STAMFORD—When Lucille Souza was a high school freshman in Burbank, Calif., the idea crossed her mind that maybe, just maybe, she might be called to the religious life. Her parents, who were immigrants from Portugal, worked hard to make a good life for their family, and they sent her to a school run by Mother Cabrini’s Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
“I was very active in school,” she recalled. “I played sports and did all different kinds of things. I never really thought of entering the convent until my freshman year when I kind of had this calling.”
When she was growing up, her mother always asked, “Don’t you want to become a sister?” And Lucille would promptly respond, “No, I don’t! Don’t even talk about it!”
But by senior year, the desire became very, very strong, largely inspired by the example of the sisters in her school.
“Then, when I told my mother I wanted to enter the convent, she said, ‘Oh no! Don’t even talk about it!’” She was not happy with her daughter’s decision, but her father was.
And so at 18 years old, right out of high school, she entered the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and within a month she was teaching second grade at a school in Brooklyn.
Recalling the sisters who inspired her, she said, “I knew this is what I wanted because I saw the sisters interacting with one another and how they loved each other and how they reached out to us girls, not just for the academics, but for our personal lives and to help us grow and know Christ. That’s what really motivated me.”
Today, years later, after dedicating her life to the order, Sister Lucille Souza MSC has accomplished many things through the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the example of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patroness of immigrants and the first American saint.
Sister recently spoke at the Cabrini Mass at Sacred Heart Church, which is sponsored by Catholic Charities of Fairfield County. It commemorates the Italian-American founder of the religious order, who supported immigrants throughout the United States and established 67 institutions, including schools, orphanages and hospitals that cared for the poor and marginalized.
“Mother’s message today is as it has been throughout her whole life and that is love—bringing the love of Christ to the whole world,” Sr. Lucille said. “That is the message the Missionary Cabrini Sisters bring to the world. Bringing that love means feeding the poor and reaching out to those in hardship. Mother really had a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and that is the devotion and charism she has passed on to us.”
Mother’s deep love of the Sacred Heart is what propelled her to do everything she did. It was that love of him that he shared with her, and she reciprocated that love to people she met along the way.
“That is what we are trying to do today through that same love, that same going out of ourselves to give to others, especially those who are in dire straits,” she said.
The religious order Mother founded in 1880 spread to 17 countries.
“Mother always had the saying, ‘I can do all things in God that strengthens me,’” Sister said. “We use that saying a lot to motivate us. It doesn’t matter how difficult it may seem, what stumbling blocks we may encounter. It is never to give up, to keep trying every step of the way, to keep trying to help, especially now with immigrants and refugees, who have left their homes not because they wanted to, but because they had to due to gangs, violence and all of that. We reach out to these people. We have a food pantry and immigration services for those who need their documents processed.”
Mother Cabrini came to America from Italy with seven young women in 1889. The tenth of 11 children, she was a frail, small child. Other congregations would not take her, so she founded her own order. While she wanted to go to China as a missionary, Pope Leo XIII told her, “Not to the East, but to the West” to care for Italian immigrants in the United States, where they lived and worked in deplorable conditions.
“The workers were exploited economically and morally,” she said. “They were hated, persecuted and treated like animals. Mother Cabrini once wrote, ‘Some of the people cannot bear the sight of us Italians.’”
Her work eventually took the sisters to New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, New Orleans, Seattle, Denver and California, where their missions also assisted Mexicans. In addition, Mother began initiatives in Brazil, Argentina, Spain, London, Italy, Central America and France.
“We, as her daughters, continue to work on behalf of the immigrants and refugees throughout the world with our lay collaborators, seeking to change unjust structures so that all may live with dignity as sons and daughters of God,” Sister said.
The order also supports efforts to prevent trafficking of women and children.
Sister Lucille, who founded the Cabrini Mission Foundation, has been recognized for her missionary spirit and service to immigrants. Established in 1998, the foundation responds to society’s needs by supporting programs and institutions of healing, healthcare, social services, teaching and caring.
A non-profit 501 ©(3) corporation, Cabrini Mission Foundation seeks to maintain and enhance the works of the order’s Guadalupe Province, which encompasses the United States, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Australia, by providing philanthropic support through endowment and donor programs. (For more information, visit www.cabrinifoundation.org)
This year it has awarded grants to several schools in the Bronx where there is an urgent need, to increase enrollment and develop different programs. The foundation has also funded schools in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
“The foundation is able to reach out to these people, even if it’s not monetary,” she said. “It is just that interaction with somebody, giving them courage and hope, and letting them know they are loved by Jesus. They may be going through difficult times, but it isn’t that the Lord has left them. He is with them.”
She said the foundation has been trying to partner with someone at the southern border and a representative has gone there several times to see how it can help the situation.
The sisters reach out to not only destitute, but also those yearning to learn about Christ.
“It is not proselytizing, it is bringing the love of Jesus to the world,” she said. “But that love has to come from us, so prayer becomes the motivating force in our lives. Without prayer we don’t have that strength.”
Sr. Lucille has served in various roles within the Missionary Sisters, including CEO and founder of the Cabrini Mission Foundation, director of Cabrini Mission Corps, and provincial councilor and resident superior of the Sacred Heart Convent Assisted Living Center.
She received her bachelor’s in elementary education from Cabrini College in 1972 and her master’s in education from Fordham University in 1983. In addition to serving on the Cabrini University Board of Trustees, she currently serves on the Cabrini Mission Foundation Board. She previously served as a Trustee at Cabrini College as well as on the boards of Mother Cabrini High School and St. Cabrini Home in New York.
Sister says the success of the foundation and the order can be linked to prayer, the efforts of the sisters, lay collaborators, generous donors and, of course, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
“In the end, Mother got what she wanted because of her strong love for Jesus…and his love for her,” she said.
Commenting on the event, Catholic Charities board member Peter Maloney said: “When we look at saints like Mother Cabrini, it is an act of remembrance, and given the fact the Church in our country is an immigrant church, we have a patron saint of immigrants. We have to remember what immigration means and has meant to our Church throughout its history. This makes us more inclined to remember the people who may be suffering through the same things our ancestors and families did.”
Accompanying Maloney were Alex Arevalo, program manager of the Immigration Team, and Maria Palacios, immigration legal services counselor.
(For more information about the Diocese of Bridgeport immigration services, call 203.416.1306 for Spanish speaking and 203.416.1311 for English speaking.)