By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 27, 2007
Sister Maria Jesus Sagaseta likes to tell children that she wears her Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus gold ring, with a little cross etched in it, because it reminds her that she’s married to God and lives for him.
That unconditional love of God and obedience to her order has now led her to uproot herself after 17 years in Atlanta where she has served as director of Hispanic ministry at the Cathedral of Christ the King. Her new assignment began Sept. 1 at her order’s St. Raphaela Retreat House in Haverford, Pa.
The 77-year-old also celebrated her 50th year in religious life on May 31, was honored with a jubilee Mass and reception on June 16 at the Cathedral, and bid friends goodbye at a farewell reception there Aug. 26.
The petite sister, a native of Spain, arrived in Atlanta from Florida in late August 1990 and began working at the Cathedral quietly and diligently to develop the nascent Hispanic ministry. The ministry grew as needs developed, starting with children’s religious education. Today it serves over 300 children, and there are 200 registered families, plus hundreds more unregistered, and three weekly Masses in Spanish. Over 50 different ministries at the Cathedral are bilingual or have Spanish language expressions, in addition to the uniquely Hispanic ministries.
Sister Maria acknowledged in a phone interview before her departure that it’s tough to leave behind the community she has been entrenched in and all her unfinished work, including the current archdiocesan initiative to provide catechesis on Our Lady of Guadalupe. How she will be replaced is not yet determined. But she must persevere in doing God’s work wherever she is planted.
“He is with me. I have to do his work no matter where I go or what I do,” she said. “Whatever he plans, that goes. I have to take life as it comes.”
Sister Maria grew up in northern Spain in the town of Ituren and returned to her convent earlier this year for her jubilee celebration. She first considered religious life at age 6 when a black-habited nun seeking refuge during the Spanish Civil War visited her family home since the town was spared the violence. She asked her, “Pretty girl, do you want to be a nun?” and Maria responded, “‘Oh yes.’ I didn’t know what a nun was but was so happy.”
As World War II began she pondered her life’s vocation. The oldest of 10 children, with two sisters in religious life and two brothers as priests, she first started a sewing business and was 27 when she entered the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart Convent of Avenida de Villava, joining the order founded by St. Rafaela Maria Porras in 1877. She was thrilled to be assigned as a missionary to serve in America and sailed with two other sisters to New York in 1961. Beholding the city lights and the Statue of Liberty, she got off the ship with a sense both of deep joy and seasickness.
She served until 1983 in Philadelphia, first at a retreat house and school. Her semi-cloistered congregation then began to refocus on its apostolic mission, and she was assigned to St. Michael’s Parish in the city. She learned local Puerto Rican Catholics were not attending Mass and began outreach in the streets and teaching children in her home, and helped to establish Spanish Mass.
“I was very sad to leave Philadelphia,” she said. “I had my heart attached to the people. It was like an enthusiasm in the people when they started having Spanish Mass and first Communion.”
Later she was assigned to a Mexican mission in Pompano Beach, Fla. After seven years she was assigned to Atlanta, “the last place I wanted to go. I was happy in Florida.” But she was spiritually quenched as she arrived in Buckhead and beheld the flowering dogwoods and thought “it was so beautiful, Florida has never seen this.”
She had been invited by Father Richard Kieran to the Cathedral, but when she arrived she asked the new rector, Msgr. Thomas Kenny, for her job description and was told, “Please start working, and we will make a job description.”
One of her first projects was to establish the Lindbergh Hispanic mission in a shopping center off Piedmont Road, where the church began organizing Mass and religious education for families without transportation.
“We used to follow the school children when they came from the bus to find their families, “ she recalled. “It has been great teaching there all these years. Even this last Saturday 14 infants were baptized.”
However, she noted that many Lindbergh buildings have now been demolished, and as families relocate, the mission’s future there is precarious.
Often seen in the simple grey suit of her order with a white blouse, she has found most undocumented Hispanic Catholics to be “good people” and very helpful in volunteering with renovation at their mission. She felt a special call to give them hope and add “ yeast in dough to make it rise,” as they increasingly struggle to find steady jobs.
“They don’t know the language. They don’t know how to read and write. They feel so inferior. The best way of making them feel their dignity is through faith,” she affirmed. “I always try to raise the faith of the people, try to involve them in ministry so they kind of feel they are part of the church. They feel bad enough themselves because they are undocumented.”
“I don’t make any noise,” she continued. “I feel I’m here to help the people to be themselves, at least not to lose their faith. They are Catholic. (I want) to give them the means to go deeper in their own faith. I was here for everybody.”
In her work she has also been involved in leadership with the Spanish Cursillo retreat movement, with a charismatic prayer group and with the “Why Catholic?” RENEW program.
Maria Guzman is the Cathedral’s coordinator of Spanish religious education and one person whose life was changed by Sister Maria. Moving here from Mexico with her husband, who then worked for Bell South, she began as a volunteer catechist. She eventually became a staff member, and as her husband’s contract ended, they changed their plans to return to Mexico. He now directs the Hispanic ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta.
“God called me through Sister Maria,” she said. “God changed all of our life.”
She admires “her life, her spirituality” and said her work ethic was “exceptional” and her advice for the weary was to “take vitamins.”
Father Jaime Barona, pastor of St. Matthew Church, Winder, said that he and many others will miss her, but he hopes she’ll be able to slow her pace at the retreat house. He was inspired by her in moments of trial and joy.
“She has touched so many people’s lives and always with that righteousness. It is pious. She’s a very good Christian woman. She was not afraid to speak out the truth and was not afraid to step out and say that is not the right way,” he affirmed. “Her mission in life is just to bring the Gospel to the people. She never lost that sense of (being a) missionary.”
The Hispanic ministry at the Cathedral of Christ the King “was one of the most successful Hispanic ministries. She has been the soul and mind and director of that Hispanic ministry all these years. It’s been a ministry to the poor and oppressed. She was always there with encouragement and righteousness,” Father Barona said.
Sister Maria didn’t fuss with tracking her hours, and she’d often finish work at home at night after interacting with people all day. She was happy to work for five years on a Legion of Mary project regarding the consecration of the archdiocese to Mary, as she views Mary as the key to evangelization and family life. “She has been instrumental in all countries of Latin America in evangelization.”
She also inspired CTK Hispanic ministry Cuban-American volunteers Silvia and Gustavo Pellon to serve more—by asking for help. They say they ended up doing more because of her enthusiasm.
Gustavo Pellon appreciates how “she takes time to hear people, what their problem is or what they have to say.”
“We felt like she was one of the family. … We will miss her a lot,” he said.
He added that her prayers are high impact, as she’ll say the rosary not only in Spanish and English but also in Latin, French and Basque.
“If you want to make sure that your prayers get to heaven, get to her,” he said.
Silvia Pellon called her a combination of “of big spirituality and action,” in the spirit of her religious congregation.
“She has created many different groups of prayer and has encouraged them,” she reflected.
Sister Maria lived with three other Handmaids in their Atlanta residence, and they gathered at 7:15 a.m. daily for morning prayer. She also spends an hour before the Blessed Sacrament daily.
“My life has been very simple. I wouldn’t be able to make it without prayer. My prayer life for me, that makes me feel I’m not alone,” reflected the missionary. “What encourages me the most in this ministry is my prayer. … That is for me what helps me the most to not be discouraged and to go ahead, no matter what happens.”
After arriving in Pennsylvania on Sept. 6, she reported while manning the front desk that she’s feeling “wonderful” at the elegant center, a large brick facility with visitors on the grounds including fox and deer. The center is celebrating its golden anniversary while gearing up for fall retreats—and Sister Maria invites Atlantans to visit.
Her only regret is that there is no new vocation in her community preparing to serve in Atlanta. But she has no regrets about living for God through consecrated life.
“Once I made my decision and knew it is what God wanted for me, I never thought of leaving it. I feel very happy to do what God wants me to do, so I do it.”