Walking With God
“Life through love and friendship …” The Sisters of Charity Charism Statement emphasizes this call to relationship and its significance in the lives of Community members. In Weslaco, Texas, near the southernmost tip of the state, three members of the Charity Family exemplify lives of love and friendship, bringing the charism of the Sisters of Charity to the community around them.
In the mid-1980s S. Anne Darlene Wojtowicz felt called to the Rio Grande Valley to open a birth center with three other women religious. It was in this very region that S. Stephanie Lindsey found herself working to empower the poor. Shortly after arriving in Weslaco, S. Anne Darlene was encouraged to get involved in the community. She found herself at St. Pius X Church helping with a youth retreat. It was there that she first met Associate Viola Elizondo. “One of the team members assigned her the topic of sex,” recalled Viola with a chuckle. “I really didn’t think a Sister could handle the issue but she did so beautifully.”
Thus began a relationship that has solidified into much more than friendship. Says Viola, “When I met S. Anne Darlene I saw a very different view [of women religious]. She was very much a part of the world, not removed from it. Her spirituality was like mine, we clicked automatically. We started to work together and to do things together. Quite honestly she has become my sister.”
The feeling is mutual for Associate Mary Ann Perez, who met S. Anne Darlene and Viola almost 30 years ago, also as a member of St. Pius X parish. “We have been family ever since,” she said. “They are my moms, aunts, sisters, counselors and grandmas to my children. They are everything to us.”
The mother of four, grandmother of seven says that when Sister and Viola first approached her about becoming an Associate in Mission eight years ago, she felt overwhelmed. “I cried and told them I wasn’t worthy,” she recalled. Realizing that the call wasn’t coming from them but from God, Mary Ann says she couldn’t say no.
While St. Pius X may have brought the three of them together, what keeps them close is their devotion to relationship and to the community around them. Viola and Mary Ann were raised in the Rio Grande Valley and it is easy to see how committed they are to the people they know and love. Says Viola, “As I was growing up I saw a migration of educated students leaving the area to look for better jobs, money, positions, and I thought it was an injustice to the people who remained in the area. I managed to travel throughout the country but I always came back to share with my people what the rest of the world was like and what I learned.”
Added Mary Ann, “It’s home. We are born and raised here. We know the people here and we understand them. You become family.”
While the city of Weslaco has a population of almost 40,000, the Church community is still small enough that everyone knows each other. And people particularly know S. Anne Darlene, Viola and Mary Ann. They are invited to funerals, weddings and celebrations at all three of the Catholic churches in the area, and more importantly, they are called on when people have needs, particularly spiritual needs. “They see us as good people,” explains Mary Ann, “as people that want to serve and help. There’s a lot of people in our community that need help and we try to serve and do whatever we can.”
“People recognize the spirituality that is among us,” adds Viola. She and S. Anne Darlene have been asked to lead prayer services and spiritual retreats. When someone needs a building or home blessed, a meal, or a listening ear to confide in, it is known that they can contact one of them.
Most recently they have found themselves helping migrants crossing the southern border. And while the wider community is divided on the issue, the women say that they are doing what they can to help. “There are many needs – food, volunteers, clothing,” said Mary Ann, “We have a good community, trying to do good by faith.”
Sally Duffy visited the area in February 2019. There she volunteered for one week at the Humanitarian Respite Center (HRC) in McAllen, Texas. “The Charity charism was so evident,” she remembered. … “Generosity, humility, hospitality, friendship, love, simplicity, flexibility, other-centeredness, knowing your need of God and remembering God is ever-present was so evident daily and regardless of the time of the day or night.”
Sally recalled many kindnesses through her interactions with S. Anne Darlene and Viola, including homemade meals, transportation and tours of the Weslaco and Brownsville area. She also saw first-hand their involvement in the community. In addition to giving their time and loving support, they organize donations for the migrants, including monetary donations from the Sisters of Charity Social Justice Fund used to purchase personal care items for guests of the HRC. “Their hospitality made my volunteering possible,” S. Sally added, “I totally felt and experienced their care and support.”
The three women are honest in admitting that their parish has had its struggles, particularly within recent years, but they remain devoted to their church community and service to others. “I have worked for the Church all my life,” says Viola. “I have a vocation to the Church. … [T]he community is there and we continue to challenge and support people. This is who we are, this is what we do, and we call each other.”
Their relationship is natural. Sharing the charism with others is as important as spending time together – as family. The women enjoy fishing, bird watching, football, cooking, and of course, gathering with family for barbecues. S. Anne Darlene has come to call Weslaco home and most certainly has been accepted into both families. Besides hosting Viola’s family at her home for all their special gatherings, she is also godmother to one of her great-nieces. Mary Ann’s family, particularly her grandchildren, also look fondly on her good friends. “They expect them everywhere we are at,” she says. “And they question where they are when they aren’t around. They respect them so much.”
After 36 years ministering in the Rio Grande Valley, S. Anne Darlene retired in October. Just as S. Stephanie’s legacy continues forward, so too will Sister’s commitment to the underserved and to persons and families living in poverty. She plans to remain in the area and focus her energies on the migrant population. “My love is here,” she says. “We walk with God here.”