I had never been to New Mexico, and when my fellow Ursuline Sister Michele began planning a trip home to visit her relatives, I jumped at the chance to visit the Land of Enchantment for the first time. In late August, we left Kansas City, Missouri, where we minister, for a two-day drive to Aztec, in the "Four Corners" area of the state (where the state lines of Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico come together). There, we were going to stay with our Ursuline Sr. Sara Marie Gomez, and visit Michele's cousins.
Little did I know that our trip would include a miraculous, Spirit-led adventure for me.
Sister Sara Marie wanted to take us on a picnic out to the Gomez family ranch near Gobernador (listed as a New Mexico ghost town). But first, we decided to stop to visit the sisters at a Benedictine convent near the Gomez ranch.
Founded in the Southwest in 1990, the Benedictines had been pilgrims in search of a permanent home until a ranch family gave them 40 acres in the Gobernador area. Since 2009, they have been building their Monastery of Our Lady of the Desert, little by little, out in the middle of the sagebrush, piñon and juniper trees. Sister Sara has "adopted" them, and wanted to show off their new guest/retreat house, meeting room and gift shop.
When we got to the monastery, things were quiet, and nobody was around. Sara went to the chapel looking for her friend, the superior, but I started wandering around. I went around a corner into a garden area and saw a sister with her back to me. She was using a little spade, clearing a place to plant something. She was wearing a long habit, veil, and one of those cone-shaped straw hats you see in pictures of Asian women working in rice paddies.
Since this was New Mexico, I called in Spanish, "Hermana, Hermana" ("Sister, Sister"), but got no response. I said, "Hello," and she turned to look at me. When I said, "I'm Sister Angela," she let out the biggest yell. "Sister Angela! Sister Angela!"
I looked at her; she looked at me and said, "St. Gabriel! Father Dennis! Sister Angela! I am Le Doan!"
It clicked. She had been a young single mother with four boys who came from Vietnam to St. Gabriel Parish in Kansas City, when I was there 30 years before. I was a pastoral associate at St. Gabriel from 1986 to 1996. We helped her get adjusted to the United States and made sure her boys received an education at St. Gabriel School. She was always very devout, and came to Mass every day.
I started yelling; we hugged and kissed. By this time, there was a collection of three Benedictines and two Ursulines out in the front, and they were startled by the screams — no, shrieks — from our garden around the corner.
Le Doan's name is now Sister Agnes. Her children are all grown, and she's been a temporary professed Benedictine sister for three years. Now she needs to decide if she will make her permanent vows. So, I have her in my prayers.
The community is somewhat cloistered, and if I hadn't gone around the back and made contact with her, she would not have been allowed to come out in the front and meet with us. It was such a shock and a wonderful surprise.
We didn't get a chance to visit very long — maybe 20 minutes. It was just a miracle that we connected again. She plants some of the flowers there, and gave me a lavender sachet she made.
Meanwhile, my companion was having a conversation with the sisters' new chaplain, a priest from St. Benedict's Abbey in South Africa. When he learned that Michele had been a college teacher, he introduced her to another Benedictine sister, who was trying to find a place to complete a degree online.
It just so happens that our Ursuline-founded college in Kentucky has an online program. A conversation led to the exchange of email addresses. Long story short: Sister-scholar is getting financial aid from Brescia University in Kentucky, and will be completing her online requirements in the high Southwest desert of New Mexico.
Everyone agreed that it was ordained that we would come that day — tell us it's not a small world!
I get goosebumps every time I tell someone about this. This was a Spirit-led adventure.
[Sr. Angela Fitzpatrick was a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Paola, Kansas, before her congregation merged with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph in Kentucky. She founded "Dial-A-Ride" for transportation for the elderly, was one of the founding members of Network, and worked at the 8th Day Center for Justice in Chicago.]