Sharing memories of a very generous group of catechists

Christmas is a special time when the usual political rhetoric against the poor is muted and many people open their hearts and wallets to help. But for John Sigstein, an early 20th-century diocesan priest from Chicago, serving the poor was a passion that would not let go. His dream to establish a society of catechists to provide religious instruction, medical help and social service to the poor finally came true in 1922.

The first two catechists -- Julia Doyle from Chicago and Marie Benes, an immigrant from Vienna, Austria, whose family settled in Chicago -- began a mission in the village of Watrous, northeast of Las Vegas, N.M. They lived in a house with no running water, electricity or sewerage and used an outside "privy" as a toilet.

A year later, Marie Bodin replaced Benes, who was sent back to the Chicago area to undertake other duties, and the mission was relocated to Ocate, N.M., even today a bleak desert highland village with scrubby trees on the eastern edge of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. From there, Bodin wrote about her first Christmas in New Mexico.

"My first Christmas in the mission field," she wrote, "was spent at our mission center at Ocate, New Mexico. Ocate has an altitude of 8,500 feet. That winter of 1923 was very cold. The car could not plough its way through the deep snow, and we had to travel by wagon or sled in order to visit our sick poor. Many times even the wagon could not get through, and we had to walk through two or three miles of snow.

"Christmas Eve arrived and the last Christmas party was over, but there was another act of sweet charity to perform. At five o'clock that evening we heard a knock at the door and, on opening it, we found a poor man who asked us if we could accommodate his sick wife for the night. He was taking her to the hospital in Las Vegas (about 30 miles away) in a wagon, but traveling through the deep snow was very slow and now they could go no farther until morning.

"Remembering Our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph who sought shelter on this very night, we were glad to care for the sick woman. Catechist Doyle, our superior, prepared her own room for the patient and then put a cot in my room for herself. We placed a little bell near the poor woman's bed and told her to ring it if she should need anything during the night.
"During the night I awakened, dressed and went to see if our patient needed anything, but found her comfortably sleeping. I looked at my watch and it was five minutes to twelve. I thought of the midnight Masses that were about to begin. Christmas Mass for us was impossible. I knelt down in our little oratory and I am sure that the spiritual comm I made at that midnight hour was the most fervent I ever made in my life."

Sigstein's catechists, later named Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters, soon grew to over 300 and by 1960 had 78 convents in 38 dioceses in 21 states, teaching more than 100,000 children. The disposition to help the poor is universal.

When I was a boy attending a one-room school in a place called Terromote, about 27 miles from Ocate, the sisters came there to prepare us for our first Holy Comm. Now I am helping them to write their history, and they have given me permission to share this vignette by Bodin.


Moises Sandoval is a CNS columnist. This column appeared in Spanish in the Northwest Indiana Catholic edition dated Dec. 22, 2013.

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