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Sisters Still Standing Up; Speaking Out

The Sisters of Social Service, celebrating their 75-year jubilee, follow the activist vision of their founder to fight poverty and injustice.

November 16, 2002|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

On a bright afternoon earlier this week, two Roman Catholic sisters sat on the stoop of their assisted-living quarters near downtown Los Angeles with spirits as bold as the day they entered religious life -- one of them more than half a century ago.

As Sister Virginia Fabilli, 84, held a poster protesting the possibility of war in Iraq, Sister Christa Salinas, 62, rang a bell as passersby honked and waved.

When a Vietnam veteran stopped to show them his battle scar and voice opposition to war, Salinas clanged her bell noisily and yelled, "You're right! No war! God bless you!"

In other parts of Los Angeles, their fellow Sister Diane Donoghue is pressing for more low-income housing. Sister Maribeth Larkin is organizing neighborhoods of mostly poor immigrants to speak up for their rights. Sister Theresa Marie Chen is arguing on behalf of her mentally ill clients in jails, courts and federal bureaucracies.

In Sacramento, Sister Simone Campbell is directing the first political lobbying organization ever established by a group of California women religious: Jericho, an interfaith coalition that advocates for the needs of the poor in housing, health care and other fields.

More than 75 years after establishing themselves in Los Angeles, the good Sisters of Social Service are still raising Cain.

Today , the sisters will mark the end of their yearlong 75th jubilee celebration with a Mass of Thanksgiving at Our Lady of Grace Church in Encino. A reception will follow at the nearby Holy Spirit Retreat Center, which the sisters operate as a place of spiritual repose that welcomes 12,000 people a year of all faith backgrounds.

Their social and political activism distinguishes the sisters from many of the 125 institutes representing 1,800 women religious in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. But it reflects the bold, reformist vision of their founder, Sister Margaret Slachta, the first woman elected to the Hungarian Parliament.

In 1923, Slachta and a few others split from another religious group and formally established the Sisters of Social Service. At a time when most women religious were cloistered behind convent walls or clustered in hospitals or schools, Slachta's desire to walk the streets to care for the alienated and poor represented a radical notion -- one that has remained the community's driving mission.

"When we see a problem, for better or worse, we tend to jump on it and do something about it," said Sister Deborah Lorentz, 62, a licensed acupuncturist who aims to offer effective but more cost-efficient Eastern medical therapies to the poor. "We tend to attract people willing to stand up and speak out."

Over the years, the sisters pressed for reforms in prison conditions, labor practices and what they saw as other social injustices. During World War II, according to a written history of the group, the sisters sheltered thousands of Jews from the Nazis by dressing them in religious clothing and helping them cross the Hungarian border with Vatican credentials. One of their members, Sister Sara, was killed by the Nazis.

In 1926, Sister Frederica Horvath traveled to Los Angeles to establish the U.S. branch of the organization, which now counts 100 members in the United States, the Philippines, Mexico and Taiwan.

"They are right in the forefront of doing the social work of the church," Sister M. Faith Clarke, archdiocesan vicar for women religious, said of the sisters. "From the very beginning, they've mingled right with the people."

Maria Rivas, 42, is one of countless numbers of people touched by the sisters' work. On a crisp morning this week, the Mexican immigrant picked up two bags of groceries at the Regis House, a community center run by the sisters near UCLA. With that gift of food, three generations of her family -- including daughter Nancy, 20, and her 4-month-old granddaughter Thaily -- will be able to eat for the next week. Rivas, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said she has been looking for work for months to no avail; her husband, who is in Mexico awaiting documents to immigrate, sends money only intermittently, usually $20 or $50 at a time.

"The sisters here are very, very good," Rivas said. "I see them give socks and pants to homeless men and boiled eggs to people on the streets."

The stories of the sisters are as varied as the people they serve. Chen, for instance, is a native of Taiwan whose decision to enter the religious life was prompted by a powerful spiritual moment: Reading the Gospel of John one day, in which Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep and follow him, Chen said she burst into uncontrollable tears and felt God calling her into service. A mental health specialist, Chen helps her patients, who suffer maladies ranging from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder, with what she calls "life management."

One moment, Chen said, she'll be calming a patient suffering from delusions; another moment she might be at the Social Security Administration trying to unravel the red tape regarding a missing payment.

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