Sr. Raquela, Zealous Mission

STAMFORD—Since March 2016, I have had the privilege of serving as the chaplain of the St. Camillus Nursing home in Stamford. In that capacity, I have gotten to know many of the residents entrusted to my spiritual care. Among them is Sr. Raquela Mesa-Acosta. She was born on December 12, 1922 in the village of San Antonio del Prado, one hour from Medellin, Colombia, and she was one of nine children. Her sister Berta and she had seven brothers, the youngest of whom, Carlos Antonio was ordained to the Holy Priesthood.

At the age of 19, she entered the religious order that was founded by Sr. (now St.) Laura Montoya, who is the first saint of Colombia. Sr. Raquela recounted that her work as a young religious was with the native Indians in the area of Casanares, Porto Carreño and Porto Imarco, which are located near the border with Venezuela. She often smiled when recounting that she was very good using the canoe to travel the rivers and aid the poor families and children of the native peoples. Even though she was a religious for barely ten years, Mother Laura saw great zeal in Sr. Raquela and she was named the Mother Superior for that central eastern Province of the Order.

St. Laura founded this religious order primarily to aid the indigenous peoples. She was born on May 26, 1874 in Jerico, Colombia. She was well known for her work and for acting as a strong role model for South American girls. She was the first Colombian to be canonized a saint.

Her father was killed during the Colombian Civil War of 1876 and subsequently, the household left poor. She was sent to live with her aunt, who in 1890 enrolled her in a School in Amalfi where she graduated in 1893.

In 1908, St. Laura began working with the natives in the Uraba and Sarare regions, where she founded the “Works of the Indians.” Although she wanted to become a cloistered Carmelite nun, she felt a growing desire to spread the Gospel to those who had never met Jesus Christ. Montoya wanted to eliminate the existing racial discrimination and to sacrifice herself in order to bring them Christ’s love and teachings.

On May 14, 1917, she started the “Congregation of Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Virgin Mary and Saint Catherine of Siena.” She left Medellín with four other women and went to Dabeiba to live among the native Indians. This new order had the support of the bishop of Santa Fe de Antioquia

St. Laura died after a prolonged illness on October 21, 1949. The last nine years of her life were lived in a wheelchair. Her order now operates in 19 countries throughout the Americas as well as in Africa and Europe. The process for her beatification was opened in Medellín in 1963. She was beatified on April 25, 2004 in Saint Peter’s Square. Pope Francis canonized her on May 12, 2013. Her relics rest in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Medellin.

It was the zealous spirit of the Mother Foundress that attracted Sr. Raquela to join the religious order, which even in her lifetime were called “the religious of Mother Laura.” Sr. Raquela became one of the personal assistants to the foundress in the last years of her life.

After many years of service, Sr. Raquela came to live with her family in both Norwalk and Stamford and aided the Colombian community there. She worked closely with Msgr. Francis Campagnone, who was a pioneer in Hispanic ministry in the Diocese of Bridgeport. Eventually, as the years took their toll, she became a resident at St. Camillus Nursing Home in Stamford in 2014. She would always be one of the first residents to arrive in the chapel every morning. Shortly after my arrival at St. Camillus, when I noticed that the number of Spanish speaking residents was increasing, I began to preach in both English and Spanish at the daily Mass and often she would often comment on my message.

Her niece, Nora, daughter of her sister Berta, would visit every month from her home in Queens and would often reminisce with her aunt of those days of her service to Mother Laura and her active missionary years. She would always smile broadly when she would talk about her skills in the canoe, and even use her arms to show us how she would use the paddle. Sr. Raquela passed away due to coronavirus on April 22, 2020. May she rest in peace and may the Lord reward her for her ardent labors done in His name for the least of His brethren.

By Rev. Matthew R. Mauriello