December 2015

Grace thanks God for gift of courage

Sister Grace Marcelo thanks God for giving her the gift of courage to take the first steps towards her vocation as a Sister of the Good Samaritan – steps which have led her to a joyful ministry of caring for families in one of the poorest areas of her home city of Bacolod in the Philippines.

BY Debra Vermeer

Sister Grace Marcelo thanks God for giving her the gift of courage to take the first steps towards her vocation as a Sister of the Good Samaritan – steps which have led her to a joyful ministry of caring for families in one of the poorest areas of her home city of Bacolod in the Philippines.

Grace was born into a Catholic family, one of six children, and says her father and her grandmother led by example when it came to faith.

“My grandmother on my father’s side was really the one who influenced me in my faith,” she says. “I remember her sitting at her window praying the Rosary and it stayed with me while I was growing up, just how strong her faith was.

“And as a family, we would all go to Mass and sometimes, if the whole family went, we would have to walk for a few kilometres to get there. We really enjoyed that Sunday walk home from Mass, as a family together, with us kids all teasing each other.”

After finishing high school, Grace completed a business course and then worked in various offices, before moving to Manila for two years to take up a position.

But throughout this period, at the back of her mind, was the calling to a vocation as a religious sister – a vocation she says developed at a young age.

“When I was young, during the Lenten season, the only movies we could watch were ones about the Passion of the Cross or the lives of the saints. And I think that’s when an inkling of a vocation started. I loved those movies and watching the nuns in their habits and I wanted to be one.”

After high school, at the age of 16, Grace broke up with her boyfriend of the time because she intended to join a religious order. She had a great aunt who was a Dominican Sister and she asked her if she could join the Dominicans.

“But my aunt said I was too young and it’s a hard life, and I should do something else. That was a very hard rejection for me. I felt like it was a rejection of my vocation and maybe God was telling me this is not really meant for me, so I tried to focus on other things.”

It wasn’t until Grace met some Good Samaritan Sisters in 1994, at the age of 17, that she thought of pursuing her vocation again.

“At university I worked for an NGO which looked after women, youth and children and one of the Japanese Good Samaritan Sisters volunteered there. I worked there with the Good Samaritan Sisters right up to 1998 when I finished uni.

“All this time I didn’t mention anything about my vocation because I was afraid they might reject me, so I kept it to myself for a long time. But I still kept in contact with the sisters, even after I finished working with them.

“In 2005 I came back to see them and I was searching for something that I couldn’t find an answer for. Deep down, I knew I had a vocation but I needed courage to name it for myself.

“It took me a year before I had the courage to talk to one of the sisters. I can still remember the day, sitting in the church, arguing with myself about it, but eventually courage won and I told them.

“They didn’t reject me and I was so happy. I really thank God for giving me the courage to take the first step. I’m so grateful for that gift of courage.”

Grace began her formation with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, which included two years novitiate at Lawson in New South Wales. She made her first profession in 2012.

“It was a big thing to leave my mother and siblings,” she says. “But it was wonderful.”

After her first profession, Grace returned to the Philippines and enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Work, which she completed in October.

She is working as the Coordinator of the Good Samaritan Outreach Centre in City Heights Bacolod City.

“The Centre opened in July 2013 and we have many ministries here,” Grace says.

One of those ministries is a nutrition program in Boulevard. It is a poor area, where the people live as squatters and face many challenges, including poor employment prospects. They provide a meal five days each week and medical assistance.

“Most of our families are poor families and they are not able to give proper nutrition to the kids,” she says. “We think that for the children to attend class regularly, they need to have something in their tummy before they start, so we can help by providing one meal a day to supplement their needs.”

Other ministries at the Centre include skills training for young mums, which has lately been extended to include four young men.

“We have classes in cooking, sewing, rug-making, candle-making, t-shirt printing, as well as health seminars,” Grace says.

“Many of the mothers, especially, haven’t been to university and can’t find jobs anywhere in our city. So we thought that if they cannot be hired for a job, they could start to generate some small income inside the home, with the skills that we teach them.”

Grace says her life as a Good Samaritan Sister, working with those in need, can sometimes be challenging, but fills her with joy.

“There is so much joy,” she says. “Especially working with the children. Just seeing them smile brings joy to me. The children are not only poor, but they often come from very complicated life situations. Their family is often in chaos, with broken families, drunken behaviour and abuse, so to see them happy and to provide them with some simple happiness provides joy to me as well.

“And also working with the parents, to see them learn things, and gain confidence in themselves, that brings joy.”

In a traditionally Catholic country, such as the Philippines, Grace says there have been gifts and challenges attached to joining a religious congregation from another culture.

“Especially in a society where people only accept religious in a habit,” she laughs. “That is always a challenge for me. I always encounter the question, ‘why don’t you wear a habit?’ People think that you’re not a real sister if you’re not wearing a habit.

“But now I’m more confident in being a Good Samaritan Sister and I’m happy working with the people without a habit. I know it doesn’t matter what you wear, it’s what is in your heart that matters.”

Grace says it was the hospitality and the simplicity of the first Good Samaritan Sisters she met that attracted her to the Congregation in the first place.

“What makes me stay is that I discover more and more of the Congregation; the diverse ministries that we are engaged in and I experience the joy I saw in my other sisters and I live that simplicity in our daily personal and community prayer, and work.”

She says that at the relatively young age of 39, she doesn’t dwell on being a young woman in an ageing congregation.

“Here in the Philippines, it is not so evident, as we have some younger sisters here,” she says.

“I don’t feel scared about being part of a congregation that is older,” she says. “This is God’s work and if he wants us to continue, he will give us the grace.”

Having completed her social work studies, Grace is looking forward to continuing the work at the Centre. She is hoping to offer more formal classes for the young mums and to offer different skills training as well as classes in personal development and spiritual development, along with a greater emphasis on the Livelihood Assistance Program, to help them start their own income-generating small businesses.

She is also involved in planning an upcoming environmental awareness campaign in Boulevard – a program aimed at cleaning up the coastal area and making it safe for the children to swim.

“There is a lot to do and a lot to look forward to,” she says.

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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