That first day as we arrived in Patzún on that first mission trip in 1994, turning the corner into the Hogar at La Clinca Corpus Cristi with the orphaned kids mobbing us I saw Madre Carmen standing at the convent grinning at us, like we were old friends she was expecting to see. It’s funny how things line up. That same year four Franciscan Sisters took responsibility for the 1,300 students of San Bernardino, a clinic and 23 orphans. They took it with a smile. The teachers walked to the school morning and afternoon, four miles each day. Madre, Superiora of the fledgling community, stayed with the orphans who were too young for school. There wasn’t a telephone. It took 90 days to send a letter and receive a response. Electricity was available no more than 6 hours a day. Water was scarce. Cooking was done over a wood fire. Windows were broken. Play areas were bogs. Dogs roamed freely. Every orphan came to the facility infested with worms and head lice. Although there was a nutrition program for children five times the number went hungry. Yet this little facility, created by the passion and prayers of Sara Merdes
and sustained by the eternal optimism of Padre Justiniano, was a vast improvement over the past. We went every year and every year Madre was there with the welcoming grin. Gardens were planted. Rooms were painted. Electricity was properly wired, Windows were repaired. Orphans were loved and we all prayed liturgy of the hours and attended Mass together.
The 36-year civil war was winding down but not over. Madre quietly put her life on the line when we discovered a local administrator was skimming tens of thousands of dollars intended for poor children. “Don’t worry about me.” she said. “When I am gone someone will take my place.” A hundred priests were killed in the war, as were hundreds of Nuns. When Padre Justi died and the bank stole the entire endowment and the French tried to take the orphanage from the Franciscans and convert it into a baby factory for distant neopagans and Gladis was attacked and other Sisters spirits were broken it was Madre Carmen who stood in the breech. She made it work. She endured. We turned some corners together. We built a girl’s dorm so that teen aged girls would have a safe place to live. St. Richard Parish joined St. Anne of Waynesburg and the orphanage, the school and the clinic were all saved. When Father Oldenski came it was grand. When the seminarians visited everyone was over the moon with joy but that was when we learned that Madre’s cancer was inoperable. The past years Madre Carmen has been happy to be able to help her new community in Palencia as her health has declined. Today she writes, “I hope God gives me the strength to see you again.” That makes two of us my sister, my role model, my friend. Then again, we are Christians. We’ve had all this and we have heaven too.