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First Steps: Holy Cross Sisters in North America

posted in: Ministry, North America, Other

Holy Cross sisters embrace others in their suffering, believing that together all may experience God’s liberating and healing presence. True to this belief, in the North American countries of Mexico and the United States, the sisters have not wavered in their desire to be guided by the Holy Spirit, to be prophetic witnesses with all members of the human family.

Did You Know?

  • In ancient Mesoamerica—present-day Mexico—the Olmec civilization was the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate 4,000 years ago.
  • After Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union in 1959, a 17-year-old from Ohio designed the current 50-star United States flag for a school project.

Creating health clinics in ejidos

Sister Patricia Rodríguez Leal, CSC, with two girls enrolled in the Children for Peace program.

Sister Patricia Rodríguez Leal, CSC, with two girls enrolled in the Niños Por La Paz (Children for Peace) program.

A graduate student in South Texas in 1983, Sister Barbara Korem, CSC, pondered her upcoming research assignment for her transcultural and rural health nursing class. She needed to find a setting for the research. She knew was drawn to the people across the nearby U.S.-Mexico border who lived in ejidos—communal land holdings that were collectively farmed. In the ejidos, houses had dirt floors, modern plumbing was nonexistent, and the hardscrabble land was unforgiving.

So she traveled to the ejidos to ask about the people’s needs and resources. But when she completed the assignment, she knew she wanted to do more. Over the next four years, she crossed the border twice a week, setting up and conducting essential health clinics in the ejidos.

Responding to needs in Mexico

Seeing that patients make medicine properly is often a challenge. Here, Sister Barbara Korem shows a patient how to give herself an insulin injection.

Beginning in 1983, Sister Barbara Korem, CSC, set up and conducted essential health clinics in Mexico. 

In 1987, Sister Barbara moved full time to Matamoros, marking the official beginning of the Congregation’s ministry in Mexico. Other sisters and volunteers soon joined her, and their works quickly expanded to include spiritual care and instruction. Through the succeeding years, many Holy Cross sisters left their mark throughout northeast Mexico by responding to the needs of the people through education, empowerment, and leadership training for women in small communities.

Today, four Holy Cross sisters minister in various cities and villages through youth programs, social work and pastoral care. They promote the devotion of praying the rosary with families. They also teach and lead a youth group called Niños Por La Paz (Children for Peace). And at Casanicolas, a migrant shelter, they offer a safe space and a listening heart to people who are seeking a dignified life.

From one small assignment, an entire ministry has continued to flourish for 35 years.

America: the first foreign mission

In 1841, Blessed Basil Anthony Moreau founded the Congregations of Holy Cross in Le Mans, France. Just two years later, he sent four sisters on a foreign mission. It marked the first time the Congregation ventured beyond its country of origin. The destination: America.

Holy Cross sisters open schools

A sister (name unknown) teaching a student.

Holy Cross sisters founded more than 100 academies, schools and colleges across America and taught in numerous others.

Arriving in Indiana, the sisters looked around at the forest wilderness. Their primary task was to perform domestic duties for Holy Cross priests at the fledgling University of Notre Dame. But they knew they could do more.

The sisters began by establishing a small academy, which today thrives as Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. In the succeeding decades, they founded more than 100 academies, schools and colleges. These ranged from Holy Rosary School in Woodland, California, to The Academy of The Holy Cross in Kensington, Maryland.

Nursing in the Civil War

Sister Maura Brannick takes a blood pressure reading in South Bend, Indiana.

In 1986, Sister Maura Brannick, CSC, founded and led the development of a health clinic in an impoverished part of South Bend, Indiana, that is thriving today.

Their educational ministry, however, took an abrupt turn in 1861 when they agreed to serve as nurses in the American Civil War. Throughout that conflict, Holy Cross sisters contributed greatly to the new profession of nursing.

In the century following, sisters established hospitals, eventually building Holy Cross Health System, a national health services provider that stretched from coast to coast. They also created numerous schools of nursing to help build the profession. In addition, Holy Cross sisters were among the first to incorporate the hospice concept into healing. And their work with AIDS patients in Utah in the 1980s gained praise for its compassion and courage.

Serving where there is need

Sister Verónica A. Fajardo, CSC, assisting students.

Sister Verónica A. Fajardo, CSC, assisting students.

As American society and culture evolved, so too did the Congregation. Today, sisters’ ministries encompass social services, counseling and pastoral care. They walk with those who live in the nation’s poverty pockets. They advocate for immigrants on legal and health issues. For people at the end of their lives, they minister and bring comfort. And they help heal children and families that have experienced trauma.

No matter where Holy Cross sisters serve, they are also always engaged in the ministry of prayer, daily called to their faith, much as they have been for 180 years.