Franciscan Sister Maria Rosa Leggol was not the most obedient of nuns.
Sister Maria Rosa makes that clear in interviews featured in the documentary “With This Light,” released in 2022 by Miraflores Films and executive producer Jessica Sarowitz.
The film chronicles the work of Sister Maria Rosa in Honduras starting with the establishment of her first homes for children, now part of the Sociedad Amigos de los Niños, in 1964. Sister Maria Rosa, called the “Mother Teresa of Central America,” founded and supported dozens of projects to help poor children and families, including homes for children whose parents could not care for them, schools, medical clinics and businesses that offer training and employment.
All told, those who work in the organizations she started estimate that they have helped more than 87,000 children.
The film follows two young women, both students at the Reyes Irene School for Girls, as they navigate their education, planning for their futures and the traumas of their past, with their stories interspersed with the stories Sister Maria Rosa shares of her own past and the beginning of her work.
It premiered in Highland Park, New York, Los Angeles, Houston and New Orleans on Aug. 11 after being screened — and winning honors at — several film festivals.
Sister Maria Rosa died Oct. 16, 2020, at age 93 after contracting COVID-19, during production of the film.
“With This Light” has been screened at the Vatican, Sarowitz said, and after viewing it, Pope Francis told her, “She was a saint.”
Now her cause for beatification has been opened.
According to interviews Sister Maria Rosa gave to the filmmakers, she began her life’s work when she was a young sister, working overnight as a nurse. Unbeknownst to her superiors, she spent her daytime hours putting together a plan to house orphans. Her superiors did not learn of it until 10 houses she had asked for were completed, and she had two weeks to come up with the down payment.
“I didn’t say anything,” Sister Maria Rosa said in the film, “because then they wouldn’t let me do it.”
In the film, she says she did not tell her superiors because she thought they would say no.
Sarowitz, managing partner of 4S Bay Partners LLC, a family office management company in Chicago, and a philanthropist as well as a filmmaker, said she first met Sister Maria Rosa when she was about 8 years old.
She had come to Chicago as a toddler from Honduras with her family, she said, and they and other Honduran families formed an organization to raise money and provide resources to people in their homeland. She accompanied her father on a mission trip as a child, and became acquainted with Sister Maria Rosa, who immediately gave her a big hug.
“She was famous for her hugs,” Sarowitz said. “You just felt surrounded by this enormous love.”
As a young adult, Sarowitz returned to Honduras and Sister Maria Rosa as a volunteer.
“I knocked on the door and said, ‘What can I do?’” Sarowitz said. “She always had a long list of things that needed to be done.”
Sarowitz, a parishioner of Christ Our Hope Parish, spoke at the Highland Park premiere of the film, at Wayfarer Theaters. Highland Park was also the site where some of the footage was filmed, Sarowitz said.
The film had two crews, she explained, one based in Honduras and one based in the United States, each with its own director. When the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for Sarowitz and other U.S.-based crew members to travel to Honduras, they figured out what they needed to do and how they could do it in the Chicago area.
Part of the problem, Sarowitz said, was that while Sister Maria Rosa shared stories of her early life, including being orphaned herself at age 6 and running away from her godparents to join the Franciscan sisters, none of that was on film.
So the filmmakers hired a young actress to portray Sister Maria Rosa as a child and reenacted scenes from her early life, including an encounter with the nuns on the beach. But the beach in the film isn’t the Caribbean coast of Honduras. It is Rosewood Beach in Highland Park. And it was filmed in January, on a day after it snowed the night before.
“There was ice in the water,” Sarowitz said, adding that it took a lot of work to clear the snow, clever camera work by her cinematographer and a lot of editing to make that scene look like it took place on a tropical beach.
Sarowitz said she hopes the film introduces people to Sister Maria Rosa and the work that she did, work that continues now, and that it shows the resilience and hope of the Honduran people, especially the two young women it followed.
“We wanted to make sure we gave them dignity and voice,” she said. “Yes, they struggle. But they have goals, they have dreams, they want to prosper and better their lives. We want to give voice to that.”
“With This Light” is available for rental on streaming services including Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, YouTube and Vudu.
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