Monday, August 18, 2014

Moving to the Country and Slowing Down

Up in Carmen Pampa. Photo by Nate Mortenson
First-year missioner Mary Mortenson talks about her and her husband’s recent move so that they could serve in different ministries at a rural Catholic university.

For those of you who do not know me all that well, I rarely leave a place with all my boxes checked and all my bows tied. Often it's more comparable to a cloud of dust and a panicked frenzy, and I'm usually a bit of an emotional mess.

So in usual fashion, our move from Cochabamba, Bolivia, to Carmen Pampa, Bolivia, was a whirlwind of goodbyes, last minute packing, and attempting to finish a fairly impossible to-do list. (This is the result of TWO eternal optimists "Sure, we'll be able to accomplish that"). When we finally got on the bus headed to our new home, I breathed a sigh of relief, naively assuming that we had "made it."

What I hadn't considered was that our lives were to go from a fairly fast-paced and on-the-go speed of life, to a meandering stroll - and that may take a little getting used to. We were moving from a city of a little over a million people with transportation right out my door and a food market four blocks away, to a teeny-tiny town that I would be surprised if it appeared on any map. It’s a home to around 40 families and, when school is in session, about 800 university students. But when we arrived it was winter vacation, so we were back to 40 families.

Don't worry: Nate and I were not being forced into this. We had visited this quaint little college village three times before we committed to moving. No, really, we were very excited for the slower pace of life in the countryside. We like the energy of the students and the philosophy of the school. After a few conversations with different staff on campus, we could see opportunities to serve that worked for each of us.

We thought it was romantic that the electricity turns off on the regular and adventurous that we would have to take a 30-minute bus ride to purchase our groceries. Plus the fact that the college is nestled into the mountainside with hike of 1,500 feet in-between campuses would be a perfect incentive to get a little exercise in and enjoy the beautiful view every day :)

Honestly, we knew there would be challenges, but we felt that life in Carmen Pampa would bring us more naturally into relationship with a community in a way that seemed harder in a bigger city. Which has proven to be true, but our transition was harder than expected.

When we finally arrived, it felt like there was no one around and that we were in the midst of rainy cloud that lingered for four days as we attempted to clean and dry out our apartment. Because there were no students and the mountain road was so bad from the rain, it was challenging to navigate transportation into Coroico to buy food or anything else.

I remember the second night we were eating the potatoes that the previous residents had graciously left for us that we had eaten for the previous night’s dinner and that day’s lunch , and I just couldn't take another bite and after a long tiring day, I opted for an early 7 p.m. bedtime instead. We can laugh about it now, but we truly were caught off-guard.

It's been almost a month now since we arrived, and country living is suiting us just fine. Well, and the students are back, so that helps. We have made the proper adjustments and preparations for things like the pipes clogging and keeping water from coming out of our faucets. We take our trips to town on Saturday mornings very seriously to accomplish and/or stock up on whatever we need for the week. We factor in a 25-minute sweaty hike to get back to upper campus after we've had meetings or other business. We plan on checking our e-mail once a week instead of several times a day like we did in Cochabamba and doing most of our communication with students and staff on campus in-person or by hand-written notes. And that is why we like this place so much, it really causes us to slow down and enjoy. It suits us.

The most important thing is that we've been reminded that things don't happen at the snap of your fingers. Things take time. As we are learning that lesson, we are also getting to know the students, staff, and other community members. But that takes time, too. We appreciate that although we have been warmly welcomed, students will take their time to develop trust with us. As we work side by side, we will start to understand the gossip and the jokes, and we'll earn the privilege of hearing students' stories.

Right now, I'm hoping that this pace of life will stick around for a bit.


Mary Mortenson is a Minnesotan farm girl who grew up picking strawberries. In college she studied sociology with a minor in outdoor leadership. She has a heart for lonely and isolated people, and enjoys the way food cooked in love brings people together. She and her husband Nate have been in Bolivia with Franciscan Mission Service since January 2014. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Franciscan Feast Day: St. Maximilian Kolbe, martyr of charity


Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, OFM (Conv), who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz during World War II.

"Let us remember that love lives through sacrifice and is nourished by giving."
He was born Raymund Kolbe on January 8th, 1894 in what was then Russian-controlled Poland. His life was strongly influenced by a vision of the Virgin Mary that he had when he was a child. In the vision, the Blessed Mother offered him two crowns: one white, symbolizing a life of purity, and the other red, symbolizing the death of a martyr. When asked which he would prefer, St. Maximilian said he would accept both.

In 1907, St. Maximilian and his brother Francis illegally crossed the border from Poland to Austro-Hungary in order to enroll at the Conventual Franciscan seminary in Lwow (modern-day Lviv, Ukraine.) It was here that he was given the name Maximilian, later adding the name Maria to emphasize his devotion to the Blessed Mother.

Maximilian Kolbe on a West German postage stamp, marked Auschwitz
St. Maximilian was one of the first saints to use modern media---including newspapers, radio, and pamphlets---to spread the Catholic faith and speak out against the atrocities of the Nazi regime. These efforts, combined with his sheltering of Jews during World War II, brought him to the attention of the Nazi authorities, who arrested him in 1941 and sent him to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting the deputy camp commander to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!", St. Maximilian volunteered to take his place.

Stained glass image of Kolbe as a concentration camp prisoner
at the Conventual Franciscan church of Szombathely, Hungary
In his prison cell, Kolbe celebrated Mass each day and sang hymns with the prisoners. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. Soon he was the only man left alive, at which point the guards gave St. Maximilian a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and is the patron saint of prisoners, families, and drug addicts.

Perhaps no other modern saint represents the Franciscan values of "accompaniment" and "solidarity with the marginalized" as well as St. Maximilian Kolbe. May his feast day today serve as a reminder to us of how we can integrate these values into our own lives. St. Maximilian Kolbe, martyr of charity, pray for us!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Franciscan Feast Day: St. Clare, Franciscan co-founder


Today we celebrate the feast of St. Clare, deepest friend of Saint Francis and co-founder of the Franciscan movement.


Sts. Clare and Francis

St. Clare was born in Assisi, the eldest daughter of a noble family. As a child, Clare was devoted to prayer. When she turned 12 her parents wanted her to marry a young and wealthy man, but she preferred to wait until she was 18. However, at the age of 18 she heard St. Francis's preachings which would subsequently change her life. Francis told her that she was chosen by God. Hearing this, her heart burned with a great desire to imitate Francis and to live a poor humble life for Jesus. So one evening, she ran away from home, and in a little chapel outside Assisi, gave herself to God. St. Francis cut off her hair and gave her a rough brown habit to wear, tied with a plain cord around her waist. Her parents tried in every way to make her return home, but Clare simply refused.

Soon her sister St. Agnes joined her, as well as other young women who wanted to imitate Christ in living a life of radical poverty in solidarity with the poor. St. Clare and her sisters wore no shoes, ate no meat, lived in a simple house, and kept silent most of the time.

Fresco of Saint Clare and sisters of her order, church of San Damiano, Assisi

Clare sought to imitate Francis' virtues and way of life so much so that she was sometimes titled alter Franciscus, "another Francis." She also played a significant role in encouraging and aiding Francis, and she took care of him during his illnesses at the end of his life, until his death in 1226.

St. Clare was sick herself and suffered great pains for many years, but she said that no pain could trouble her. So great was her joy in serving the Lord that she once exclaimed: "They say that we are too poor, but can a heart which possesses the infinite God be truly called poor?" In 1263, ten years after her death, Pope Urban IV officially changed the name of the Second Order to the Order of St. Clare, or "Poor Clares."

The wax figure of Saint Clare of Assisi at Basilica of Saint Clare, in Italy

May we take this opportunity today to reflect on how we, like St. Clare, can respond to the Gospel call to live a life of radical simplicity in solidarity with and for the poor. St. Clare, pray for us!

Friday, August 8, 2014

School Raises $5,000 in Support of Alumnae, Lay Missioner

Love of others through charity and justice is a core value at Holy Spirit School in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Holy Spirit students washing each other's feet on Holy Thursday
Each year the parish school selects a social justice focus to encourage students to think beyond the community and act on behalf of those in need. One year they supported Heifer International, another they built a well in Uganda. In supporting one cause all year, principal Dr. Mary Adrian says the school is able to develop a real connection, focus their philanthropic efforts more effectively, and help their students see that they can make a difference.

“They see how important it is as a people and society to be generous with our time, talent, and our money,” she said.

Holy Spirit students
For the 2013-2014 year, the school chose to support the work of one of its own alums: Annemarie Barrett, an FMS lay missioner serving in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In addition to attending the school, Annemarie made all of her sacraments at the adjoining parish, where the Barrett family remains active today.

The year-long, school-wide effort led to a generous collection of $5,000. How did 325 kids, kindergarten through eighth grade, raise so much money?

“It was a really easy, easy thing to do because it is a part of the culture of our school,” said English teacher Deb Townley, who herself donates to FMS on behalf of her former student and dear friend’s daughter. She recommended Annemarie as the school’s project for the year because she thought it would be great if Holy Spirit saw what one of their own was doing to change the world. In addition to fundraising, students have watched videos of Annemarie working in the garden and learned about Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Young Annemarie with her teacher Mrs. Townley
Townley says that the students really took pride in finding different ways to contribute. For instance, the third, fourth, and fifth graders thought to put together jars of muffin ingredients to sell during the holidays.

Three times during the year they had the opportunity to pay $1 to not wear their uniform to school that day. Money also came in through collections at school Masses. About $1,000 came from a collection at the middle school interdisciplinary performance in which students traced the history of media from the ’40s to the present.

The “coin wars” were the kids’ favorite fundraising activity. During the competition, the students took the first five minutes of the day to go around and put money in jars labeled by class. Classes gained points for each penny in their jar, but lost points for any other currency put in their jar by other classes, based on the value of the currency. “They all learned the word ‘sabotage,’ really quickly,” said Dr. Adrian with a chuckle.

Fun competitions aside, the school’s encouragement of leadership, service, and commitment to Catholic Social Teaching has, not surprisingly, produced several alumni who have gone on to volunteer around the world. Dr. Adrian says this fuels Holy Spirit’s desire to continue working with their students to help them understand their Gospel call.
Annnemarie (right) on her First Communion day at Holy Spirit with her second grade teacher Mrs. Gerber
As for Annemarie, she is grateful for the solid foundation the Holy Spirit community gave her and for the support she still receives.

“Both at school and at church I was empowered as a young Catholic lay person to participate in the community,” Annemarie said. “Learning at a young age at Holy Spirit that our Catholic Church is a church of lay leaders, including myself, formed me into the Franciscan lay missioner I am today.”

“Thank you for continuing to embrace me as a part of your community and for your decision to extend your community internationally as well, to now include these resilient families with whom we share work in Cochabamba, Bolivia.”

Friday, August 1, 2014

Welcome, Katie!

Join Franciscan Mission Service in extending a warm welcome to the newest member of our Nonprofit Leadership Program, Event Associate Katie Rotterman!

She's already got her own Tau cross!

A native of Buffalo, New York, Katie graduated in 2013 from the University of Scranton, a Jesuit university in Northeast Pennsylvania, where she majored in Theology and Women’s Studies. She comes to Franciscan Mission Service fresh off a year of service with Capuchin Youth and Family Ministries in the Hudson Valley near New York City, where she helped organize and lead retreats for different Catholic groups.

University of Scranton campus

She heard about Franciscan Mission Service through the Catholic Volunteer Network website, and was instantly attracted to the opportunity to gain some first-hand office experience and learn more about the business side of the nonprofit world. She is also excited to delve deeper into Franciscan spirituality; despite having previously worked for Capuchins, she says that her job was so hands-on in nature and kept her so busy that she never got a chance to learn the historical and theological roots of her work.

Asked what she does in her new-found free time, Katie says with a laugh, “I’m still trying to figure that out!” She enjoys knitting and crocheting and is looking forward to picking up these hobbies again. “I’ve been working on a sweater off-and-on for two years,” she says, “and I have every intention of finishing it this year!” She is also a self-declared devotee of “Doctor Who” and enjoys indulging her “inner nerd” by watching it on Netflix.

David Tennant and Matt Smith, two of the most recent Doctors

Favorite saint: Joan of Arc. “She’s my confirmation saint. I really admire how she went against all the gendered expectations of her time.”

Fun fact: “I worked as a camp counselor for three years and have a vast knowledge of summer camp songs. My favorites are ‘The Titanic’ and ‘Princess Pat.’”


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Invited into Community

Third-year missioner Kitzi Hendricks continues her reflection on community and what it means to  find one when you're away from home. 

“[Neighbor is] not he whom I find in my path, but rather he in whose path I place myself, he whom I approach and actively seek.”—Gustavo Gutiérrez

For the past two years in Cochabamba, I have honestly been a bit lost spiritually. Because my ministry includes working with people who have survived torture, I’ve witnessed a variety of intense experiences and questions continue to arise for me in the midst of the suffering that I see, hear, and share on a daily basis. I´ve been continually searching--searching for a small community that truly calls to me and where I could find a family that would hear me and see me in the midst of my questions and confusion.

In the city, where I serve with my Franciscan family members (who are phenomenal), everything is so big and numbered. Masses can easily have 300 people from all different parts of the city and who are in a rush to their next work task or family event. I felt distracted. I love my Franciscan family, but I prefer to spend time with them at smaller gatherings where I can sit and share and laugh with each person. When we provide meals and celebrations for the homeless and hungry, I have this incredibly opportunity to connect, but not so much at the neighborhood Mass, which is too big and over-stimulating for me. Other church communities felt similar.

So, I sat with the discomfort of feeling lost for a while and I searched...and I prayed…and I waited…

About six months ago, I was invited to a barbecue on a Saturday night at Nueva Vera Cruz in the far southern zone of Cochabamba (one of the poorest areas of Cochabamba), where my boyfriend Fernando lives and serves. After taking two modes of transportation, I arrived to find two Maryknoll priests (Fr. Paul (Pablo) from the US and Fr. Alejandro from Argentina) preparing the grill with Fernando, and accompanying them, a young couple with their 6 month-old baby--Jhovana, Fidel & Sarahí. I was welcomed with hugs and a smile from each of them and then we shared a meal together, talking and sharing with such familiarity.


For this small community, it was a ritual. Every Saturday night, they planned to come together to eat and share time, and after just one evening with them, I was invited to make it my ritual, too. So, I did...and I am so glad that I opened myself up to them because Nueva Vera Cruz is the beautiful small faith community that I have been searching for since arriving in Bolivia. Their invitation six months ago has opened up an incredible space for us, at least once a week, where we can laugh, share experiences, share really amazing food, and, most importantly, share time together.

The other day, I was talking with Fidel about my concerns and fears for the upcoming months and beginning the process of saying goodbye to Bolivia.

He said to me, “Aquí tienes amigos y no te dejarán. No necesitas pedir porque por ser tan buena, te damos todo el cariño del mundo con gusto.”

“You have friends here and they will not leave you. You don’t need to ask because just for being such a good person, we are happy to give you all of the love and care in the world.”


Kitzi Hendricks has been on mission in Bolivia since January 2012. A graduate of Creighton University and a native of California, Kitzi serves at ITEI (Instituto de Terapia e Investagación), an NGO that provides psychological care and accompaniment for persons who have been affected by torture during the dictatorships and political conflicts in Bolivia. She enjoys music and photography.

To support Kitzi's continued mission in Bolivia, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cutting Down Barriers and Stereotypes

Lay missioner Valerie Ellis talks about an experience she had connecting with a woman in a Bolivian prison. 

When I heard that women in jail in Cochabamba earn credits by cutting hair in their peluqueria (hair salon), I knew I had to go. Not only do they have the opportunity to get out of jail sooner, but they also learn a new skill along the way.

I was able to spend several hours there one day with Hady, a fellow FMS missioner. As I was being treated to a shampoo, head massage, and conditioning treatment, I chatted with my hairdresser. I learned that she had three children. She was a beautiful, vibrant twenty-six year old, and was excited because the day before she celebrated her four year old’s birthday with her family. She expressed sadness that she was not able to live with all of her sons, and explained that her family members chip in to care for her other children in her place.



She approached life with a vigor that I am not sure I would share if I were in her situation. She expressed surprise that Hady and I were older than her and did not have children. It seemed that we shared opposite sentiments of remorse, as I was equally surprised to find out her youngest child was four years old, when she was so young and was facing such difficult challenges.

In the middle of my appointment, while the conditioning treatment was setting in, she asked permission to leave for a moment. She shared later that she had gone next door to attend a prayer service where she was baptized!

It was very touching that I was able to share in her experience, but what affected me most was her offer to allow me to watch her youngest son, to take him to the park or wherever I would like, having just met me.

Now, don’t get the idea that it was because we had an amazing bond based on my ability to chat. My Spanish was incredibly poor that day, and I was barely able to answer her questions and communicate my hair request. It made me sad to learn that she would leave her son with me anytime, on the off chance I was a good person.

You might be thinking, “This would only happen in another country.” Please don’t. The same thing happened to me on a much grander scale in the U.S. In Tampa, a co-worker whom I had just met asked me to drive her child cross-country, when she found out I was passing through her state on the way home to Wichita. I spent three days with a 12 year-old I met on the first day of our journey, and at the time I was younger than my new hairdresser friend.

What can I learn about the following Franciscan themes from these experiences, both in my old and new homes?

  • Poverty makes us take risks that we normally wouldn’t take.
  • What kind of simple faith and peace must these mothers have had to leave their most prized possessions, their children, in my care?
  • • What amazing opportunities I had to step out in faith and provide care for creation in unexpected ways.
  • Finally, and most important for me, is social justice. If justice was a reality in the jail system in Bolivia, a young mother would not be put in a position to reach out to the first kind face that came her way. Imagine this scenario: most of the women (and men) in the jail system are there for crimes that they did not commit. The biggest travesty? They sit in jail for years awaiting a trial, before they are even found innocent or guilty.



Valerie Ellis has been in the mission field with Franciscan Mission Service since January 2014. She is originally from outside of Wichita, Kan., and prior to seeking mission life lived in Tampa, Fla. Valerie has travelled internationally for work and pleasure, and designed and taught a class at Hillsborough Community College called “Avoiding Violence: Be a Part of the Solution.” 

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