A Higher Calling

A former nun spends her days in the Second Ward, trying to bring a better life to its Latinas

"I feel strongly about how women are treated," May says. "For someone who had given a whole life to the service of the church to be treated like that, it was something I could not tolerate." Soon after, May left Guadalupe and her vocation.

But May also speaks of growing less interested in religion, which she says often leaves the needs of the people behind in favor of rules. She speaks about women who would come to Guadalupe worried because they didn't want to have any more children, but who felt as Catholics that they could not use birth control.

"I would tell them, 'Tell God if it's a sin, I'll take responsibility for it,' " says May. Other sisters joked that she would be spending lots of time in hell.

Deron Neblett

El Centro staff member Amanda DeRosario says May always welcomes employees' ideas.
Deron Neblett
El Centro staff member Amanda DeRosario says May always welcomes employees' ideas.

May also had grown disillusioned with the hierarchical structure of the church. Perhaps that is the very reason El Centro operates without such a ladder of authority.

"Hierarchies don't work," she says. "People ask me if I would want to be a priest, and I say, 'Why would I want to be a part of that mess?' "

She says she still attends services but doesn't have a home church. In her free time, she goes fishing and reads anything she can get her hands on. Still in search of answers to the great questions, she spends lots of time outdoors.

"If you really want to know the deep mysteries, I would go to nature," she says. "I've always felt everything we need to know would be found in nature. Otherwise, it wouldn't be fair, because then only those who were educated could know them."

When asked, the Diocese of Galveston-Houston has only kind words about May. Spokeswoman Annette Gonzales Taylor would only say, "She has a great commitment to the poor. We commend her, and we pray for her success."

After leaving Guadalupe, May says, she still felt a commitment to the Second Ward and its residents. One day she called her friend Margaret Daly, a former Guadalupe volunteer who was studying in Washington, D.C. She asked Daly about the possibility of getting her help to start El Centro.

Daly says she told May if the people still wanted them there, and they could respond to the people's needs, she would return. Soon the two women and a few volunteers set up shop in the North Palmer home.

"[The people] here weren't getting a fair deal at the pediatricians, they weren't getting a fair deal at the schools," says Daly, of her reasons for returning. "The system wasn't responding."

Although Daly decided to return to her native Ireland soon after El Centro opened, she stays in touch with May and others at El Centro. The work being done there amazes her. And May, she says, continues to be the catalyst of that work.

"She taught me how to ask why," says Daly of May. " 'Why does it have to be this way?' That's an honesty Mary Jo brings to life, and I think that's the highest compliment anyone could pay to another human being."

The tiny home on Crites Street just a short walk from El Centro is painstakingly neat. A small bouquet of fake flowers sits on the coffee table, and framed photographs of children peer out from a cabinet in the corner. Every few minutes, a toddler comes running in from the front yard, then darts out again.

The home belongs to 31-year-old Claudia, a mother of three. Today the women's group she belongs to is meeting in her living room. In attendance are four other neighborhood women: Adela, Paula, Julia and Veronica. Facilitating the group is Marisol Acosta, one of the five therapists employed by El Centro.

Like the younger girls' groups, the meetings are loosely organized. The women speak in rapid Spanish about everything from self-esteem and domestic violence to cultural differences and parenting issues.

"I have learned a better way to deal with my kids," says 39-year-old Adela, who has three children. The meetings especially helped her in dealing with her teenage daughter.

"I learned how to actually sit with her and look her in the face as opposed to trying to talk to her while I washing the dishes and then ending up screaming," she says.

El Centro has also empowered her when it comes to working with the children's schools. When her kids were placed in a more slowly paced class, she thought the school was only doing so because the children were Mexican. She asked El Centro for help in talking to the school administrators, and soon her kids were in regular classes.

Sometimes very serious issues are brought up.

Upon their arrival in Houston, "my husband started treating me very badly," says 30-year-old Julia, a mother of three who works at night cleaning offices. "He was very aggressive for no reason. I felt very lonely. When I came here, I was able to say what I felt." As she tells her story, she begins to cry, and Claudia runs for a napkin. Her family got counseling at El Centro, Julia says, and she learned how to deal with her husband when he got upset.

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