Among the special guests attending the June 7 Mass of Thanksgiving for Venerable Aloysius Schwartz at his home church, Holy Name of Jesus in Washington, were four members of the Sisters of Mary, the religious congregation of women he started who continue his legacy of educating poor children around the world.
Later, Sister Elena Belarmino, the order’s secretary general who is stationed in her native Philippines, noted it was fitting that Cardinal Wuerl celebrated the Mass on the feast of Corpus Christi.
“The Eucharist is the center of our spiritual life and our work. That is the secret of our work. In every building, we have two chapels with the Blessed Sacrament,” she said.
Every day, the Sisters of Mary teach more than 20,000 children at their Boystown and Girlstown programs in six countries – South Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras. Father Aloysius Schwartz, a missionary priest, began the outreach to street children and orphans left destitute after the Korean War and founded the Sisters of Mary in 1964 to help him in that work. The priest died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1992 after expanding his outreach to the Philippines and Mexico, and today the 380 Sisters of Mary continue his legacy of educating poor children, breaking the poverty cycle, and giving them hope for a brighter future.
Sister Hortencia Olivares now serves as the superior of the Girlstown in Chalco, Mexico, where she attended school and was inspired by the sisters’ example to join their community. “I was very attracted to their prayer and their way of life,” she said. “…The Sisters of Mary took care of me during the years I was there. They were very caring and concerned for us. That’s one thing that made me want their life and to be with them.”
When Pope Francis signed a degree in January recognizing that Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz lived a life of heroic virtue and declaring him to be “Venerable,” that milestone in the missionary priest’s cause for sainthood was joyful news for the Sisters of Mary. Sister Hortencia said the news that “our father is holy” reminds the sisters of their responsibility to help the children whom they serve “to be holy, like Father Al.” Her goal for the children who graduate from Girlstown is that they “go with the love of God in them,” she said.
Sister Winnie Valencia noted that before attending Girlstown in the Philippines, she lived with her family on Smokey Mountain, an infamous slum located on a garbage dump in Manila.
“It’s horrible. The mountain is always burning. In the night you can’t sleep… Through God’s grace, I was brought by my mother to the Sisters of Mary,” she said.
After graduating from Girlstown, she got a good job, and helped support her family. Eventually, she became a Sister of Mary, joining the religious order whose outreach had changed her life. “I owe it to God, God’s plan, God’s will,” said Sister Winnie, who serves at the Girlstown in Mexico.
While Sister Winnie was a student at Girlstown, she witnessed how Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz accepted his suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease with faith and joy. “Father Al always trusted God. ‘Everything is in God’s hands,’ he told us,” she said.
In the days before the Mass for Thanksgiving, the Sisters of Mary spoke with children at St. Raphael School in Rockville and St. Bartholomew School in Bethesda about Venerable Aloysius Schwartz and his life and work.
“It is a blessing for us that our founder is a step closer to being a saint,” said Sister Elena in a June 3 talk to students at St. Raphael School. “…He is an ordinary person who tried always to do everything for the glory of God. He tried always to do his best for Jesus in everything he did.”
Sister Elena said she was visiting them “to encourage all of you to try your best. Even the little things you do, offer to Jesus.”
In an interview, Sister Maria Cho, a native of Korea who serves as the mother general for the Sisters of Mary, spoke about the work of the religious community which she joined in 1981. She said Father Schwartz emphasized that “the main purpose of serving the poor is saving their souls.”
Sister Elena, who became a member of the Sisters of Mary when the order expanded to her native Philippines in 1985, said that after meeting Father Schwartz, she was inspired by his humility and simplicity. From his life of prayer and service, Sister Elena said she learned that “we have to be united first with Jesus. We have to love Jesus first, before we serve them (the poor). Father Al was busy, but he always had time to pray. He taught us to make time to pray and be united to God. From there, our work overflows to the poor.”
The Sisters of Mary pray three hours each day. “It really is God working through us.,” she said. “Without prayer, we could not do the work we’re doing.”
The Sisters of Mary teach children from nursery school through high school at their Girlstown and Boystown programs. Their goal is for the students and graduates to become disciples of Christ, sharing their faith with their families and friends, and at work and in the community.
“Our service is making the world better,” said Sister Maria.
The 107,000 graduates of the educational programs begun by Venerable Schwartz and continued by the Sisters of Mary have gone on to become sisters, priests, brothers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and excel in many other professions.
During his lifetime, Father Al “was always encouraging them (the children), that you can do good, you can do more,” Sister Elena said.
When their founder was stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, “he accepted his sickness as a grace of God. He said it is a sharing of the passion of Christ,” she said. “He was like Jesus who was nailed to the cross and could not move. He said it was that suffering that saved the world.”
Sister Elena noted how Pope Francis has challenged people to “go out and serve the poor,” and that is the spirit that Venerable Schwartz gave to the Sisters of Mary, who continue his work of educating poor children and guiding them to be closer to Jesus.
Today’s Catholics can follow his example by getting out of their comfort zones and helping those in need, she said. “That’s what Father Al was doing… He can be a great example for everybody. We have to forget ourselves to help others."