As part of Saint Mary’s Lasallian Catholic mission, the university was excited to welcome 40 religious sisters from Latin America to its Winona Campus the week of Nov. 14.

The sisters’ visit was made possible through the U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program, a partnership between Catholic Extension and Saint Mary’s. As a part of the program, the sisters serve as missionaries in underserved Latino communities across the U.S. while also receiving degrees from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

The sisters (42 total) have been enrolled in the university’s Health and Human Services programs online since 2019, with 28 of the students working toward an online bachelor’s program and 14 completing a master’s degree. Once the sisters complete their degrees, they will take their knowledge, and their newfound Lasallian charism back with them to their home countries, where they will lead and nurture their congregations.

Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, this was the first time the sisters were able to visit Saint Mary’s. The group of enthusiastic and friendly women were welcomed with a full week of events.

The sisters completed one class, while also becoming acquainted with students, staff, and faculty. Experiencing Winona Campus life to the fullest, they enjoyed meals in the dining hall, enjoyed a mariachi band, and attended the university’s student musical variety show, Blue Angel. The sisters also celebrated Mass with Father James Burns, IVD, Ph.D, Saint Mary’s president, and the Most Rev. John Quinn, AFSC, D.D., Bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, and visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis.

A fun and useful connection, the sisters interacted with students from Karen Sorvaag’s Advanced Literacy Methods course. During the meeting, the sisters pracited their English conversational skills and learned about Minnesota and the Midwest. The meeting was a kick-off to the spring semester Conversation Partner experience that the Advanced Literacy Methods students will facilitate with volunteers from the U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program. As a part of the experience, students will have the chance to practice a variety of multilingual learning strategies while the sisters will continue to practice their English skills.

The visit also provided these women with an opportunity to learn firsthand about Lasallian traditions and values. Brother Larry Schatz, FSC, provided the sisters with a lesson on the school’s Lasallian heritage, and they also had the opportunity to share dinner with the De La Salle Chrsitian Brothers.

“The sisters were able to identify with the Lasallian charism and values, and now they can carry that on in their mission,” said Robertolino Vargas Guerrero, program director for the initiative. “Leaving Saint Mary’s, they feel more Lasallian.”

While in Minnesota, Catholic Extension also thought it was important for the sisters to visit George Floyd Square, where they prayed and sang in memory of George Floyd. Their visit to the memorial was covered by KSTP-TV and the Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

Those on campus who were able to interact with the sisters say it was rewarding, citing the excitement they felt from the sisters the moment they stepped foot on campus.

“The sisters were very upbeat, positive, and so appreciative of anything we did the whole time. They were just ecstatic of the experience. I think they inspired themselves, and they inspired us because they were so positive and wanted to know about Saint Mary’s and the culture of Minnesota,” said Susan Jarosak, who oversees the academic programs the sisters are enrolled in. “Their visit was the highlight of my year. With COVID-19 and everything else, having all these inspirational women on campus, praying, singing, and dancing, it was wonderful.”

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