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​Sister Yolanda Tarango: Ministries and memories

January 12, 2021 | posted by Today's Catholic newspaper

Topics: Vocations

Sister Yolanda Tarango: Ministries and memories

Sister Yolanda Tarango, CCVI, from the El Paso suburb of Ysleta, saw her young life come full circle in the late 1970s, doing youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of El Paso. But more was to follow.

When the 1979 Conference of Latin American Bishops was held in Puebla, Mexico, Sister Yolanda was among the group of Hispanic women religious who came seeking to influence its Puebla Document to incorporate more on women. “And we did,” she relates.

It kindled her engagement with Liberation Theology, so for her master’s she chose the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago, one of the first to open to women the Master of Divinity, considered the degree for ordination. Sister Yolanda was in one of the earliest classes for this and was soon caught up in the strong feminist influence on campus.

The year before, Jesuits being ordained to the diaconate there had worded their invitation along the lines of: “While this is a joyous event for us, it is also difficult to see that our classmates are not being ordained with us.” Their superior caught wind of this and forbade Jesuits there to speak publicly regarding the subject of ordaining women.

During Pope John Paul II’s 1979 Washington visit, the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) addressed him on opening the church for women to serve in all levels of ministry and leadership. As she spoke, a group of women wearing blue arm bands stood as a public witness. “After that,” relates Sister Yolanda, “we at the Jesuit school and other places, when ordinations would take place, would go to the church and would also do a public witness.”

It became very controversial and politicized, she recalls, with private ordinations taking place and the Women’s Ordination Conference involved. After two years, the Jesuits suspended operations in Chicago, so she completed her MDiv at Catholic Theological Union. Her original goal was parish work. “But I couldn’t find a job anywhere because of the whole feminist thing,” she explains. People assumed if she had an MDiv, it meant she wanted to be ordained.

Eventually she took a position at the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC, now the Mexican American Catholic College), which Las Hermanas had been involved in founding. Serving as director of its pastoral program for persons preparing for Hispanic ministry, she worked with Larry Boudreau of Maryknoll, who prepared people for work in Latin America. “I thoroughly enjoyed the work,” she recalls, “and we grew it.”

Out of her MACC experience and commitment to working with women, she and Sister Neomi Hayes, CCVI, started Visitation House in 1985. The congregation’s general chapter in 1984 had reaffirmed preferential option for the poor, realizing ministries they had founded to serve the poor, such as schools and hospitals, were now big institutions competently run by lay people. It was a challenge, Sister Yolanda recalls, to see who was falling through the cracks and how to respond.

Sister Noemi had been volunteering at the Battered Women’s Shelter and saw many homeless women being turned away because they were not victims of domestic violence. Brainstorming with Catholic Worker members, they learned a place was needed where women with young children could feel safe. At the Catholic Worker House, women would immediately turn away or stayed only a night, uncomfortable with men being present and the soup kitchen set-up.

Sister Yolanda notes they did not intend to open a shelter, but to get a large house to take in a couple of families and get convents with extra space to also participate. The congregation lent them the money to purchase the lovely old mansion on Huisache that became Visitation House, where they focused on hospitality and lived with the families.

They soon realized, however, that the standard 30 to 45 days was not enough for a homeless mother with young children to get her life together, so let families stay as long as it took to get on their feet, if they were trying. Even getting into permanent housing was not enough, they discovered, as missing work due to a sick child or car breakdown easily threw things off. The best shield against poverty for women, they decided, was education.

So, the first transitional housing program in San Antonio began with their getting a grant to buy and rehab a six-apartment building to house young women in a two-year program in which they attended San Antonio College and emerged prepared to earn a decent salary.

The sisters held part-time jobs throughout, Sister Yolanda’s initially being with the Westside Parish Coalition’s School of Ministry. During her 35 years at the house, she also served on the congregations’s general council (1990-1996) and as congregational leader (2008-2014), plus earned a Doctorate in Ministry and co-authored with Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church, the first book on Hispanic women in theology.

Returning to the role of Visitation House director in 2015, Sister Yolanda initiated plans to ensure the ministry’s future, culminating in hiring a new director, Andrea Hofstetter, in June. Due to the ongoing pandemic, much is now up in the air, but it appears keeping the two-story house will be unfeasible and the ministry will continue in other locations. Sister Neomi passed in 2017 and Sister Yolanda recently moved out and will be concentrating on overseeing the CCVI Ministries Office as board chair. The last resident family went into an apartment in March.

“The big plus for us being there so many years,” Sister Yolanda reminisces, “is a lot of those children we got to see grow and go to college.” Some have families of their own now and many returned to visit the sisters, who served as godparents for some. It proves what can happen if their moms break the glass ceiling, says Sister Yolanda. “Visitation House,” she adds, “is a house of many memories.”