You are about to meet three incredible women. Women who raised their hands when the opportunity to change the world presented itself. These women devoted themselves to a life of selfless work, determined to build access to education, health, and a safe space in the midst of a violent civil war.
Sr. Sandra Spencer (pictured left), Sr. Dorothy Wagner (pictured center), and Sr. Linda Wanner (pictured right), all School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSNDs), called the San Lucas Mission home during their lives. While they were not all there at the same time, they each made their own distinct impact developing the Mission and its programs.
Mirroring the use of the term “Padre,” or “father” for priests, the people of San Lucas called each of the Sisters “Madre,” or “mother.” And that’s exactly who they were: Mothers of the Mission.
The legacy of the SSNDs has created access to healthcare, housing, basic needs, a safe space for women, and education for thousands of people in San Lucas.
Sandra Spencer arrived at the San Lucas Mission in 1964. Education was particularly important to SSNDs, and she hoped to start a school.
Sandra quickly learned the other needs of the community when people started coming with illnesses. She and the other sisters learned first aid and turned part of the convent into a clinic to address chronic health issues: tuberculosis, pneumonia, starvation and others. Sr. Arne (SSND) and a nurse from Belgium arrived to care for the clinic patients. The SSNDs also opened the orphanage, called the “Casa Feliz” and the school.
Things became dangerous during Guatemala’s Civil War. Sandra recalls being stopped by soldiers with machine guns pointed into her vehicle. A soldier confirmed it was not the vehicle they were targeting, and she was let go.
When Sandra was back in the U.S. and the 1976 earthquake hit San Lucas, Fr. Greg called Sandra to help arrange for supplies to be sent to the San Lucas community. When the U.S. Government refused to help the cause, she knew who to turn to: the wife of the Guatemalan president. “I went to the women. That’s where I got the work done.”
On August 17, 1974, Sr. Dorothy left for San Lucas. She was assigned to Casa Feliz (“Happy Home”), the orphanage at the San Lucas Mission.
Casa Feliz had no running water or electricity. Every morning, Dorothy and the children would carry 20 clay jugs to Lake Atitlan to fill with water and carry back to Casa Feliz. The bathrooms and floors were cleaned every day with water and Pine Sol to disinfect everything and minimize infections. After breakfast, the children would help bring more water back from the lake for baths and the rest was boiled for cooking to make sure it was clean to consume.
Keeping things clean was paramount. Many children suffered from illness including parasites which could lead to dehydration and malnutrition. Some of the children passed away, and many were saved. Remembering the survivors, Dorothy says, “They were sick yesterday, and today they live.” She has even been able to reconnect with some of them in recent years.
Dorothy recalls the impact the Guatemalan Civil War had on Casa Feliz, saying, “People didn’t want others to be educated. We had to bury and burn books. Nothing could be printed. We just used word of mouth.” Kids were brought in greater numbers because their families disappeared, or were tortured and killed. In 1981, Dorothy was called back to the U.S. She says it was a difficult transition, “going from war to luxury. It took some mental gymnastics to get through it.”
Looking back on her time in San Lucas, Dorothy says, “I would not give up those seven years for anything in the world.”
Linda Wanner arrived at the San Lucas Mission in 1980. She had spent her time with the SSNDs teaching and as principal of a high school in Sartell, Minnesota. She had a strong desire to expand her horizons and her assignment to San Lucas to support the education system made sense. She learned Spanish in language school and through her work at the Mission. “It’s humbling not to speak better than a two-year-old,” she recalls, laughing.
In the early 80s, the orphanage went from 30 to 90 children, as the violence of the Civil War continued. Guatemalan Army trucks driving past the soccer fields on a Sunday afternoon to take all the young indigenous men and boys when they needed more soldiers. Linda recalls the strength and resilience of the mothers who demanded their sons back from the Army.
She remembers Sr. Ficker receiving death threats. She remembers Fr. Stan Rother’s murder and martyrdom, after being targeted by the Army because of his progressive leadership. Linda was the interpreter for Fr. Stan’s parents and the people of his congregation after his death. Through all of the chaos and violence surrounding the Mission, her work continued. “We wanted the people to be the protagonists of their own story,” she explained.
Sr. Linda was invited to train teachers who worked in the public schools. Nearby finca (ranch) owners welcomed her to help with the education system in the areas surrounding San Lucas. In 1990, Sr. Linda was the last sister left at the Mission. Before his departure, Fr. Greg told Linda that men tend to undo everything, so he was happy she was the one to continue the story.
It was difficult for Linda to return to the U.S. when she was called back by the SSND order. She had spent her 10 years outside of the states, and had to come home to re-discern and receive a new assignment. “It was heart-wrenching.” Sr. Linda was later able to return to Guatemala and live there for many years, teaching at a seminary in Guatemala City and working with indigenous women.
This Mother’s Day, consider making a donation in honor of a literal or figurative mother in your life. If you like, we can send her a physical or PDF card with a personalized message. Your gift will sustain and expand the legacy of the School Sisters and their work to serve the people with the greatest need. Give today!