"The greater the work the more
important it is to establish it on
a solid foundation. Thus it will
not only be more perfect; it
will also be more lasting.”

St. Louise de Marillac

When the Holy Spirit Comes Knocking

By S. Regina Kusnir

For 12 years S. Juana Mendez ministered for the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, ministering to immigrants.

The routed journey of the GPS of the heart is rarely direct. It is mapped over many years and marked with stops created by a variety of circumstances. Sometimes it is a journey we want to retrace. Sometimes it is an entirely different route. No matter, the Holy Spirit is the navigator and the journey never grows old.

S. Juana Mendez finds the Holy Spirit a worthy navigator. Over the years of her ministerial journey the route is not a straight line. S. Juana was born in Puerto Rico and at the age of 8 her family journeyed to Cleveland, Ohio. The distance from the airport in Puerto Rico to that in Cleveland is some 1,839 miles. She grew up in Cleveland, attended Catholic elementary and high school there and raised a family. In 1995, when the children were grown, the Spirit directed her to the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.

Her gentle and compassionate heart has always had a sensitivity to the poor. The Covington Diocese in Northern Kentucky, and a number of parishes there, were recipients of her ministry for many years. Her heart found a home ministering to immigrants. Fluent in Spanish, her skills allowed her to help those who, like her own family, who also came to the U.S. in search of hope and a better life.

This unpretentious Sister reflected: “I have been ministering to the Hispanic community since I can remember. I love helping those in need. I am a good listener and nonjudgmental. I am willing to give up what I have for my neighbor. I had the privilege of working with immigrants in the Northern Kentucky area for 21 years. That opportunity helped me to grow spiritually and to become humbler.” While in this ministry she was accredited as a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) representative for the Department of Justice and was given accreditation through the diocese to practice immigration law.

One highlight of S. Juana Mendez’s ministry at St. Michael is teaching the Rite of Christian Initiation of Children.

The Holy Spirit urges the heart to reset the GPS when the time is right. In 2019 S. Juana felt that urge. “I was trying to decide if I was ready to leave the Diocese of Kentucky. I prayed for many months. When I met Father Mark Riley, the pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Cleveland, Ohio, he was looking for someone, fluent in Spanish, who would minister in the parish. Before the conversation ended, he invited me to join his staff.”

S. Juana entered into a time of reflection and prayer after the invitation from Father Riley to “make sure this is what I was being called to do.” The refrain from the song Anthem by Tom Conry* was the center of her reflection. It reads: “We are called, we are chosen. We are Christ for one another. We are promised to tomorrow, while we are for him today. We are sign, we are wonder. We are sower, we are seed. We are harvest, we are hunger. We are question, we are creed.

Prayerful discernment considers all aspects of the decision as well as its implications. S. Juana reflects, “I was chosen to be Christ-like and a sign of God’s love to the people to whom I ministered in Kentucky. I was able to sow and plant the seed of Christ’s love there. I was now being called to plant, sow and harvest God’s seed in a different location. I felt at peace and ready to follow the journey that the Holy Spirit has for me.”

The GPS of her journey to St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Cleveland, Ohio was about to get very interesting. One might say that the Holy Spirit has a sense of humor.

S. Juana Mendez (center) has been serving as the pastoral associate at St. Michael Parish in Cleveland, Ohio, since March 2020.

Juana looked forward to becoming the pastoral associate at St. Michael Parish in March 2020. She worked for a week when the Diocese closed all the parishes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The parish was closed for about two to three months. A detour for sure! Though the majority of aspects of parish life have entered a “new normal” stage, her responsibilities change from day-to-day because of the varied nuances of the pandemic.

The role of the pastoral associate is multi-faceted. One highlight of her ministry includes teaching RCIC (Rite of Christian Initiation of Children). Because she has high school and elementary students, she meets with them on two separate days. She is a lector, spiritual director for the charismatic group, works with Eucharistic Ministers, the Legion of Mary, and the Social Justice committee. “The ministry is life-giving because I get to work with young people as well as those who are more mature.” 

St. Michael’s is composed of people from Latin and Central America and European countries. Most parishioners are third and fourth generation. “The community I work with at St Michael’s are mostly from Puerto Rico. I am not doing immigration work like I did at my previous ministry. However, I have helped a few parishioners complete filling out papers for Naturalization and attending the interviews as the interpreter. Honestly, my passion is immigration.”

Inspiration for ministry is another aspect of the GPS of the heart. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is close to the heart of the Sisters of Charity. Elizabeth was a prolific writer and provides much wisdom to those who follow in her footsteps. A quote from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton that resonates in the heart of S. Juana is: “God has given me a great deal to do, and I have always and hope always to prefer His Will to every wish of my own.” 

Conversations with S. Juana find her lighting up when speaking of her ministry to others. A creative spirit leads her to be attentive to the needs of individuals in the context of their GPS.

When asked what she does for relaxation or fun she says that there is no particular activity that she prefers to do. However, “I like playing Bingo and UNO when together with friends and family.” Perhaps the Holy Spirit turns on the winning GPS for her in these games.

*Text and music © 1978, 1979, Tom Conry. Published by OCP. All rights reserved.

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