October 29, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – In 26 years of mission work in three countries, Sister Maurine Barzantni has experienced a variety of cultures, languages, and life situations. But in all of those situations, she found people who struggled for a better life for their children and who showed incredible generosity and hospitality to visitors.
Sister Maurine’s service in the missions began in 1990 in the Dominican Republic, where she and the late Sister Renee Richie, OP, worked for 10 years with the people of Sección San José de Arroyo Hondo. The Sisters worked with the people of this small barrio, or village, listening to their needs and helping them to fulfill those needs.
During that time, the people were able to establish a health clinic, pharmacy, and school. Espiritu Santo School, part of Fe y Alegría, a Jesuit system of schools, grew from a few children learning under a tree to a school of 1,500 students from kindergarten through high school. Espiritu Santo recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“I think of my experience in the Dominican Republic as a community organizing venture, and out of that community organizing came health services and then the school,” Sister Maurine said. “We never dreamt of starting a school. It came out of the development of the community.”
After leaving the Dominican Republic in 2010, Sisters Maurine and Renee – along with Sisters Kathryn Cliatt, OP, and Christa Marsik, OP – began their ministry at St. Clare Girls’ Centre in Meru, Kenya. The orphanage takes in girls who have been orphaned and those who seek safety from dangers such as being sold as child brides.
“The community made a commitment of four Sisters for three years to be grandmothers to 250 orphaned girls,” Sister Maurine said. Each of the Sisters also offered her own focus. Sister Maurine offered the girls the opportunity to do painting and drawing. “It started out being just an invitation, but the teachers asked that it be part of the curriculum,” she said.
From 2013 to 2016, Sisters Maurine and Renee were invited to serve in Northern British Columbia, Canada, to offer their presence to indigenous people, members of the Carrier Nation, on four reservations. They served as pastoral assistants to Father Fran Salmon, OMI, Pastor of Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Fort St. James.
“The Carrier Nation not only survived, but had a vibrant community because they worked together,” Sister Maurine recalled. “They didn’t lose their traditional values and traditional way of life. They taught their children how to fish, hunt, trap, and prepare food for the winter season. They preserved their Carrier language and all that kept them united as a community.”
Sister Maurine said she has seen a similar spirit wherever she has ministered. “People who struggle for survival have incredible skills for living together, building solidarity in a community, because they need each other to survive,” she said. “People who struggle for survival also have a deep trust in the presence of the Divine.”
Sister Maurine also recalled the “generous hospitality” that she found in every place where she ministered. She gave the example of the Dominican Republic, where the small community was often visited by high school, college, and medical groups. “The people who had nothing, living in small, small houses without any conveniences, would welcome the visitors with big smiles and would say to us, ‘How is it that they would want to visit us?’ They felt that the presence of visitors was a gift to them.”
She acknowledged the challenges inherent in missionary work – differences in language and “accustoming oneself to a whole different environment.” Still, Sister Maurine said she loved every place she served. “Just the welcoming by the people and the appreciation and willingness of the people to really work for and struggle for a better life for their children” brought her joy, she said.
Her involvement in missionary work always came through an invitation, Sister Maurine said. “Invitation is the strongest vehicle for a calling,” she said. “We call it a vocation in the religious community, but a vocation is a calling. From my earliest years, I was always drawn to the poorest communities,” even in the U.S. cities, she said.
Sister Maurine has advice for anyone who is interested in serving in the missions. “Just say ‘yes’ and be very patient with yourself. Be present. Don’t try to do anything. The people will tell you what they need and sometimes you can help them achieve those goals – and sometimes you can’t. Even if you can’t, your presence is still valuable.”
Feature photo (top): From left, Sisters Kathryn Cliatt, OP, Maurine Barzantni, OP, the late Renee Richie, OP, and Christa Marsik, OP, at their home in Meru, Kenya, circa 2010.