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Sep 29, 1999

Sisters of Mercy celebrate service to Belize

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Since 1883, the Sisters of Mercy have made Belize part of their worldwide international multicultural congregation. There are currently twenty-four Sisters of Mercy in Belize, eighteen of whom are Belizean. During Mercy Awareness Week, the community put together a heritage room at St. Catherine’s Academy featuring information and a few artifacts spared by the ’31 Hurricane and Hattie in 1961. Several of the Sisters shared why they became nuns and why they are still happy to be part of the community.

Sr. Sarita Vasquez, Sister of Mercy

“This room tells our story, and as I said, it is a story of over a hundred and sixteen years and many Sisters of Mercy have served in Belize that time, period of time. And so we will see, we see in this room the work of the Sisters, the service they have given, anything that speaks to our history.”

Janelle Chanona

“This is what we usually see when we think of the word “nun,” a religious figure dressed a certain way enforcing certain values… but the religious Sisters of Mercy have been more than this image; they’ve been actively involved in education, health care and assisting the poor.”

Sister Leona Panton remembers why she wanted to enter the life.

Sr. Leona Panton, Sister of Mercy

“I had a favorite teacher at Holy Redeemer, Sister Mary Xavier and I was very much impressed by her way with people. When I went to Holy Redeemer I wasn’t a Catholic. We became converts, but it didn’t make a difference, she was very approachable, very considerate of people and I liked her, liked what she was doing.

I saw the Sisters of Mercy at that time, as doing something worthwhile in the community and at the same time they were people who were sensitive to the needs of people.”

Sr. Panton admits that even though she knew this was what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, she was hesitant about telling her friends.

Sr. Leona Panton

“When I was going to join I said nothing about it to any of my friends, except a very close friend because the minute you said anything about being a sister, you were considered “holy holy” and all that. And I think one of the misconceptions is that once you become a sister, at least it was in those days, you were cut off from other experiences.

Actually you gain something, cause I am still very much a part of my society and I’m doing the work that I think God has called me to.”

Sr. Maria Pablo Noble heard her call when she was twenty-two years old. Sixty years later, she says her decision was hard at first but it has been worthwhile.

Sr. Maria Pablo Noble, Sister of Mercy

“It no feel like nothing. It’s just that I said I was going and my dad said, “Are you going to leave me?” cause I’m the only girl you see, nine brothers and only myself. So my father was shocked when I told him I was going to leave him.

It’s a lovely place to be, the convent. Even my brother says to me, “and why did you join the convent?” Because I know that I will be happy there.”

For fifteen years she found happiness as a kindergarten teacher.

Sr. Maria Pablo Noble

“I loved them; I loved the babies.”

Sister Helene became a nun that same year. As a young girl from San Pedro, she never saw herself as a religious figure.

Sr. Mary Helene Blake, Sister of Mercy

“I had no intention of becoming a sister you know. I was boarding at the convent and I used to see those Sisters how they took care of the altar, how they used to pray, work hard. Little by little I began to feel like I wanted to live that life.”

Like Sr. Pablo, Sr. Helene enjoyed her life as a teacher.

Sr. Mary Helene Blake

“I loved teaching my kids. I have liked everything that they put me to do. I taught my kids; I began with the babies and went up sub-one, sub-two, standard one, standard two. And then they put me back in standard one and I stayed there until I stopped teaching.”

Sr. Helene says she has enjoyed the religious life, no matter what anybody says.

Sr. Mary Helene Blake

“We know that we are humans and the nuns have as much fun as the seculous. I for one, I love to dance.”

The life of a nun is not for everyone and for those who have received the call to serve the community, there is another option, you can become a Mercy Associate.

Linda Bowman, Mercy Associate

“It is a desire. One is called and we really see the effects the Sisters of Mercy have had on our educational system, our health system and in the different ministries and they’ve touched so many lives. I know they have touched my life.

We live the lifestyle that we are committed to, we network with them and we work with them and they help us, empower us to work in different ministries where Mercy are affiliated.”

The pictures in the heritage room show how involved the Sisters have been in our society, but they also show how the Sisters of Mercy in Belize are facing the same problem as orders all over the world: fewer and fewer young people choosing the religious life.

Sr. Carolee Chanona, Sister of Mercy

“When you see fewer Sisters, it’s kind of like, “well what’s wrong?” I think it needs to be seen in the bigger picture of the changes of society as a whole, perhaps the reasons why women and young people entered fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years ago. There are other options for other women to live a dedicated life and a life of service.”

Since 1883 only thirty-one Belizean women joined the Sisters of Mercy. The last sister joined in 1964, a whole generation ago. But for the women who did become nuns, their lives have been rich. The Sisters of Mercy and their associates are hoping to continue to meet the challenges of nurturing the importance of community-centered life and encouraging relationships with God within the Belizean society. Janelle Chanona for News Five.

There are sixteen thousand religious Sisters of Mercy worldwide. The congregation was founded by an Irish woman Catherine McAuley in 1831.

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