BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—Bringing the Word of God to a teenager in the barrio of this coastal town takes patience, prayer and love. Fortunately, the Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Mary Immaculate have an abundance of all three.
At the southwest corner of this city, hard hit by economic decline, in a public housing facility named for famed circus promoter P.T. Barnum, six Sisters consecrated to the Blessed Sacrament and Mary Immaculate run a day-care center and a religious education program to counter the influence of the neighborhood gangs.
In this mostly Hispanic and African-American neighborhood, gangs have become a prevalent part of life. The Sisters are frequently asked to intercede on behalf of children whose frustrated parents see them mixing with the wrong crowd.
“They tell us their boys have gotten into bad company and ask what they should do,” explains Sister Presentación Zabala, the superior at the Convent of Mary Immaculate Formation Center. There aren't any easy answers, she adds. “Usually, we'll go and meet with the boy and see if we can find some way to steer him in another direction.” The nuns work closely with the parish school and Msgr. Frank Wissel, who supervises the Kolbe House of Studies, a home for boys with troubled backgrounds.
“Sometimes it's a long process. We go to their homes, we visit and we pray with them and we talk with them. We make progress little by little,” Sister Presentación says.
This type of mission has been the driving force of the order since its founding 100 years ago in Granada, Spain, by Mother Emilia Riquelme, a member of the upper class who felt drawn to serving the poor. She founded the Order to practice perpetual adoration of the Eucharist and to teach the poor about God's love. Each of the Order's convents has a Blessed Sacrament chapel. In its first century of existence, the order spread from Granada to Barcelona and Madrid, then to Brazil, Portugal, Bolivia, the United States and Columbia.
As Spanish-speakers, the Sisters are naturally suited to minister to Hispanics. Las Madres, as they are called, have homes in three U.S. cities. In addition to their Bridgeport, Conn., house, they are active in Lowell, Mass., and in Newark, N.J.
In Bridgeport, the Sisters operate a day-care center for children of all faiths. Working single parents find it a vital service, since many cannot afford other types of day-care. “We charge them according to what they can pay,” says Sister Presentación.
Besides the day-care center, the Sisters' work with the religious education program at St. Peter's Church brings them into contact with those youths drawn to a life of vandalism and crime. “Many of the children are in the gangs,” Sister Presentación says, adding that it isn't hard to tell which ones. Some wear rosaries around their necks. “They don't know what the rosary is,” she explains. “They think that if they're wearing the rosaries, it will bring them good luck.” Sometimes, she says, a group will come to the convent and ask the Sisters for the rosaries, “but we tell them we can't-it would be sacrilegious.”
It's not just the boys who need the Sisters' help. Las Madres also have special programs for girls from 8- to 20-years-old on weekends, which feature study, discussions, craft work, and prayer. “We try to show them not only how to do things, but also to work on their spiritual formation,” says Sister Presentación. During the summer, the Sisters run a special vocational retreat for 25-30 girls from 17- to 26-years-of-age. Many of the girls have had an abortion and “they come to find some peace for their souls,” Sister Presentación says. Some end up joining the Order.
Sister Presentación says she has no concerns about working in the depressed neighborhoods where the youngsters live, not even at night. “They respect us,” she says. The Hispanics in the neighborhood, particularly those who belong to the nationwide “Latin Kings” gang, have a strong attachment to Las Madres and their convent. “They come here when they need food or clothing and they say, ‘you can be sure, we [will] protect you,’” says Sister Presentación.
Peter Farrelly is based in Bridgeport, Conn.