ALLOUEZ — One of the hardest things about the COVID-19 pandemic for Sr. Guadalupe Munoz may be the physical separation it causes. Anyone who knows Sr. Guadalupe knows that she loves to give and receive hugs — from her colleagues at the Diocese of Green Bay where she has served in Hispanic ministry with Catholic Charities for 20 years, from her Our Lady of Charity (OLC) community and from the many people in Green Bay and beyond that she has helped over the years.
“I could get a hug all the time,” she said of her years at Catholic Charities during a phone interview with The Compass from El Paso, Texas. “I miss those hugs, I don’t get them here. … I could get 15 hugs a day, sometimes more. Not being able to give hugs — that is not human.”
COVID-19 also forced her to not be able to return to Green Bay and to retire early from Catholic Charities.
“Actually, I didn’t want to retire yet,” she said. “I wasn’t planning to do that yet, maybe two to five years (more), except, when I came home for my father’s funeral and the coronavirus was very, very strong, I was told by my doctor not to travel because of my past illness. … According to (the doctor), my immune system is still very low and it would be dangerous for me to travel at this time.”
Over a year ago, Sr. Guadalupe contracted meningitis and is still recovering. She had recuperated enough to be able to return to her hometown of Ignascio Zaragoza in Chihuahua, Mexico, to see her father, Eduardo, before he died. She arrived on March 7 and Eduardo died the next day. Sr. Guadalupe was able to return to nearby El Paso before it became too dangerous to travel farther.
However, having to stay at the OLC El Paso community was also, in a way, like coming home.
When she was a child in Ignascio Zaragoza, two OLC sisters from El Paso came to town. Other religious sisters had visited over the years, but there was something different now.
“These two looked just so full of life and cheerful,” Sr. Guadalupe said, “and they cared (enough) to spend a lot of time with us and with our family.”
Sr. Guadalupe, then known as Hortencia and serving as a catechist, thought these sisters were so “cheerful and full of life” that she wanted the same happiness too.
She spent a year with the El Paso community, taking the religious name of “Guadalupe” in honor of her home parish (Our Lady of Guadalupe). She also spent formation and ministry time in Mexico, New York, California, Florida and, for her novice year, Green Bay. She returned to Green Bay in 1990, in charge of associates for her community.
“I was here for about a year,” she said. “Then I was sent to St. Cecilia Parish in Wisconsin Dells for four years.”
Her ministry with migrant workers in Wautoma — one summer in the 1980s, coordinated with the dioceses of La Crosse, Madison and Green Bay — also helped establish local connections.
When Sr. Guadalupe came to Green Bay again, it was to start an outreach program for the Hispanic community with Catholic Charities. The job entailed translation, acting as an interpreter for schools, police and courts and visits to those in hospitals. It also entailed working with funeral homes.
“There was a lot of need in the beginning,” Sr. Guadalupe said, “(in) being there at the funeral homes. I learned to pack bodies. … I helped the family and the workers to pack the bodies to be sent home.”
Not only did she have an office at the diocese, but one at the New Community Shelter, where she volunteered, and another at St. Willebrord Parish. Her cell phone was yet another office.
“I would get calls (at all hours),” she said. “The first five to 10 years, it was all emergencies, mostly.”
For example, there was the mother planning to commit suicide. Sr. Guadalupe got the call and found the woman with a rope to hang herself on the bed and a baby crying in a nearby crib.
“I held her physically for about an hour. She was so out of herself,” Sr. Guadalupe said.
She stayed until the husband came home. Later, she worked with the couple for some time. Today, the family has three more children.
She credits Norbertine Fr. Bill Ribbens, who volunteered for Catholic Charities for many years, with helping her in her work. He was there to help when 5-year-old Maria was dying of cystic fibrosis.
“Fr. Bill and I would visit the family (in the hospital) every day,” Sr. Guadalupe said. “He brought the mother Communion — he came almost every day. Maria was a month in a coma. The mother called me when she died at 1 a.m. We went to the hospital for hours.”
As time went on and more parishes, schools and even the legal system, hired bilingual staff, the emergency calls dwindled.
“My job moved from running all over, to being at the office and listening to people,” Sr. Guadalupe said. “For five or more years, all I did was listen to people.”
She also helped start Hispanic support groups — for men, for women, for inmates. She had a support group in the Brown County jail until she became ill.
“It was my time, working with the prisoners, with the inmates,” Sr. Guadalupe said when asked about the best part of her ministry. “That was the highlight of my week, being with them. … They would pour out their hearts to the group.”
“In general,” she added, “the people I worked with had such faith. They were all Hispanics. And they were mostly young men from 18-30 years old. … I saw them as very honest and just like little kids, so scared, so afraid … But in six or eight weeks, once we set the rules, they felt so good and so safe they would trust you with whatever they did.”
She remembers one inmate whose baby had died and he wanted to attend the burial.
“Fr. Ribbens went to the judge to ask permission for him to come to the burial. They brought him in chains, the police, and he was there to say goodbye to his baby.”
As Sr. Guadalupe ends her time in Green Bay, she expresses gratitude for everyone she has met and worked with, including her colleagues and Bishop David Ricken. She wants them to know “how grateful I am for having had that opportunity to work among all of you. My ministry with the people was just so wonderful, so life-giving, but also working among all of you, it was a delight.”