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The ‘Mother Teresa of Honduras’

ON THE DAY Franciscan Sister Maria Rosa Leggol got her latest sign from God in 2010, it rained gatos and perros (cats and dogs) — a rare blessing in Honduras’ dry season. Cloud strands wound like headscarves around the mountain pines, and deep puddles pocked the dirt road to the Flor Azul Farm School for Boys, making Sister Maria Rosa and her driver late for the cross-raising. It was no matter at the time: As a School Sister of St. Francis for more than 60 years, she was adept at humility and didn’t expect that something extraordinary was about to happen.

The plan was simply to bless and then mount a homemade cross halfway up the mountain above the farm, one of three sites where her organization, Sociedad Amigos de los Niños (Society of Friends of the Children, or SAN), provides homes, safety, education and job training to impoverished children in Honduras. But the rest of us — U.S. volunteers on an annual mission trip to work and play with the 200-plus kids in SAN’s care — were antsy for her arrival.

Wondrous, fortuitous events follow Sister Maria Rosa around; her life history is chock-full of unexplained phenomena and seemingly divine interventions, like a chapter from Lives of the Saints. She is revered in Honduras as much for her holiness as for her legacy of raising 42,000 Honduran children up from poverty and abuse. Even the Honduran businessman sitting next to me on the plane knew her name and her work: “She is very close with God,” he whispered.

Preparing the Cross

While we waited for Sister Maria Rosa to arrive, we unpacked 100 ham-and-mustard sandwiches we’d made — a picnic lunch for the 50 teenage boys who lived, worked and studied at Flor Azul. Father Chris Wadelton unloaded his vestments with the potato chips and soda. Today’s cross-raising was his brainchild, a celebration of his recent ordination to the priesthood in Indianapolis and his ongoing mentorship with Sister Maria Rosa’s boys at Flor Azul.

After an outdoor blessing ceremony, we planned to walk the 8-foot-tall wooden cross up a switchback trail and mount it on a cement frame built in the shape of the San Damiano Cross, the 12th-century icon that spoke aloud to St. Francis, directing him to repair, renew and rebuild the church.

Though its resting place would overlook Flor Azul’s plantain fields and chicken coops, Father Chris’ cross was well-traveled in its short life. We had spent three days driving it around southcentral Honduras on an autograph tour to each of SAN’s children’s homes, where every child carefully printed his or her name on the wood with colorful Sharpie markers. Beautifully decorated by the time we brought it to Flor Azul, the intersecting two-by-fours looked like a tree engraved with lovebirds’ initials.

When our driver, José Luis, scaled our minibus to toss off the ropes that tied the cross, swaddled in a red tarp, to the roof, boys came running out of dormitories to help. Instinctively reverent, they laid the head, foot and arms of the cross on four folding chairs rather than dropping it onto the wet grass.

The rain slowed a little when Sister Maria Rosa finally arrived from her Tegucigalpa office. Her longtime driver, Sorto, eased the pickup truck over potholes to let his 83-year-old passenger out on level ground. While Sorto lifted her wheelchair from the truck bed, she stepped cautiously into the mob of bouncing teenage boys. Nearly all the kids were taller than she, a round-shouldered nun on short legs plagued by lymphedema and osteomyelitis, a chronic, painful infection of the bones and marrow.
After quick hugs, Sister Maria Rosa sat down in the wheelchair she’s used since her legs deteriorated, and Sorto rolled her over the rocky lawn where Father Chris was briefing the altar girls. We gathered in the wet grass around the cross on chairs and awaited whatever would happen next.

Divine Interventions

If a miracle is an unlikely event attributed to divine intervention, then many people view Sister Maria Rosa’s life as bursting at the seams with works of God.

“Faith just stretches when you sit and listen to Sister Maria Rosa tell her life story,” says Jeanne Hasbrook, an Indianapolis mission volunteer who has traveled to Honduras nine times. “As she follows God’s plan for her, you can see how clearly she is God’s worker and how God sends particular children to her care, just like at the start of Sociedad in the 1960s, when she went to see how children were surviving in the prisons with their jailed mothers and ended up bringing 40 kids home with her, with no beds, no food, no preparation.”

That story is legendary at SAN: After removing the 40 children from the Tegucigalpa prison, Sister Maria Rosa flagged down a city bus to bring them to her already jam-packed homes. Her staff protested, “Where will they sleep? How will we feed them?” Sister Maria Rosa told the staff to smile and welcome the new kids. As the city bus pulled away empty, a furniture truck from a local business arrived with exactly 40 donated beds, followed by a U.S. military truck filled with surplus food — the first time that kind of donation ever came to her organization.

Another time, in 1967, she desperately needed money for down payments on several of her children’s homes. One day before the bills were due, a grateful patient at the hospital where she worked as a nurse tipped her off about a conference at the American Embassy, where she walked into the preliminary meeting for the new John F. Kennedy Latin American Alliance for Progress grants. After hearing her
story, the committee awarded the very first grant to her homes for destitute Honduran children, covering all the down payments.

“I think Sister [Maria Rosa] was born ‘blessed’ to do these extraordinary things in her life,” says Beth Murphy, another Indianapolis missionary who helps provide university scholarships to SAN’s deserving older kids. “She’s always worked on pure faith that she is the extension of God’s hands so, therefore, all things are possible. And so it happens: Regardless of availability, the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter for her children are always met. Somehow she can just bring hundreds of children into her care without a well-laid plan, and time and time again they are provided for.”

Some people label miracles “perceptible interruptions in the laws of nature,” an event that clearly happened with Sister Maria Rosa in 1974. She woke up one night with a strong premonition that she should drive five hours north to check on hundreds of children in 33 of her homes in the city of Choloma near the coast. She arrived at 3 a.m. just as Hurricane Fifi made landfall. She and the adults led children out of houses and up to higher ground. Sister Maria Rosa herself swam around, plucking kids out of the rising floodwaters until all the houses were empty. But then she heard something faint on the wind: a baby’s cry. The others pleaded with her to come to safety, since all the children were out.

“I knew I heard something so I just went; I didn’t think too much,” she tells me in the near-perfect English she learned in the Milwaukee motherhouse of her order. “The Lord was there pushing me and thinking for me and doing for me. I just listened to the voice.”

At the second-to-last house, she felt an urge to swim inside, ducking through a submerged doorway. She saw a mattress floating above her with a tiny hand dangling off the side — a sleeping baby who had never made a sound. Struggling to maneuver the mattress out of the house without startling the baby into movement, she swam herself and the sleeping child to safety.

“I was there with her that night, and she’s the only one who heard that baby,” says Sonia Erazo, director of SAN’s Pedro Atala homes in Tegucigalpa. “I have been with Sister [Maria Rosa] so many years and I have seen God help her in so many ways, but this was extraordinary.”

Seven thousand people died in Choloma as Hurricane Fifi buried the city in water, sand and mud. But not one hair on the heads of Sister Maria Rosa’s children was harmed.

Carrying Her Cross

At Flor Azul, the cross-blessing ceremony began with a song, “Pescador de Hombres” (“Lord, When You Came to the Seashore”). Sister Maria Rosa was in high spirits, her lilting soprano rising above the boys’ buzzy mumbles. Father Chris gave his homily as the rain started again in earnest, soaking his Spanish translation.

“Do you know why this cross has no body on it, like a crucifix in a church does?” he asked the boys in Spanish. “It’s because we are the body of Christ. We are Christ’s eyes and ears; our hands are his hands and our feet are his feet — to continue the work he did in this world. So when we sign our names to this cross, we are accepting that we are the body of Christ right here, right now.”

We distributed Sharpies and the boys huddled over the cross to inscribe their names. But the markers wouldn’t write on the wet wood. A few kids fetched the red tarp wrapping and raised it high to shield the cross from raindrops. The wood was already soaked, however, and we realized we would have to lug the cross indoors and dry it off to write on it.

“Let me carry it. I want to carry it!”

The appeal came from the unlikeliest person there: Sister Maria Rosa. Eighty-three years old. In a wheelchair.

“I want to try,” she insisted. “I want to feel a little of what Our Lord felt, walking to Calvary.”

All the adults (and some kids) were alarmed: How could she stand on those weak, painwracked legs and carry the weight of that large cross?

“There was no question that she couldn’t lift that big cross,” says Murphy. “But there is no arguing with Sister [Maria Rosa] when she has her mind made up. She didn’t show any strain or stress or fear that she couldn’t do it. I think she was certain that knowing and feeling the weight of that cross would help her to understand more deeply her life’s mission: to carry a cross for all those children she cares for every day.”

“You all put away your cameras,” Sister Maria Rosa ordered us. “I mean it. This is between me and God, and God has the biggest camera anyway.”

She pushed herself up from the wheelchair. Four boys lifted the cross chest-high, and she stepped into the crook where the two beams intersected. She tried to shoulder the cross, but the anxious teens hesitated to let her take on the full weight. So she cradled one side of the cross in her arms, and the boys kept stubborn hold of the foot, the head and the opposite side. The crossbearers took tiny steps while other kids held the red tarp high above, casting a pink alpenglow over the procession.

The rain was pouring buckets now, but we were rooted to the spot, watching Sister Maria Rosa encounter her Lord on her own terms. She shuffled, the boys matching her pace, some 60 feet over rocks and muddy grass. At the steps to the dining-hall porch, Sorto approached her with the wheelchair, but she waved it off. With great effort and care, she lifted her corner of the cross up the uneven steps, tilted it with the boys to turn it around a corner and through a doorway and laid it gently on a table inside the dining hall.

We all crowded into the room behind her, huffing with relief. Towels flew while we wiped dripping heads, arms and the cross. Sister Maria Rosa was exultant, announcing to the boys over the crying hugs of her adult children, “See?! The Lord never gives us a cross too difficult to carry.”

When we all calmed down, Father Chris finished blessing the cross and the boys signed the drier wood. Sister Maria Rosa headed back to Tegucigalpa for lunch and rest, and her Flor Azul boys gave her a running send-off down the dirt road.

After this surprising act, our last task — raising the cross onto its frame — might have felt anticlimactic if it weren’t for another wondrous work of God: bright sunshine in the midst of rain. The downpour turned to mist as we carried the cross up to its mount.

Father Chris and the altar girls led a procession up the switchback trail and the rest of us took turns, six or eight at a time, carrying the cross above our heads. The youngest boys made a game of jumping up to slap the underside of the beams, and we all crooned Honduran songs of praise. When we reached the site, a young man named Hector, raised at Flor Azul but now at a university in Tegucigalpa, climbed up the cement frame, straddled it and guided the top of the cross onto poles jutting out of the frame. He banged the cross onto the rebar with his fists — a pounding reminiscent of nails on another cross. Just then, the sun breached the clouds and gleamed on our upturned faces.

Father Chris prayed before his cross and we snapped photos for a while. The rain fell hard again as soon as we started back down the mountain, but all our pictures at the cross site show sunlight cascading down.

Collaboration With God

Chatter about Sister Maria Rosa carrying the cross on ailing legs filled the rest of our mission trip.

“When I’m with her and I see things like that, I can easily imagine all the saints throughout history and the characters of the Bible — that they were just ordinary people whom God chose to do his work,” says Hasbrook. “I think Sister Maria Rosa is just like those saints must have been: a regular person, but willing, trusting, steady and faith-filled. Like them, she simply gives herself to God and whatever he asks.”

Sister Maria Rosa’s feat of walking under an impossible load, however, wasn’t the only work of God made manifest that week. A day after the cross-raising, I asked her how her legs were feeling. For years her leg pain and muscle cramps had been especially severe at night, waking her and sometimes requiring forceful massages.

“I slept the whole night without waking once!” she announced with surprise. “This is the first night in many months that I haven’t had terrible hurting in my legs.”

Adrenaline had masked the pain, I figured. Her legs would eventually feel the aching repercussions of yesterday. So the next day I asked her again: still no leg pain. “It’s really so strange. I haven’t slept so well and felt so good in a very long time,” she said. Day three: no leg pain, no night cramps again. Was she somehow cured of her osteomyelitis?

No, as it turns out, but it was certainly a remission. Back home in the States a month later, I received an email from Sister Maria Rosa thanking me for a photo album I had sent. “My legs are back to their old ways, painful as ever,” she wrote. “So this is my own cross — but carrying it is never as painful as what Our Lord had to endure.”

Her typical humility aside, I can’t think of that cross-raising as anything but another of her collaborations with God: Sister Maria Rosa carried her Lord’s cross, if only for 60 feet, and so he carried hers, if only for a few days.

Sociedad Amigos de los Ninos

WIDELY KNOWN AS the “Mother Teresa of Honduras,” Sister Maria Rosa Leggol, OSF, founded Sociedad Amigos de los Niños (SAN) in 1966 to relieve the suffering and uphold the human dignity of Honduran children and women subject to abuse and abandonment in the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

An orphan herself, she has rescued, raised and educated some 42,000 Honduran children at risk — children like a 10-year-old girl and two younger siblings, starving with destitute grandparents after their father killed their mother in a drunken rage.

SAN is a labor of love and agent of social change, empowering vulnerable youth to lead self-sufficient lives as adults through its children’s homes, health care and counseling, schools and scholarships, vocational training centers and micro-businesses.

Today SAN’s projects include:

* 14 small-group family-style children’s homes with housemothers for 60 at-risk children in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and 120 children in Nuevo Paraiso, a rural village established by SAN in 1989.

* Three schools in Nuevo Paraiso and the R
yes Irene Vocational Training Center in Tegucigalpa, attended by 500 young women — mostly underpaid domestic child laborers — who come on their days off work to complete primary and secondary education and get vocational training in health care, computers, textiles, hair design and other businesses.

* Micro-businesses, often run by SAN’s grown children, including two guesthouses, a brick factory, carpentry shop, bakery, dining hall, plantain chip factory, Internet cafe and convenience store.

* Hospital Santa Rosa de Lima, a primary-care facility serving a regional population of 250,000 with general practice, dental and lab services, 40 inpatient beds and ambulance service.

* The Flor Azul Youth Farm, where 50 teenage boys live, study agriculture and business and raise chickens, tilapia and crops.

* Medical and construction brigades composed of nearly 100 groups of foreign professionals annually who bring resources and expertise to SAN and nearby rural villages.