The ‘Virgin of the Poor’ Heals Children in Mexico and Around the World
‘These stories are why the Sisters of Mary welcome the children each morning as mothers do sons returning from war’
I could not stop crying. I was not sad or even happy. Overwhelmed. Completely overwhelmed standing on a stage before 3,200 girls at Girlstown in Chalco, Mexico, singing with the voices of angels. Surely the angels were singing with them.
This past June for our 40th anniversary, my husband Mark and I traveled to Mexico to have our marriage blessed at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Our son who lives in Guatemala met up with us and was also on the stage with us on June 19, having been led down the aisle as the girls sang out, “Oh when the saints, go marching in…”
I had no idea such a place as this even existed until my author/friend, Kevin Wells showed me videos of his time there while researching for the biography: Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz. We had become friends while he was working on The Priests We Need to Save the Church — both best sellers now. When I realized the Girlstown he had visited was only 45 minutes from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mark and I arranged to go.
A Sea of Peace and Joy
The gentle Sister Martha and high-spirited Sister Gemma, part of the Sisters of Mary and graduates of Girlstown — one in Mexico and the other from the Philippines — showed us around that day. An Olympic-sized pool, athletic courts, track and fields, sewing machines, computers, groves and fields of fruits and vegetables, a walk-in oven to accommodate rolling shelves with 7,000 small loaves of bread a day — these are just glimpses of the care and well-rounded education the girls receive. And upon graduation, they are offered scholarships to universities or trade schools.
Smiling faces and ready waves greeted us around every corner. Joy permeated. “This is where my girls stay,” the twenty-something Sister Gemma explained, showing us a dorm room with two-dozen bunks. This is her vocation — mothering these girls. Hearts wounded in a myriad of ways are immersed in the motherly love of the sisters, the Blessed Mother, and Jesus, living among them.
Kevin Wells reflected in his book’s prologue after two weeks at Chalco’s Girlstown:
As we drove on, my focus settled on a single thought Sister Margie Cheong shared, just as she finished a Rosary walk at nightfall. ‘Time here is like Magdalene’s perfume; it is precious for us. We give all we have and are to them.’
The teenagers at this school blaze with a startling type of joy. It is not a fallow, painted-on joy, but one built firmly on what they interiorly know — the Sisters of Mary have surrendered their lives for them …
Visitors to Chalco are lifted into a different dimension into a way of life that’s disappearing in America … without cell phones or earbuds. Each evening at 7 p.m. they pray the Rosary together, in a chorus that reverberates like thousands of bees. Because they do not play video games or browse social media, they have more time to one their God-given skills. For decades, their high school sports teams have routinely won national championships.
Some become accomplished as musicians, doctors or teachers, or skilled in business or trades. These are children who once worked barefoot in fields and could not count on there being a meal waiting for them, or even for their families to keep them safe from harm.
Wells recalled how a girl named Zayra told of being chased up a mountainside by a human trafficker. Her grandfather with whom she lived, was drunk most nights. “I would kneel in front of a statue of Mary,” she told Wells, “and pray the fights and drinking would stop.” Another girl, Antonina, told him that her father had been shot dead in the streets and she thinks her mother was burned to death.
“These stories — there are thousands — are why the Sisters of Mary welcome the children each morning as mothers do sons returning from war,” Kevin explained.
As amazing as Girlstown in Chalco is, there are actually 17 Catholic Boystowns and Girlstowns as part of World Villagesin seven countries run by the Sisters of Mary. To date, 150,000 students from poor villages have graduated and many have gone on to trade schools and universities to become professionals and priests and nuns. There are 20,000 enrolled currently, culled from the poorest of the poor neighborhoods. The sisters go out two by two, searching for children 12 to 14 who would like the opportunity, and who have families willing to let them go.
Father Al Inspired by Virgin of the Poor
World Villages was founded by Venerable Father Aloysius Schwartz beginning in Korea in 1969, caring and educating them and raising them in the faith. Thus, these children are reborn, and they in turn breathe new life into their communities, countries and the Church.
Father Al began through inspiration from the Church-approved apparitions of the “Virgin of the Poor” in Banneux, Belgium. The Washington, D.C., native often visited the site in the mid-1950s as a seminarian studying theology at Louvain Catholic University in Belgium. In a chapel at the site one evening, he vowed to spend the reminder of his life serving the poor and forgotten. Wells wrote in the biography:
On December 8, 1957, in war-decimated Korea, he looked into the faces of poor children and for the first time saw that ‘eyes burned with a fierce, scared, hunted-animal expression.’ It haunted him, so he worked at its removal.
Father Al’s vow grew into World Villages and the founding of the Sisters of Mary and an order of brothers who turn their own lives over to serve the children broken beyond their young understanding. The humble sisters whom I met carry those crosses, dying to themselves and giving their lives for the rebirth of these children throughout South and Central America and the Far East.
The experience of encountering 3,200 girls, and the sisters who care for them, impressed upon me the importance of turning to Our Blessed Mother. Father Al put into a motion a program of saving young souls and revitalizing the Church, families and communities by saying “yes” to our Blessed Mother. The Sisters of Mary continue that “yes.”
And Kevin Wells is living his own “yes” to God through the Blessed Mother and under the mentorship of Father Al himself. After experiencing World Villages, he left his job with the family business and is working full-time spreading the message of Father Al and telling the world about World Villages.