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Reflection on Loretto’s Foundation Day

Posted on April 25, 2020, by Eileen Custy SL

“The vocation to be a Sister of Loretto, therefore, shows itself in a spirit of courage and generosity marked by trust in God, ingenuity and the self-reliance, made firm by a personal response to God through the Church.” — IATW

            For 208 years of existence we have stood on the shoulders of some very interesting and strong women, some in our own lifetime and some who lived long before us. After Santa Fe had its big celebration, we who lived in El Paso decided to celebrate our history in a similar way. It was then that I met Sister Vestina, a fascinating woman. I would like to share some of her story with you as a part of today’s celebration.

            Vestina received the veil at age 15 in 1808. She taught just about “every subject in the curriculum, plus music and stenotyping.” She lived most of her life in New Mexico and El Paso. She learned to speak Spanish like a pro and was the first woman to be certified in education in New Mexico.

            At age 17, she traveled from the Motherhouse to Denver and upon arrival was told to continue on to Santa Fe. This meant riding in a stagecoach. There were other women with her in the beginning but along the way they departed leaving her with only men as her fellow passengers. She wrote: they were “intoxicated and fighting all the way” so she collected their guns lest they kill each other. But they were kind enough to allow the privacy of sleeping in the stagecoach while they rolled up in blankets around a campfire outside. When they arrived in the high country it was very cold and Vestina had no blanket or even extra clothing. She was also hungry, not having eaten for three days. She spent her last 25 cents on a cup of coffee.

            At night she was very cold and shivering. In desperation she looked around at the circle of men hoping to share a blanket with one of them. She spotted one who “did not seem rough, but very kind and good, so climbing out of the coach she went over to him, awakened him and asked if she might share his blanket for she was freezing.” He gave her his blanket saying that he could roll up with one of the other men. She accepted his offer and went back to the stagecoach for a good night’s sleep. The next morning, she went out to thank her benefactor but he was nowhere to be found and the driver assured her that no one had left the group. She always believed it was St. Joseph who came to her aid and kept that blanket for the rest of her life.

            She wrote also of a journey from Santa Fe to Las Cruces 1875. She and other Sisters were traveling in a carriage. When they had traveled about 10 days, they met some “drawbacks.” There is a stretch of flat land about 75 miles long, with mountains in the distance on either side between the towns of Paraja and Dona Ana. It was called the “journey of death” because of the lack of water along the way and the possibility of Indian attacks. They traveled at night because of the intense heat and fear of being robbed or murdered. About three hours into the night, one of the horses refused to move any further. It was sick. The Sisters got out of the carriage and walked to lighten the load while the other horse did the work. That same night they encountered a figure moving toward them in the darkness which frightened them, but it was only a postman, who was as frightened as they were. They continued their journey on foot until daybreak when they stopped to rest.

            Later that some day they arrived at Martin’s well, which was about midway on their journey. It was the only source of water in that 75-mile stretch of land. The sick horse finally died so the driver left the Sisters there and rode the other horse to Las Cruces to obtain a fresh team, and they were able to continue their journey. By the time they arrived at Dona Ana, both horses refused to move another step so they were obliged to start walking again, and along the way Vestina lost the heel of her shoe, making matters worse. A Sister and one of her students from Las Cruces came in their carriage to meet the travelers. I’m sure they were a welcome sight.

            Next time you are having a bad day, just remember Vestina and your troubles will vanish. There are many other stories told by this very colorful figure in the annals which she kept for the Los Cruces community. She is a woman that I really hope to meet one day.

            Vestina is just one of the colorful characters in our history, women who made huge sacrifices in order to carry out the mandates of the Gospel. But we have three colorful characters in our own time to celebrate today, Marietta (Goy), Dolores Kelledy) and Jean (Kelley). In the past few days we have heard many stories about them which reflected their perseverance and dedication to whatever it was they were called to do. Today may be one of the hardest things they have had to endure – to spend their jubilees in isolation. Please know that we are all very aware of you and are celebrating with you in mind and spirit.

            IATW directs us to be courageous and generous, to use our ingenuity and self-reliance, to accept responsibility and live the Gospel faithfully. Seventy-five years ago, Marietta, Dolores and Jean heard that call and gave it their all. We give thanks for their lives, their good examples, their companionship, their joyful humor and their fidelity. This is what Loretto has been and still is all about – a colorful group of women working, playing and praying together, basking in the love of our God.

Eileen Custy SL

Eileen Custy SL

Eileen Custy was born and raised on a dairy outside of Denver and attended a one-room schoolhouse for her first eight years. After a year of college at Loretto Heights, she joined the Sisters of Loretto. In spite of the fact that she thought at that time she never wanted to be a teacher, she loved the work and taught for 46 years. Most of those years were spent in El Paso, Texas.. Eileen “retired” in 2004 and moved to Kentucky where she has been an administrative assistant to the Motherhouse Coordinator ever since.