Catholic Extension hosts Latina sisters for justice exchange

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Catholic Extension hosts Latina sisters for justice exchange

Forty-five religious sisters from seven countries gather for a prayer service with Catholic Extension Sept. 3, 2021 at 6300 S. Bell Ave, the site where slain Chicago Police Department Officer Ella French was fatally shot and killed and her partner, Officer Carlos Yanez, Jr., was critically wounded at a traffic stop in early August. The service was the culmination of Catholic Extension's U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program, in conjunction with Loyola University, where the sisters gathered in Chicago for a week of classes centered on restorative justice. The sisters represent seven countries and are assigned to 14 different underserved dioceses throughout the United States, where they will return to apply their learning and bring healing to their communities. Extension President Father Jack Wall, accompanied by Chicago Police Department Chaplain Father Dan Brandt, and other police chaplains, led the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Chicago police chaplains join the sisters for the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The sisters hold roses at the start of the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Hand-written messages can be seen on the back of a cross at the memorial. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall and Chicago Police Department Chaplain Father Dan Brandt, join the sisters for the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Guadalupan Missionary of the Holy Spirit Sister Gabriela Ramirez give a reading during the prayer service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The sisters hold prayer cards with the image of Officer French. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit Sister Lourdes Gonzalez, who ministers to migrants in the Diocese of Stockton, California, places a rose in front of the memorial. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The sisters sing during the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The sisters sing during the service. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Chicago Police Chaplain Bob Montelongo hands out rosaries with black and blue beads, colors attributed to police departments, to the sisters. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Missionary of the Eucharist of St. Teresa Gabriela Martinez Tinajero, who ministers to families in the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, signs a cross at the site of the memorial. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Forty-five women religious from seven Latin American countries gathered around a memorial near the place where Chicago Police Officer Ella French was killed to pray for peace and for all first responders on Sept. 3.

It was the final event of Catholic Extension’s weeklong U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange program, in which the sisters attended sessions at Loyola University Chicago on restorative justice efforts in Chicago and explored themes of justice and reconciliation in Catholicism.

During the service at 6300 S. Bell Ave., the women sang and prayed for peace in the community. Many held rosaries in their hands along with prayer cards with French’s image. Father Dan Brandt, chaplain for the Chicago Police Department, joined the service along with other police chaplains.

Toward the end of the service, each woman placed a red rose at the memorial and afterward many lingered to pray longer.

The women serve in poor and marginalized communities around the United States, said Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension.

Founded in Chicago in 1905, Catholic Extension works in America’s poorest regions to build up vibrant and transformative Catholic faith communities.

The women represented 14 congregations.

“They are evangelists. They are missioners,” Wall said. “Literally they are touching tens of thousands of people that are in very impoverished situations and bringing them together to create community.”

They are the “first responders” to first- and second-generation Latinos coming to the United States seeking a better life, Wall said.

“Like many generations before when women religious came to the United States and served the needs of the poorest people, they are doing the same here,” he said.

This year’s program focused on restorative justice because for-profit prisons exist in many of the communities where the women minister and they regularly work with those inside and outside of prison trying to break the cycle of poverty, he said.

“We learned more about how the criminal justice system works in this country and how we need to accompany the families and how we can encourage them,” said Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit Sister Gabriela Ramirez, who ministers in the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama.

They also learned that discrimination exists in the U.S. criminal justice system.

“We realized also that African American and Hispanic people are also very vulnerable communities and we are trying to accompany them in their struggles,” Sister Gabriela said. “We realize that we have a prophetic voice where we are to know that, yes, in this society people commit crimes, but also to advocate for more care and just treatment for the people.”

The exchange program also provided fellowship for the women.

“It is a joy to just get together, to pray together, to support each other,” Sister Gabriela said. “We realize we are not alone in this. We can see that many people here are working to make justice.”

“This week has been very special,” said Sister of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Mayela Ortega, who ministers in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

The testimony of someone incarcerated for a crime they did not commit and testimonies from people who lost loved ones to violence moved Sister Mayela.

“For me, it touched my heart because I see that we really need to do something different for those generations that are coming. We really cannot keep going this way that we are doing things,” she said, adding that within the communities where she ministers, she sees the patterns of violence repeated through the generations.

During one session at Loyola, she learned that some children growing up in Chicago are afraid to leave their neighborhoods for fear of crossing gang territories.

“Even some of them never have been to the lake. What kind of freedom is that if you are incarcerated in your own neighborhood?” Sister Mayela said. “That was really hard for me to hear. Especially the children and youth, because they have a future and in the way that we are, it seems that there is nothing for them left.”

Similar things occur with the Hispanic families in Charleston, she said.

“The poor communities have their own challenges,” Sister Mayela said. “I see the same with Hispanics, because sometimes parents work so hard and they are never with their children. What children learn is from their peers and they grow up sometimes without the values that can really make a difference in their lives.”


  • catholic extension
  • women religious

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