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Farewell to a Fearless Force

Faith: Watts says goodbye to a nun credited with transforming a neighborhood.

May 27, 1999|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As friends heaped praise on her Wednesday morning, the last nun in the neighborhood sat in unaccustomed silence at the foot of the altar of San Miguel Roman Catholic Church in Watts.

Sister Maria Luz Hernandez looked anxious as a penitent.

Had she not spent so many years telling children to sit still, she might have squirmed. But although the praise was indeed embarrassing, the discomfort owed at least as much to not being in charge.

Since the day she first blew into Watts a decade ago, a force of nature disguised as an Augustinian missionary, there has been no doubt who would run the neighborhood around San Miguel.

"She has single-handedly changed that neighborhood," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Joe Hamilton. Outside the church, he pointed down the street.

"There were drug dealers in that house. And that one," he said. "There was a murder in that store. The murderer hid out in the church. That's all gone now. They've eradicated the gangs here."

Police think so highly of Sister Maria that they were the ones who sponsored the Mass on Wednesday in her honor.

Augustinian Recollect sisters have had a convent at San Miguel for 30 years. Sister Maria will be the last nun to reside there. Her predecessors had fled in fear, and when she goes, there will be no one to replace her. The convent will close. The school they founded will continue with lay teachers and one nun who will live elsewhere.

The Augustinians are a small group based in Spain and, like most other orders of nuns, are shrinking with age and retirement. Those who leave are not being replaced.

According to the most recent numbers available, there were 85,412 sisters in the United States in 1998, about half the number in the 1960s, when the ranks of nuns reached their peak.

Sister Maria's retirement--at age 75, she's moving back home to Kansas, where she will tend to the needs of the elderly--will be keenly felt.

Police will maintain the small LAPD substation that Sister Maria set up in the convent's two front rooms. But they will lose her energy and most of all, they say, the respect she has in the neighborhood.

It was that respect, said Officer Gerry Davila, that allowed her to go into brothels and drag teenage girls out, to knock on the doors of crack houses and demand that a son or daughter of one of her flock come home.

"I'm tough with them," she said. "I say, 'Who feeds you? Who clothes you? Your parents. Now come home.' "

Sister Maria is one of the last of her small order who still wears the full habit, including headpiece and veil. Who knows what thoughts went through the minds of gangbangers when confronted by the 5-foot-2 woman in full Augustinian Recollect Lady of Our Consolation regalia?

She swears she was truly frightened only once, when her life had been threatened. And for a day she wore a bulletproof vest beneath her robes. But only for a day.

"If you're doing God's work," she said, "God protects you."

She credits the neighborhood's recovery not to herself, but the police. All she did, she said, was help make them a strong presence in the area by giving them a place in the neighborhood to rest, eat lunch or have a soft drink.

"When I got here it was bang-bang pretty much all the time," she said. "Every night you could hear gunshots. It used to be every five or 10 minutes the helicopters would fly over looking for something. The reason it's clear now is because of the work these police officers did.

"Today is not for me," she said. "Today is LAPD Day in Watts."

Like a Little Teakettle on Wheels

True to her nature, while a lunch was served in her honor after Mass, Sister Maria spent much of the time in the convent hunting for a pack of holy cards she had promised to pass out to the two dozen police officers in attendance. She never did find the cards, and she reluctantly gave up the hunt to go join her guests at lunch at the school cafeteria. Walking quickly, her long robes obscuring any means of locomotion, she looked like a little teakettle on wheels, gliding across the ground.

Of course, before she got to the lunchroom, she had to stop at the cafeteria kitchen to instruct the women there on the proper preparation of everything.

One woman looked at her, smiled and shrugged and, as the nun walked away, wiped a tear from her eye. The sister never did eat lunch. She was too busy turning her thank you remarks into a fund-raising speech for the school and arranging for the program's entertainment by a kindergarten choir.

Sister Maria was born in Topeka, Kan., where her grandfather settled after emigrating from Mexico to work on the railroad. She spent most of her 45-year career in Colombia and Spain.

Spain, she said, got kind of boring, and in the 1970s she requested a transfer to the United States, where she could serve in inner cities. She worked in Newark, N.J., where gang problems were of a different sort--the Mafia.

"They were good Catholics," she said. "They just didn't know another way to make a living."

She's retiring--hanging up her badge, as her brother puts it-- because she is finally growing tired. She'll rejoin family in Kansas, write poetry and read--what else?--crime novels.

"I'll tell you," Sgt. Hamilton said. "She's breaking our hearts a little bit."

Despite Sister Maria's tough talk, she is soft enough to make a few of the cops gathered for the Mass dampen around the eyes. Some joked that those were tears of happiness, because the sister could be so relentless in her requests.

"When you got her on the horn, she wouldn't let go," Hamilton said.

She had to be demanding, Sister Maria said, because the neighborhood was in such perilous condition.

It's better now, and her work is done there, she said. It's time to go.

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