involved in a number of initiatives to serve Salem’s immigrant community. “These people are here. It’s reality. How can we help them to live healthy lives?” she said. She helped to plan a bilingual Stations of the Cross service on Good Friday, with stops at seven churches. She met with the local director of the Women, Infants and Children program to seek coordination of services to Hispanic women so she and others can promote participation and provide transportation. Leaders of the Head Start education program for preschool-age children asked for her help in finding translators.
“They are just trying to give their families the basic necessities because they have a right to. They are human,” Sister Mary Ann said.
Debora Shaulis Flora is a veteran journalist living in Youngstown