In 1962, Pope John XXIII asked religious congregations throughout North America to send ten percent of their membership to Latin America. Although Catholicism was the predominant religion Latin America, the priests and sisters who were needed to care for the people were few and far between.
Mother Borromeo Mack, General Superior at the time of Pope John’s request, originally considered Peru as the country in which the Sisters would begin their Latin American ministry. However, a request was made by the Camden, New Jersey priests for our Sisters to visit Brazil. They would even cover the cost of travel expenses. Mother Borromeo, along with Vicaress Sr. Mary of the Angels Sauer, traveled to Brasilia, and then, by taxi plane, made their way to Santa Helena de Goiás, which would become the site of the Congregation’s first Brazilian mission.
Mother Borromeo chose Sister Ruth (Norma Clare) Berry, Sister Mary Ann (Lawrence) Glascott, Sister Grace (Gretchen) Straub and Sister Susan Miriam David) Balmes to serve as the founding Sisters of this new mission. They arrived on December 18, 1963, just before midnight, covered in red dust from the long day’s journey, mostly over dirt roads.
Not knowing anyone, speaking limited Portuguese and not quite sure of the customs, they put their trust in God that He would point them in the right direction. These pioneering Sisters charted their course as teachers and catechists and ministered in the ways presented to them by the people they were sent to serve.
One of the longest serving North American Sisters was Sister Johanna Didier. Sister Johanna had wanted to be a missionary from a young age. Finally, at age 48, she got her wish. The impact of her work was so strong that Sister Johanna was made an Honorary Citizen of Santa Helena. She returned to Joliet in 2009 and proceeded to write her primer “How to be a Missionary Overseas.” Sister Johanna died in 2012 while back in Brazil to witness the Final Profession of Vows by Irma Debora de Castro Alves, whom she had known from the time the latter was a young girl. She is buried in Santa Helena, a city whose people she served and loved for so many years. To read Sister Johanna’s primer, click here.
More than 50 years later, the work of the Sisters has expanded to five areas of Brazil where they serve as educators and pastoral ministers. Brazilian women who became Joliet Franciscans over this period have served along with North American Sisters who answered the call to ministry in Brazil.
One of the four founding Sisters, Sister Ruth Berry, still serves in Brazil today. To read her thoughts on her years in Brazil, as well as more about the Congregation’s work in Brazil, please see the Fall 2013 issue of Confiança.