Year of Mercy: Sister finds mercy in working with children
By Peggy Moraczewski
Salesian Sister Irene Tapia learned her love of missions at a young age while growing up in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and has shared this lifetime passion with Texas children for more than 50 years. The last five years, she has served as director of religious education at Cristo Rey Parish in Austin. The majority of her life, she worked in San Antonio as a teacher and principal at Catholic schools operated by the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco.
As a child, Sister Irene attended catechism classes and was introduced to mission work at the Salesian Oratory in her hometown. The oratory was a part of the community and a place where the children could play, as well as learn. At age 12, Sister Irene was invited to teach catechism classes to the younger children, and she began to feel drawn to life as a religious sister.
Although her father was hesitant to let her go, following her quinceañera, she began formation in Mexico City with the Salesian Sisters.
“I started a beautiful journey of study and formation, along with 62 other young women,” she said.
A half century later, her vocation as a Salesian and her love of teaching, are central to her life. Every Saturday, she welcomes more than 800 children to religious education classes at Cristo Rey Parish. She credits the volunteer catechists and local lay Salesians (Salesian Cooperators) for the huge success of the religious education program.
“It is like I have two right hands, so thanks be to God and thanks to them,” Sister Irene said.
Cristo Rey is not a wealthy parish, but she encourages the children to be generous when they collect items for the parish social ministry. Sister Irene explains to the children, “We don’t have a lot, but all of us have more than other people ... the ones that have no water, no electricity, no house. So, don’t come empty-handed ... bring one thing, but don’t come empty-handed.” She encourages sacrifice and generosity throughout the year, but especially during Lent, when she distributes nearly 1,000 Ashes to Easter boxes every year.
As a visual learner, she understands that children also learn by what they see. She sees the World Mission Rosary as an ideal teaching tool, with the benefit of sharing our Catholic faith with the children. This colorful rosary was created by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1951, and provides a spiritual and visual means for the children to learn about helping others through prayer, while learning about missions across the globe. The World Mission Rosary is a vibrant representation of our world: green beads (Africa), blue beads (Pacific Islands), white beads (Europe), red beads (the Americas) and yellow beads (Asia). Last fall, the catechists at Cristo Rey made a World Mission Rosary out of colorful cupcakes, which was a big hit with the children, she said.
Sister Irene is always energized by the children, especially on holy days and feast days. On the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the sanctuary was covered in roses, except where the priest stood on the altar. “Our people are humble people ... but, their faith is there ... I love to work with them,” she said.
Sister Irene uses feast days to educate the children as well as their parents. On the feast of Christ the King, flags of many nations are flown to make the children aware that Christ is the king of our world. Sister Irene said the Mass was filled with children wearing gold crowns, singing beautifully and praising God. To an outsider it may look like a poster, she said, but “it is the real thing. This is how they pray. This is how they talk to God.”
Sister Irene speaks very softly to the children and they pay attention. In her words, she focuses on the good and does not lose sight of the goal –– heaven. She shares all of her joys and sorrows with Jesus, and the Eucharist is her most precious treasure.
To anyone considering a religious vocation, Sister Irene said, “If you feel God is calling you, have courage, you will never regret it. It is the most fulfilling way of living a life, giving yourself entirely to him and others, and by your way of life leading others to him.”
St. John Bosco founded the Society of St. Francis de Sales, and believed in education founded upon reason, religion and loving kindness. St. Dominic Savio attended a school operated by St. John Bosco. Today, approximately 30,000 Salesian priests, brothers, sisters and novices serve worldwide in education and missionary work. They represent the second largest order in the Catholic Church. To learn more about the Salesian Sisters, visit www.salesiansisterswest.org.
Ashes to Easter boxes distributed to parishes throughout the diocese
The diocesan Mission Office printed 48,000 Ashes to Easter boxes. Members of the diocesan Mission Council with the help of parish volunteers and priest volunteers Fathers Charlie Garza, Ed Karasek, Paul Hudson and Msgr. Tom Frank delivered the purple boxes to parishes throughout the Austin Diocese at the end of January. The boxes will be distributed in parishes beginning on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10.
In 2015, parishes and Catholic schools in the Austin Diocese contributed more than $130,000 to the Ashes to Easter Collection. The funds were then dispersed to lay missionaries Tino Hernandez (St. Francis Medical Mission), Ryan Eckert (Hope for Rio Dulce in Guatemala), John and Kathy Tucker (New Hope for Cambodian Children in Phnom Penh), Katrina and Rudy Villarreal (Friends of Los Niños in Honduras), and to Holy Cross Mission Center for their continued work in Mexico. Diocesan mission projects were also funded. For more information about foreign missions and missionary activity in the Austin Diocese, contact Christina Krueger at (512) 949-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.