During the 1920s the government grew increasingly hostile to the Catholic Church and the schools became unsafe for Catholic children. The bishop had to tell all the Catholic families in his diocese not to send their children to the public schools anymore. This drastic action took place in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. So the good Catholics of the Los Altos region of Jalisco, Mexico, removed their children from the schools and taught them at home as best as they could.
During those same years, a small, new community of women religious based in the little town of Atotonilco El Alto, located in that same Los Altos region of Jalisco, was aggregated to the Carmelite Order. Soon after, this fledgling community of Carmelite Sisters left their schools, hospitals and other places of service to go into hiding. The religious persecution was climaxing. Many Catholics were tortured and martyred.
The obvious thing happened. These two classes of people – families whose children could not attend the godless public schools and the Carmelite Sisters who wanted to teach, but had to go into hiding – came together in faith, hope and love. These two groups formed “groups” in the countryside, in private homes, wherever it was deemed “safe.” Schooling was informal at best and constantly filled with the intrigue of eluding government spies always looking for anyone who dared to practice their religion.
So how does one teach with no schoolroom, no books, no written syllabus, and no written curriculum?
Mother Luisita responded in her usual, practical, down-to-earth way. She did the best with what she had. “She taught by example,” was inscribed on Mother Luisita’s tombstone after she died on February 11, 1937. Mother Luisita would take the children on nature walks, or if they were in a time of extreme confinement, she would have nature brought to the children as best she could, and together they would look, for example, at the beauty of a green leaf, with its winding veins, and serrated, leafy design. The lesson of photosynthesis would be done outside in the sun, naturally and simply, or at least while holding a leaf. Nature became her textbook. Creation was her curriculum. She spoke about the industriousness of the bee, the shadow of the cypress tree, the beauty of the new life of a newborn infant – “one more soul for heaven.”
The age-old tradition of story-telling was used over and over again by the sisters who shared the stories of great literature and great saints. The other Sisters followed this example. They observed God’s world with the eyes of a scientist, sang, danced, performed skits, and used tactile, kinesthetic learning with real objects. So what if there were no books? They had each other. This was a huge blessing. The children were loved and safe and learned as much as they could. The “book learning” would have to come later when the persecution had subsided.
Above all, however, was the powerful lesson of her example. “She taught by example.” It is recorded that people would watch Mother Luisita bow in profound worship while praying the Glory Be to the Father and exhort the sisters and families to keep their souls clean. She made the sign of the cross very slowly and devoutly, meditating on every single word and its meaning. She said that the trials of life are like the waves of the ocean and that we should realize that they are washing over us and taking away in the ebb tide all of the dirt that was on us.
This year on February 11th, the 87th anniversary of Mother Luisita death, we thank God that her legacy remains throughout the Americas in our schools. At Holy Innocents School in Long Beach, California, the celebration of Mother’s life is especially celebrated because Holy Innocents was the first parish in which the Carmelite Sisters worked when the originally came to the U.S. as refugees. They taught catechism in Spanish to the other exiled Mexican Catholics who also fled for their lives to the U.S. Historical accounts of those days in the 1920s relate that they taught in garages and fields and even in a junk yard!
“She lived for God. She taught by example. She suffered in silence.” Thank you, Mother Luisita, for continuing to say yes to God and teaching his children during the horrible days of the religious persecution in Mexico. May we remember and follow your example in the days to come.