A Journey Going Forward
By S. Regina Kusnir
S. Juanita Marie Gonzales (center) ministered in Poland for six years, teaching English in a boarding school for girls.
Life is filled with celebrations great and small. A Sister of Charity for many years, S. Juanita Marie Gonzales reflects on some of those celebrations, and the ones still taking place. She sees them in light of the ongoing history of the Community. The saints who brought the Community into being, those who have gone before us, the younger members who bring new perspectives – they all converge and find her giving thanks to God who continues our evolution. This outlook is rich in God’s blessings. It enables us to change and minister to those who need our spirituality and love.
S. Juanita was born in a now non-existent southern New Mexico mining town, Santa Rita, that was taken over by a copper mine. Santa Fe is now the locus for her large family, seven girls, seven boys, many nieces and nephews and their families. She says, “In my family, practicing our faith was part of our everyday life. Holy Mass was never missed and the rosary was prayed daily. If we did not attend Holy Mass, we could not go out with our friends.” The strength of this familial faith sensitized her to meet the needs of those who could benefit from her care.
Journey to the Sisters of Charity
The young Juanita went to Santa Fe to study nursing. There her vocation with the Sisters of Charity was born. She started to dream about being a Sister but kept saying, “No, no, no.” Then one day she and a Sister were feeding little ones at St. Vincent Hospital and Sister said to her, “You are thinking of becoming a Sister.” “I said, ‘No, no Sister, I am not.’” Later she asked her, “What are you?” as her family never met religious Sisters even for catechism in her hometown.
“When I eventually told my mother what I was thinking she told me, ‘Forget that and come home.’ The Lord did not let go and I have been a Sister of Charity for 62 years.”
Throughout the years St. Elizabeth Seton has been her inspiration. Elizabeth appeals to so many mothers, converts, widows, single parents, teachers, etc. She says, “I am inspired by her devotion to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, as she would think when she looked to the Catholic Church, ‘They have the real Presence.’”
S. Juanita Marie Gonzales (center) met the Sisters of Charity as a nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
S. Juanita always wanted to be a nurse. A back injury cut that ministry short and she became an educator. She began her teaching career in Michigan where she nurtured third graders at the Shrine of the Little Flower. She went on to Jackson, then to Lansing where she taught at St. Mary’s Cathedral School which later merged with Holy Cross School, run by the Sisters of Mercy. When the Mercy Sisters left the school, S. Juanita became principal for 17 years.
Next came a transatlantic post in Poland where she taught English in a boarding school for girls. The six years in Poland were marked with summer trips home to reconnect with Sisters and family. During these years, she had the opportunity to travel to a number of European countries and to visit Rome. While there Sept. 11 occurred in the U.S. and she remembered the kindness of the Polish people and her desire to return home. She completed this assignment and returned in 2001.
S. Juanita began preparing to assist S. Sarah Mulligan in Guatemala when a health issue arose and that ministry became impossible. Instead, God used S. Lorraine Delisle to let her know that Fr. Frank Pretto in Santa Fe was looking to hire a Sister who spoke Spanish.
S. Juanita answered the call and for 19 years now she has been the director of the Faith Formation Program in the parish of San Isidro and the mission of San Jose. She is proud of this program that has developed over the years. “The program is not just for the preparation for sacraments, but a program of faith formation that covers the 10 years from first grade to age 16. Over the years the students are prepared for and receive First Communion in third grade, Reconciliation in grade four and Confirmation in their second year of high school. I have been very fortunate to get Catechists every year.”
S. Juanita Marie Gonzales (right) began her almost 30-year education ministry in Michigan in 1964.
S. Juanita experiences many joys in her ministry; first in ministering with a collaborative priest and catechists. She has been able to implement changes for the good of first communicants and their parents. “The parents select the day and Holy Mass during May or June for the First Communion,” she explains. “The child sits with their parents and they are all recognized during the Mass. Another change was to place the Sacrament of Reconciliation into the fourth grade when the children have a better understanding of the sacrament.
“Another joy is the blessing of S. Josephine who was no longer needed in the parish where she was a minister. Sister is a blessing because she prepares older students who come in seventh and eighth grades and Confirmation who have not received their sacraments. These students must come to the regular class and then on Sundays to meet with S. Jo and she prepares them.”
A Journey Back Home
“Coming to Santa Fe was a blessing in that I was close to family for the first time. Mom was still alive when I arrived. It was a joy to be able to see her often as well as my brothers, sisters and their families. When Mom died, we were six generations strong. I was privileged to prepare Mom’s Mass.”
A blessing of ministering to many persons over numerous years is the development of good friendships. S. Juanita maintains connections with individuals from each of the places where she has ministered. This summer she is going to a reunion in Michigan and will meet with former students who are now parents and grandparents.
Sisters of Charity have ministered in New Mexico since the 1800s. Sisters and Associates in the area frequently got together to meet, pray and socialize before COVID altered that and many other things since 2020. The gift of technology is a blessing that helps in communication.
The journey of S. Juanita throughout her 62 years as a Sister of Charity is an adventurous journey. She is a joy-filled woman with great love for the people of God. S. Juanita brought her faith and her gifts and talents to many different ministries, in different places, each with joys and challenges. In the words of St. Elizabeth Seton, who is her inspiration: “Why, Faith lifts the staggering soul on one side, Hope supports it on the other. Experience says it must be, and Love says – let it be” (from Elizabeth’s letter to Julianna Scott).
For the past 19 years, S. Juanita Marie Gonzales (standing, left) has served as the director of the Faith Formation Program in the parish of San Isidro and the mission of San Jose in Santa Fe, New Mexico.