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Sisters Of St. Benedict Opening New Chapter Of Service To Hispanics

By Greg Eckerle Special To The Message
Bishop Charles Thompson thanks Benedictine Sisters Karen Durliat, Mary Judith Fleig and Joan Scheller for their service to the Diocese of Evansville's Hispanic community.


The long history of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand serving the pastoral needs of Hispanics in the Evansville Diocese will shift into a new chapter this summer.

While it is always an effort of the entire Ferdinand Benedictine community to try to meet the needs of local Hispanics, one of their most visible roles has been their presence at the Guadalupe Center in Huntingburg since its opening in 2000.

The three sisters currently serving at the Guadalupe Center all plan to move into new roles of ministering to Hispanics. Sisters Karen Durliat and Mary Judith Fleig will remain at the Guadalupe Center through the end of June, while Sister Joan Scheller will stay through the end of August.

Bishop Charles C. Thompson of the Diocese of Evansville said, “We need to celebrate the faithful service of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand to the Hispanic ministry in the diocese and at the Guadalupe Center. Sisters Karen, Joan, and Mary Judith have been so dedicated through the years, guiding the Hispanics through many challenges, and helping them to enjoy many successes as they become more acclimated here. These women of faith have certainly reflected to the Hispanic people a welcoming church.”

Sister Karen was associate director of Hispanic ministry for the diocese from 2001 to 2008, and director of Hispanic ministry from 2008 to 2014. Sister Joan became associate director of Hispanic ministry in 2009 and has also been heavily involved in immigration work for the Hispanics. Sister Mary Judith is a 13-year English/Spanish translator for the court system in Jasper, a duty she will continue, and has handled receptionist duties at the Guadalupe Center.

Sister Barbara Lynn Schmitz, prioress of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, said, “It has been a privilege for us to have served the Hispanic people through the Guadalupe Center. Our community wholeheartedly endorsed this ministry and has long sought to ease the plight of the Hispanic immigrants. This ministry has been part of the sisters’ strategic plan for over 30 years. Rest assured we will continue serving Hispanics in other ways in the future. We have forged too strong a bond to walk away from our Hispanic ministry. We will just be discerning how to do it in a different way.”

Sister Barbara Lynn also acknowledged the vital financial role played for the Guadalupe Center by the Daughters of Charity’s Mission and Ministry, Inc., located in Evansville. That group helped fund the center’s operations through annual grants.

The Ferdinand Benedictines’ ministry for Hispanics began in 1984, about the time Hispanics were first recruited to work in local industries. Sister Mary Victor Kercher started as a volunteer, serving as diocesan coordinator of Hispanic ministry from 1984 to 1989. The sisters, along with the Daughters of Charity, began the process in 1999 of opening an office, taking it to Bishop Gettelfinger to get it started. The Diocese of Evansville, the Daughters, and the Sisters of St. Benedict then worked together to serve the people. In 1999, the Office of Spanish-Speaking Ministry opened in Father Gene Heerdink’s rectory in Jasper. Father Gene was named the director, and Sister Mary Victor the associate director. The Huntingburg center opened the following year.

Father Gene, who still performs sacramental work out of the Guadalupe Center, said, “The sisters have done a good job. Their strength was they made it a welcoming place. It was a good atmosphere, very friendly, everybody was eager to help everybody. It was like a home away from home. We organized parties, fiestas, English as a Second Language. Immigration was a big thing from the very beginning. The big strength the sisters brought to the center was being open and bilingual. They helped them find jobs, hospitals, and schools. The Hispanics kept coming back to receive help, of one kind or another, so that was a good sign. The sisters would often counsel the Hispanics, not only in spiritual matters, but also in worldly matters. They would go to their homes, and would surface the needs (of the Hispanics), talk about their needs, and try to address them.”

Sister Karen’s work with the Hispanics became a passion for her, as she participated almost like an insider in their community. She’s always wanted a ministry where she could help those with less. “It’s been a blessing to walk with the Hispanic people, to learn their culture, their deep spirituality, and their intimacy with God,” she says. “They celebrate the present moment, and it’s just a blessing to be there.”