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La Jolla parish helps Catholic sisters displaced by Puerto Rican earthquake

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LA JOLLA — In the wake of a series of damaging earthquakes in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Mary Star of the Sea Parish in La Jolla has come forward to help a resilient group of sisters who, despite their destroyed home, have been distributing supplies and providing much-need ministerial care in their community.

In the early hours of the morning on Jan. 7, 2020, members of the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima awoke to their motherhouse violently shaking and crumbling around them. A magnitude-6.4 earthquake had hit their town of Guánica, Puerto Rico.

Sisters rushed to rescue others trapped in their rooms. Many of the elderly sisters had to be carried to safety as their home fell around them.

“We thought we were going to die at that moment,” one of the Sisters of Fatima, Sister Judith, said. “But God said, ‘No, not yet.’”

Though they survived, their beautiful motherhouse was badly damaged, and uninhabitable; their lives forever changed.

The sisters, accustomed to living together as a community, had no alternative but to separate, with the elderly sisters moving into a retreat center run by the Diocese of Ponce. The other sisters moved into tents and trailers near the grounds of their damaged house.

They created a make-shift chapel, and brought the Eucharist, to keep it safe and ensure that it remained central in their lives.

Traumatized and homeless, the sisters were determined to carry on. Despite having little resources, their community needed them more than ever. After the earthquakes, the sisters worked with the diocese and community to ensure that those most in need — many of whom were left homeless — received much-needed supplies.

Although they are 5,000 miles apart, there is a significant connection between the sisters and Mary Star of the Sea Parish in La Jolla.

Just before COVID-19 quarantine measures were put into place, the parish’s pastor and deacon participated in a Catholic Extension immersion trip, a program sponsored by Lilly Endowment Inc. that invites pastors from urban or suburban dioceses to visit Extension dioceses throughout the United States and its territories. Catholic Extension is a nonprofit fundraising organization that assists faith communities in poor and remote areas across the United States.

Father Pat Mulcahy and Deacon Jim Vargas visited the Diocese of Ponce, where Catholic Extension has been supporting faith communities for nearly 100 years by building churches, providing salaries for priests and women religious, and funding countless ministerial programs. There they met the sisters, living and working among the destroyed motherhouse and new living quarters and the emergency supply distribution center.

The spirit and resilience of the sisters made a lasting impression.

“They reminded me of the Gospel value of joy,” Father Mulcahy said. “Joy is not something that comes from a momentary pleasurable thing that we do. Joy is a way of life.”

Deacon Vargas echoed this sentiment.

“The joy is what is palpable,” he said. “That joy is grounded in the faith, that not only the Sisters of Fatima have, but the people in general.”

Not long after the visit, Mary Star of the Sea Parish had to adjust to its own new reality, as so many have done in the wake of COVID-19. During the period when public Masses were suspended, the parish turned to virtual Masses.

Upon hearing that the communities they visited had endured yet another earthquake, a magnitude-5.5 temblor on May 2, Father Mulcahy and Deacon Vargas launched a fundraising campaign to help the sisters serve their Puerto Rican community. The parish wanted to ensure the sisters have the support they need to carry out their life-saving ministry. One parishioner even offered a generous $50,000 matching gift challenge, which doubled each parishioner’s gift. Even while separated by the coronavirus, the parish came together and raised $110,000 for the Sisters of Fatima.

The sisters are deeply grateful.

“God gave us the gift of living, to keep working for the families and for the salvation of our souls and the souls of others,” Sister Judith said.

With the gift from a parish far away, but in solidarity with their suffering, they will be able to continue this ministry for years to come.

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