Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sister Mary Robert Otero

(Courtesy: Loretto Archives)
After a lot of searching, I finally discovered some details of the life of Sister Mary Robert, my Grandpa Louie’s aunt on the Otero side of the family.

I thought it would be easy to at least find an obituary for a Catholic nun. But when I struck out, I turned to a handful of friends – a reporter in Las Cruces, an editor in Santa Fe and an archivist who usually finds things that I can’t find on my own. Still, no luck.

Eventually I went back to read historical information about the Loretto Sisters, knowing that my great-grandmother, also an Otero, and my great-Aunt, got their schooling from the Loretto Sisters in Santa Fe. I finally decided to simply call the Loretto community in El Paso, where I knew she spent much, if not most of her life. Someone in El Paso suggested I contact the archives at the Loretto Mother House in Kentucky. And bingo.

It turns out that Sister Mary Robert devoted 60 years of service to the El Paso Loretto community. The community celebrated her six decades of service in September 1984; a few months later, in April 1985, Sister Mary Robert passed away at the nursing home run by the Loretto Sisters, called Nazareth Hall.
Sister Mary Robert at the Loretto Sisters Community in El Paso, TX (Courtesy: Loretto Archives)
Sister Mary Robert was born Eloisa Otero in Cubero, NM on March 27, 1902. I had previously learned, and the Loretto Sisters records confirm, that Eloisa was the daughter of Miguel Otero and Maria Guadalupe Jaramillo. But her parents died when she was a child, and she was raised for a few years with her Uncle Melquiades Otero (my twice-great grandfather.) So, while she was my great grandmother Eliza’s cousin, they were probably more like sisters.

Eloisa took her first vows on April 26, 1924 when she was 22 years old, and from then on, she went by Sister Mary Robert. According to a feature article about her life in 1986, Sister Mary had prayed to be missioned to some small house. Rather, her first and only assignment was to El Paso.
Sister Mary Robert
My mom had told me she always remembered Sister Mary being with a friend named Sister Casianita when they visited Albuquerque. Sister Casianita Heaton used to joke, according to those who interviewed her, that Sister Mary Robert always waited for her next assignment. “Yes, Robert has been here all these years – waiting for further orders,” sister Casianita said.

Sister Mary Robert described her first impression of El Paso as “a pile of sand,” probably not unlike her home village of Cubero. “We had the academy building, but that was all, and the chapel there wasn’t quite finished when I came. We used the present community room and also a study hall for a chapel.”

Sister Mary Robert spent much of her time in El Paso caring for the boarders’ dining room, according to the article about her. She eventually took over the sisters’ dining room when the academy closed.

Sister Mary Robert recalled in the article how she was “taught the ropes” by Sister Carmen, and she was initiated in the kitchen by Sister Petra. Later, she learned from Sister Felician Goebel how to “make favors, centerpieces, and to create the other special effects for graduation dinners and similar festive events.”

“A group of us once had a party in the cupola of the academy building,” Mary Robert recalled. “I don’t remember much about it except that we took a big pot of coffee all the way up there!”

When asked for an article about the number of girls for whom she provided the touches of home in the boarding school, Sister Mary Robert only smiled, saying that she had just done her job.

For the 1984 ceremony that celebrated her 60 years of service to the El Paso Loretto community, at each table rested a small cardboard shoe, filled with mints. According to the article that described the ceremony, the shoes “symbolized the thousands, perhaps millions, of steps Sister Mary Robert had walked in her six decades of work in the Loretto, El Paso, dining rooms. The sisters surprised her with liturgy and festive dinner – with roses from the garden, special songs, dining room decorations, a scroll of tributes, and Mary Robert’s favorite dishes on the menu.”


My Gallegos cousins from Arizona recently shared some great photos with me. Not only were the photos new to me, they surprised my Dad, as well.

The photos were sent by Barbara Gallegos, my Dad’s cousin, who discovered them with her sister, Mary Sue, or Marissa Curnutte. Barbara and Marissa are the daughters of my Dad’s Uncle Clemente Gallegos.

Barbara and Marissa always refer to my Dad as Butch, as he was known when he was younger. The only other people I’ve ever heard call my Dad by the name “Butch” were my Grandma Rise and my Dad’s cousin Peggy.

The first photo of my Dad and his cousin Mary Sue when they were young children immediately grabbed my attention. I had seen my Dad as an infant and when he was old enough to play Little League. But I had not seen him as a toddler, probably 3 or 4 years old. My wife, Yvette, had a stronger reaction than I did. She thought my Dad, Gil Sr., had the exact same chubby cheeks that our second daughter, Isabella, had at the same age. Everyone has always associated Bella with my Dad’s side of the family – first, because of her dark skin, straight black hair, and a wicked sense of humor she surely inherited from my father and my Grandma Rise.

The second photo was just as surprising, but more so to my Dad. The photo of my grandparents and my Dad and Mary Sue must have been taken shortly after my Grandpa Carlos returned from World War II in Europe. My Dad was taken aback when I showed him the photo. He said he had never seen a photo of his mother at that age, aside from her wedding photo just a few years earlier.

The third photo is a picture of my great-grandparents, Luis and Victoria (Trujillo) Gallegos. They were the parents of my Grandpa Carlos.

The fourth photo shows my great-grandparents with my Dad’s sister, Martha, following her First Holy Communion. This photo also grabbed my Dad’s attention because he recognized the painting of his Dad hanging prominently on the wall over the brick fireplace in his grandparents’ Las Vegas home. He remembered the small portraits tucked into each corner of the framed painting, including a baby picture of himself, just like it was yesterday.

The fifth and sixth photos are images of a newspaper article, surely from the Las Vegas Optic, that highlighted my great-grandparents’ Golden Anniversary.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Catholics in St. John's

When my Chavez ancestors settled in St. John’s, AZ, they took more than their sheep, horses and possessions. They also took their Catholic faith with them.

My great-great Uncle Onofre Chavez boasted in an oral history that Catholic holy mass was celebrated in the adobe Chaves home while they were living in Las Tusas, just outside of St. John’s. Apparently, many of the Hispanic settlers of St. John’s were honored to host Catholic mass in their homes until a church would be built.
San Juan de Baptista Catholic Church in 1881 (Courtesy Barbara Jaramillo, published in Images of America: St. Johns)
In those early years of St. John’s, Las Tusas and surrounding villages, mass was celebrated by Father Pedro Maria Badilla, who was celebrated as the first parish priest when he arrived in St. John’s in 1880.

During my visit to St. John’s, I came across an interesting biography of Father Badilla. The biography, written by Lazaro Acosta in 1910, was featured in La Opinion Publica, which was published in Albuquerque. In addition to the details of Father Badilla’s life, the biography included many details of what life was like in St. John’s when my Chavez family lived there – roughly the late 1870s through about 1901.
Father Pedro Maria Badilla (Courtesy Barbara Jaramillo, published in Images of America: St. Johns)
Father Badilla was born in 1827 in Costa Rica. He eventually made his way to California and then Tucson, AZ, where in 1880 the first settlers of Apache County petitioned Bishop J.B. Salpointe to form a parish in East-Central Arizona. Bishop Salpointe asked Father Badilla to serve as its parish priest.

“He proposed this parish to Fr. Badilla, letting him know how difficult it would be, and the dangers of not having a church available, etc., etc.,” according to the biography. “The worthy Priest welcomed this proposition considering it to be his greatest happiness. It was that he wanted an uncultivated field to nurture, where he could sow the seed of the Gospel, to fertilize it and to reap its fruits.”

Father Badilla traveled north from Tucson to Prescott, the territorial capitol. He headed east to Holbrook with a family “ walking with a car pulled by oxen; they offered to carry him and take his baggage and provisions, but he took to foot as not to bother the family.” Once in Holbrook, he wrote to the people of St. John’s.

After a few days, Father Badilla was greeted by Serafin Apodaca who took the priest the rest of the way to St. John’s. Once there, he stayed at the home of Dolores Gallegos, described in the biography as a “humble man who lived alone and who spontaneously offered his home, as did so many other people also offering accommodations…”
Original Currier & Ives Picture Circa 1860
Used at First St. John’s Mass
Donated to the Catholic Church by Eminda Perez Lopez
After receiving visits from many of the people (of highest character) of St. John’s, Father Badilla celebrated his first Mass at the home of Mrs. Anastacia Gonzales. They improvised a chapel and Father Badilla was presented to the people as the founding Parish Priest of St. John’s.

“He took charge of the parish in very difficult circumstances; with wisdom and prudence of his character, overcoming all the obstacles that could hinder his order, letting nothing stop him in fertilizing the religious faith there.”

Soon after, Father Badilla “toured the area, giving mass and preaching in private houses of the villages and ranches he reached.” Surely, one or more of those homes were the adobe residences of my Chavez ancestors, including my third-great Grandparents Diego Antonio and Juana Chavez and their son, my twice-great Grandfather Preciliano Chavez.

“All residents receiving his sample with utmost joy, is nothing compared to what he gave his full order,” according to the biography.

Father Badilla lived for a year with Dolores Gallegos. During that time, he established a school in a house that belonged to Tomas Perez. He regularly celebrated mass in another house belonging to Guadalupe Salazar.

Eventually, Father Badilla collected enough money to raise a church to the dedication of San Juan Bautista. That first church was built at the same location where the church now stands, and the focal point of the Feast of San Juan that I witnessed this past June.

While I hoped to find a mention of my Chavez ancestors in the biography of Father Badilla, it was still a treasure to read the 1910 writings of someone who was familiar with those early decades of St. John’s.