By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 15, 2014
ATHENS—The couches, mattresses, and chairs piled on top of each other created an island of furniture. Volunteer college students scrambled around it as they painted the kitchen-living room combination in the mobile home with a fresh coat of white. A wet, mildew smell filled its four rooms.
They worked under the direction of Sister Margarita Martin. The group had just finished a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips.
The home’s new owner squeezed in around the pile filling her living room, eyes wide with joy. “I don’t have words to describe how I’m feeling,” said Claudia Rosales, 39, wearing a red cloth coat. She had just gotten off her shift at a nearby poultry plant, so her dark hair was still damp after a shower. “It looks so different from yesterday,” she said.
She chatted with the students from Villanova University, in Pennsylvania, who were volunteers on an alternative spring break of community service. Then she turned to the “madrecita,” the term of affection people in this trailer park call the three religious sisters who live among them.
Her friend Odilia Herrarte, 35, stood beside her and saw the one-day transformation of the mobile home. Herrarte had a story, too, about the madrecitas.
“They helped me. They paid my rent for a month,” Herrarte said. She arrived here from Texas only months ago and was a stranger, but these sisters gave her the money, she said.
Sister Margarita hustles daily, along with her two fellow sisters, Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to serve their adopted community. The three sisters work with University of Georgia staff, host service-minded university students willing to help teach children, hand out smiles and sweets to youngsters after tutoring and rice and beans to parents worried if they’ll have food to feed their families.
It is a life far different from where Sister Margarita grew up in Spain, but one she believes is important to the Catholic community to “bring the church to the people.”
Supporters praise the sisters’ ministry for its impact on the community. Sister Margarita is a “good guardian” of the trust earned from the park residents, said a University of Georgia official. And for a long-time after-school tutor, the weekly visits to the mobile home park are “completely outside the UGA bubble.”
‘Wrestling with God’
Sister Margarita was born on the northwest coast of Spain, where her father worked many jobs, among them rescuing sunken fishing ships. The family had two children; she has an older brother. Sitting at a table in her mobile home convent, she remembered her father as a man who could “think outside the box” to accomplish his goals.
When she was 5, her mother died and she went to live with her godparents, an aunt and uncle in the capital city of Madrid.
They raised her, along with an older cousin, who became like a brother. She lived in an upper middle class home, educated with a tutor. She remembered a childhood of riding bicycles, playing in the parks, enjoying friends. Daily Mass at the next door Church of the Incarnation was also part of her life, as was praying the rosary.
Sister Margarita felt a desire to join a religious order as a teenager. She joked as she described those times in an almost biblical scene, as Jacob wrestled with the angel.
“At that retreat, I even got sick wrestling with God. Fighting with the Lord seems to be my prayer,” she said.
Her father persuaded her to wait to test her vocation. If she didn’t enter a religious community, she saw herself as a mother who’d raise a family. “I wanted to have many children,” she said.
She bided her time exploring what religious order to enter. And once that time passed, she was ready.
Meanwhile, her older cousin entered the Jesuits and during visits she came away moved by the Ignatian spirituality she heard about, which she described as “do your very best at all times for the greater glory of God.”
She hadn’t attended a Catholic school, so she was not familiar with religious sisters. She considered religious orders on three criteria: a ministry focused on hospital care or teaching; missionary, because she had aspirations to work in India; and rooted in Eucharistic adoration.
She found all that in the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a 19th-century religious community founded in Spain but international in scope. It’s also rooted in the spiritual writings of St. Ignatius, who started the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, and the spirituality she valued.
She found the religious order, but was turned off by the habit she’d have to put on. She called it “very black, very spooky.” But she persevered and at almost 21, she entered the community. On her left hand is a ring that could be mistaken for a simple wedding band. She put it on when she made her final vows and inscribed inside is 15-8-72, the date of her profession.
Today, those habits that made her reluctant to join are gone. She usually is dressed in a denim jumper. In the cold months, she wears an oversized gray hoodie, with big pockets for carrying large key rings. Around her neck is a silver cross.
“I dress like the underprivileged,” she said. The sister makes her point by paraphrasing Pope Francis who has encouraged a church that gets its hands dirty as it serves the poor and the oppressed.
“You see we are dirty. That’s what he says, get dirty,” she said. “He’s from the family.”
The convent of the three sisters of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a doublewide mobile home. Sister Margarita lives here with Sister Angela Cordero and Sister Marietta Jansen. A benefactor purchased it for them for $15,000. It has white siding, a screened-in porch with plastic furniture. On its front hangs a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron of the Americas and a revered image for Mexicans. Visitors bless themselves with holy water near the front door.
The community daily prays for an hour in the small Eucharistic chapel, tucked behind plastic accordion doors. Overlooking the chapel is a painting of St. Joseph, St. Mary, and the infant Jesus on a road. The scene is painted as a contemporary Mexican immigrant family.
Her prayer is often simple. “They are your children. You take care of them,” she will say to God. The daily prayer is vital to her.
“It sends me forth. It restores me,” she said.
Her mission is ‘healing hearts’
The Oasis Católico Santa Rafaela convent is in the Pinewood Estates North mobile home park, several miles on the outskirts of Athens. Its roads are pitted with potholes and among the scores of trailers, some look like they could fall in on themselves.
Oasis also serves as the religious heart of the mobile home community. There are processions and singing to celebrate the Our Lady of Guadalupe feast. Around Christmas, the Mexican tradition of the posadas, a representation of the search for shelter of the Holy Family, takes over nightly in the community.
A resident was killed recently when a storm knocked down a tree that crushed his car. For nine days, more than 100 people came to Oasis to pray the rosary and be with the family, following the Mexican custom. On the last day, the community prayed again at the deceased’s home with an even larger crowd.
The sisters moved here in 2002 from Atlanta and named the center for the founder of their religious order. They settled here because of the families in need. “We didn’t come with a job description. We just came to be,” said Sister Margarita, who is 73. Residents were wary at first because “I look very gringo,” she said, with a smile.
Like other areas throughout Georgia, an influx of immigrants from Latin America in the 1990s and early 2000s came for a growing economy. The local agriculture and construction industries hired them, although not always with high wages.
Some 74 percent of families with children under 5 years old in the park and its surrounding neighborhood are estimated to live below the poverty level, compared to 22 percent in Georgia. Unemployment hovers around 9 percent, above the state’s level of 7.5 percent. Park residents are nearly all from Latin America, especially Mexico.
The reality doesn’t surprise Sister Margarita, who stops an interview to answer the doorbell. After a little chitchat in Spanish, she takes out bags of rice and beans from a closet and hands them over to the woman.
The residents here are the “people of God,” she said.
“Immigrants’ hearts are really broken.” And the focus of her mission is “healing hearts,” Sister Margarita said.
“You see it in those smiling faces” as people feel “welcomed, loved and appreciated,” she said. “Healing hearts.”
“The parents feel very inadequate because they can’t help their kids so just knowing the tutors are here feels good. Healing hearts.”
Her goal is “build bridges of understanding, love, and appreciation between cultures and races and everything else” in Athens.
Oasis Católico’s tutoring center is a collection of buildings given to them. Additional trailers were donated by a local school district so the sisters could accept more students for the popular after-school tutoring. It runs with the help of nearly 250 mostly UGA students, who come weekly during the spring and fall semesters.
The community center porch was built by parishioners at an Episcopal church when the pastor asked how they could help. The sisters are often asked to speak on campus, to law enforcement and to city leaders about immigrants, she said.
“We are educators, wherever that might take place; it can be at the trailer, it can be at UGA. Everybody knows I am here to be an advocate for the immigrants,” Sister Margarita said. Civic groups in Athens have recognized her work, including the Athens Area Human Relations Council and the East Georgia American Red Cross.
When the sisters moved in, the front of the convent hosted the after-school program. It was so crowded, people were careful to avoid stepping on a hand or a leg. But later the buildings were offered for free. “When a need is brought to us, the help comes,” Sister Margarita said.
On the gravel playground, youngsters line up before the afternoon program begins. Sister Margarita greets them as she quizzes the smallest to name the color of a kid’s tracksuit and shirt. Once dismissed, the more than 100 youngsters rush to the tables where the university tutors wait. The youngest are in pre-kindergarten, and a few are as old as fifth grade. They spend the next hour doing homework before breaking for a cultural show, as girls in red dresses and boys with sombreros twirl to Mexican music.
Tutoring gives UGA student ‘joy’
Parents waited for the school to be dismissed; among them was Guadalupe Garcia, 27, who stays home to care for younger children. She’s seen how the after-school program helps. “My daughter’s teacher says she is progressing in reading and writing,” she said in Spanish. “There is no alternative. They educate the children very well. They teach them what they need to learn.”
Some tutors are here for credit as professors praise the program, while some come to do service. Kaitlyn Horvath, 20, a UGA sophomore, has spent a semester coming here. She is also a member of the UGA Catholic Center.
“I don’t mind the hours. Coming every Monday fills me up. It gives me joy,” she said.
Manuel Coutinho tutored for two years at Oasis. The time spent there puts things into perspective, said Coutinho, a member of the UGA Catholic Center who grew up at St. Benedict Church, Johns Creek.
Any hardships he goes through as a college student are slight to what the trailer park families experience daily; however, they are strivers, he said.
“I see a group of hopeful kids,” he said. “They were very interested in college life. They still have that curiosity and drive to see college.”
UGA students have taken the program to heart. A new campus group—Project HOPE (Helping Oasis and Pinewood Excel)—has gotten off the ground. One goal is to build pavilions to cover outdoor picnic tables so more students can be tutored.
Paul Matthews, the assistant director of the UGA Office of Service-Learning, has worked to connect the campus with Oasis Católico for years. It offers a stellar program that serves both the youngsters and the university students, he said.
“We sometimes call her a force of nature,” said Matthews about Sister Margarita. “She has an amazing ability to get things done.”
1 million eggs and counting
The sisters on Fridays drive the community minivan to UGA’s poultry department. As many as 6,000 eggs, that would likely be thrown away, are put into the car. Later, the nutrition-rich eggs are distributed to the trailer park residents from the convent. The sisters have distributed an estimated 1 million donated eggs.
“When she dies, I’m writing to the pope to put her on the sainthood list. She is the most Christ-like figure I have ever met. She is the epitome of Christian values,” said Nick Dale, a professor emeritus of poultry science, who admits he is a “big fan” of the work of the sisters.
For Sister Margarita, her life’s work comes down to seeing the person in front of her.
“We are brothers and sisters,” she said. “How do you want to treat your siblings?”