WEST GREENWICH — Tucked away in the shady forests of West Greenwich, the Virgo Magnificat Convent is the new home of an exciting addition to the diocese — although it will still take one more year before the extraordinary young women now in residence there will be able to bring their message of evangelization to parishes.
On October 26, 2020, the Diocese of Providence officially became the home of the first American novitiate of the Missionary Sisters, Servants of the Word.
The Order, founded in Mexico City in 1983, is dedicated to a very simple charism: “We want to evangelize to the laity so that we can evangelize with the laity,” says Sister Elizabeth Castro, HMSP (the post-nominal initials derive from the Spanish name of the Order, the Hermanos Misioneros, Servidores de la Palabra).
Sister Elizabeth has already been a member of the diocese for several years, where she serves as the director of the Office for Religious. She knows more than anyone, therefore, what the five new novices under her care will be able to offer local parishes — once they’ve completed their formation, that is.
“We have to make sure that our sisters are fully prepared: spiritually, intellectually and morally,” Sister Elizabeth explains. “But by next year, they should have the experience that they’ll need to serve the community.”
The “Missionary” part of their title indicates the sort of good work which the Order strives to perform: the sisters are tasked with evangelizing to local congregations through both their presence and their prayers. In particular, Missionary Sisters within the United States have had enormous success in ministering to the Hispanic community, crossing cultural and linguistic barriers in order to bring parish families closer together.
Several dioceses throughout the nation have reported substantial increases in weekly Mass attendance thanks to the Sisters’ evangelization — work made possible by their reliance on a not-so-secret weapon.
“The Bible is by far our greatest tool,” says Sister Elizabeth.
“Reading it with a community, either in a formal Bible study or just as prayer, is one of the most important ways that we can interact with a congregation. There’s a reason that we call ourselves the ‘Servants of the Word.’”
Although the five Servants-in-training in West Greenwich still have another year before they will be ready to minister to local parishes, they are already deeply committed to their Order’s mission.
“I had felt a calling to the religious life for quite a while, but attending the Vocation Fair at World Youth Day in Panama really confirmed for me that the HMSP was the right order for me,” says Sister Cristina Gomez. Originally from Washington State, Sister Cristina is the only novice to not originally call California home — although she did perform her postulancy there, together with most of her new sisters.
“All but one of us met as postulants in California,” explains Sister Veronica Sanchez. “Our convent was actually located right in the middle of the desert, so coming to New England has been a big change for us. It’s beautiful here, though it’s definitely a bit colder than I think any of us are used to.”
The novitiate lasts for two years and is the second stage in the formation process for a Missionary Sister, coming after a one year postulancy but before making a first religious profession. Sister Nancy Ortiz describes it as a process of spiritual maturation.
“It takes a lot of prayer and a lot of interior work,” she explains, “but the goal is that after two years we’ll be ready to hatch out of our shells and be the Sisters that God is calling us to be.”
Sister Jessica Bernal agrees.
“Our postulancy was our introduction to the charism of our Order,” she says.
“The novitiate is a bit more intense — it’s our chance to learn how following that mission will bring us to a greater intimacy with Christ, and also to gain the foundation which we’ll need to serve Him.”
Once they have completed the first year of their novitiate, each sister will be assigned to a different parish in the diocese, where she will spread the zeal for the Word of God which first brought her to the Order.
Although their work will not be easy, the five novices already know that they always can count on one another for spiritual support — they are sisters now, after all.
“I spoke with my mother over the phone just after we arrived,” recounts Sister Wendy Palacios.
“I was expecting this to be hard for her because I’m an only child, but she was actually quite joyful and said that she had four brand new daughters to pray for now.”