For more than three decades, the life of Diocese of Oakland has been enhanced and enlivened by the ministry of SPRED — Special Religious Education Department — which has brought people with intellectual disabilities into the life of their parishes.
Sister Aurora's inspiration was her own brother, Morrie, and her family. She grew up in East Los Angeles.
Tell us about your brother
Going to church
I would sit next to my brother. Morrie wasn't too interested but he did fine. He could join in, but he didn't receive First Communion until I entered the convent. We always prayed at night. He loved the stories about Jesus on TV, at Christmas and Easter.
On parents organizing events
My family, like others at that time, belonged to different parents' groups to help make life easier. I remember my mom organizing the mothers so my brother, and others, wouldn't have to sit on the floor on the bus. He didn't start school till he was in ninth grade. They didn't have room. My mom and dad, in their own way, were leaders. Special Olympics, bowling and birthday parties were other ways to socialize with other kids.
Morrie sealed a deal
When I entered, my brother would come up to visit me. I was negotiating with the Sacred Heart parish council to rent space there. It so happened it was the same day he flew in. My brother liked to dress up. He was in a three-piece suit. I gave my presentation to the parish council, and he went around the room shaking their hands, and giving them peanuts. They did vote, and I credit him.
On losing Morrie
It was heartache when he died at 50, but I know he's a saint and he's not in any pain. And I pray to him to goad God for certain things. When he wanted something, he was persistent.
Some say you are persistent
My mom would call me stubborn. But I would remind myself the Jesuits said I had tenacity. That has paid off during the years, and a sense of humor, when I get too serious.
On her vocation
Thank God for my community. I joined the Sisters of the Holy Family because of their call as religious educators. Ever since I was in eighth grade, I wanted to be a catechist.
Coming to Oakland
At that time I was living in Hanford, below Fresno, as a parish sister, a director of religious education. My community knew that I always had this special interest. They told me about the position and I was asked to go to Concord House, to the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis. I was very nervous. I hadn't been interviewed since before I entered. I remember wearing white, my veil and a great big medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe that my grandmother gave me. They asked me if that was my community's medal. I said, no …. The sisters were visionaries. Bishop Begin brought them from Cleveland. They started the Department of Services to the Retarded, which you would never name your department today. They needed a coordinator for religious nurture. The two sisters were asking me all kinds of questions — what would I like to do, besides religious education.
Was this your first opportunity
Always on the side, as a parish sister, you would have one or two adults, with Down syndrome, who had never received Eucharist. I prepared them. I went by my intuition.
You wanted a retreat
It started at our motherhouse. We slept on the floor. We were all young. I was young.
We are in our 36th year. In the motherhouse, every room was taken with sisters. I wanted an overnight retreat. We slept on the floor. There must have been 30 of us.
The retreat symbol
Being Hispanic, I picked the rose — the beauty of the rose and the thorns, that's life. At our motherhouse we have roses galore, except I forgot they get pruned in March, so I came around the corner on the day and there were no more roses. In those days I didn't have any money. I had to change it there. I had to improvise. Sure enough, it was joy. It was a lot of work. The sisters were open, we ate in the refectory, the parents joined us for Mass and dinner at the close on Sunday.
The next year, we had so many more. Eventually, we went to 27 years at San Damiano. That's the graciousness of the Franciscans: We are treated like kings and queens. It's a real retreat. We're quiet, we meditate, we have our prayer sessions.
You're not someone people say no to…
That's another gift I don't take credit for, that God gave me. I can see the potential, maybe that's the influence of my brother, other people would look at him and box him in and my parents didn't do that. I didn't either. We all have potential. Each of us has different gifts to offer. In SPRED, you work as a team, five or six of seven catechists together. We have a great program we can share, thanks to Chicago.
How did SPRED start
When I was hired here, I found their newsletter. This is what I want. This is what I need. My supervisor sent me to a national conference. I was exposed to one of their founders, Sister Mary Therese Harrington, and she invited me to come and see.
After two years of working in the diocese, I resigned because I knew that we needed more and I had discovered Chicago Method Vivre — French for life — it was beginning the network of SPRED. There's 30-some or more in North America, and in Europe, Australia and Africa. They were recognized with the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal.
The catechists … that's why God called me to Holy Family … I work with volunteers, beautiful people who give at least three hours a week during the SPRED year, from September to May.
I was more than convinced. I kept reading the newspapers, correspondence back and forth. That's when I decided to resign, so I could go to Chicago. I wrote up a grant. I was free to go to any diocese after that. I like the Oakland diocese. They hired me back, and I brought the program, the Method Vivre. Thanks to SPRED Chicago, I am constantly learning, that's part of the role of the coordinator, for me to be trained in this method. If you know how to use the tool, it works. The spirit works among the catechists and friends.
Catechist and friend
There's education that's going on, but not the education we're used to, in classrooms and books. Some of our friends can read, but a very small percentage. Their basic way of learning is through relationships, through environment, through community.
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