Religious women played key role in history of Hispanic faith

This spring I will be spending several days at the motherhouse of Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters (Victory Noll) in Huntington, Ind. Because they played a key role in the history of the Hispanic Church in the 20th century and in the history of my family, I accepted their invitation to help them write about their early years. My late mother loved them, and I can think of no better way to honor her on Mother's Day than to help the sisters.
One of the first things I will do when I get to Huntington is to visit the grave of their founder, a Chicago diocesan priest named Father John Sigstein. I will thank God for the vision, strength and perseverance he gave that dynamic priest. His major work, the congregation he founded, has enriched the faith of millions of poor people all over the nation and Latin America.
Father Sigstein had profound reverence for our Blessed Mother, who, as Our Lady of Victory, guided him throughout his life. He also had great love for his widowed mother, whom he took with him everywhere he served. He could relate well with and work with all women and saw great potential for them in the church. Therefore it follows that when he decided to start a missionary organization, he established a congregation of women.
During a visit to New Mexico, Father Sigstein became aware of a great need for catechetical instruction, social work and health care among the poor in isolated rural communities such as the one in which I grew up, a place called Terromote. Most women who became sisters at the time taught in Catholic schools or worked in hospitals. Not tied to such institutions, Father Sigstein's catechists would serve the poor with little or no access to the church's care.
The missionary catechists were founded in 1922 and incorporated in New Mexico. At first, the congregation consisted of only two women, 44-year-old Sister Julia Doyle and 23-year-old Sister Marie Benes. They established themselves in the plains village of Watrous, N.M., north of Las Vegas, N.M. From there, they could see the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where my family lived at the base of Hermit's Peak.
I met the Victory Noll catechists in the 1930s when several came to our one-room school on my grandfather's land to acquaint us with the Baltimore Catechism and prepare us for our first Comm. After meeting them, my cousin, Josephine Aragon, became interested in religious life and later became a Franciscan nun.
In the midst of the Great Depression, the catechists were appointed to dispense federal aid in five New Mexico counties. Between June 1932 and May 1933, they delivered 112,800 pounds of flour to the poor in San Miguel, my home county.
In 1944, when my family moved to Brighton, Colo., and worked in the surrounding farms, we found Victory Noll sisters there. Since our parish, St. Augustine, had no Catholic school, they taught catechism classes and trained six of my brothers and myself as altar boys. I remember in particular a Sister Agnes, who was convinced I had a vocation to the priesthood.
Our relationship with Victory Noll runs deep. At their peak, the Victory Nolls numbered only a few over 300, but they were everywhere I went as a journalist, in rural areas, the urban barrios, parishes, dioceses, special apostolates. Though fewer now, they continue to practice the virtues of simplicity, hospitality, humility and courage. It will be a privilege to spend a few days with them.

Moises Sandoval is a CNS columnist. This column ran in Spanish in the Northwest Indiana Catholic edition of May 19, 2013.

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