Sisters of Charity take pope’s call for change to heart

Sisters of Charity take pope’s call for change to heart

When Pope Francis asked the world to unite in prayer for the environment and to address climate change, a group of nuns in Houston heeded the call.

The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, organized a local event for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation last week.

In his message from the Vatican earlier this month, Francis wrote, “Egoism and self-interest have turned creation, a place of encounter and sharing, into an arena of competition and conflict. In this way, the environment itself is endangered: something good in God’s eyes has become something to be exploited in human hands.”

Pollution, agricultural exploitation, use of fossil fuels and deforestation have increased in recent years, he added, and have resulted in desertification of lands, extreme weather, melting of glaciers and a need for water.

“We have caused a climate emergency that gravely threatens nature and life itself, including our own,” the pope said.

He asked that people re-evaluate their choices regarding food, transportation, use of energy and consumption of goods. Ultimately, he called for taking real actions that will make a positive and lasting impact.

Sister Ricca Dimalibot, general councilor of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, took the pope’s words to heart.

“It’s a moral challenge,” Dimalibot said. “It’s unethical to throw so much away. It’s immoral to disregard the damage. We’re hoping to come together to be a unified voice. The more you pray, great things will happen.”

In fact, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word have been focused on the environment for some time — as well as the connection between all living beings.

“We try to be very conscientious of interconnectedness with everyone,” Dimalibot said. “We’re in relationship with everything. We’re in relationship with creation.”

Recently members of the group decided to dive even deeper into educating themselves and others about the environmental crisis, she said. In fact, a faction went to City Hall in March to advocate for Houston’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

Hosting the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation was a way to continue that conversation, Dimalibot said.

A variety of faith leaders attended, including Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Unity, Baptist, evangelical and Serbian Orthodox churches. They were joined by public officials, environmental advocates and concerned citizens.

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza, Lutheran Bishop Mike Rinehart and the Rev. Harvey Clemons Jr. led the prayers at the Villa De Matel Chapel, 6510 Lawndale.

“To solve the problem of climate change, you need different talents, different minds to come together,” Dimalibot said. “We all have so much in common. We all believe in one God. We all believe in the environment. We want our legacy to be a beautiful Earth for our children, with breathable air.”

Christian charity requires setting aside different backgrounds or self-interests to preserve the future for all, she said. She hopes that the tone set on the World Day of Prayer becomes infectious.

“We can still coexist and still pray together,” she said. “All of us are sharing in the word of God together. For that, hopefully, we can infect each other and carry that light forward.”

Climate change is a crisis that must be met with creativity, Dimalibot added.

“The greater the crisis, the great the opportunity for grace to descend upon us,” she said. “We want to translate prayer into action. Prayer is actually where everything begins.”

The foundational importance of prayer is central at Villa de Matel, the campus central to the Sisters of the Incarnate Word.

“This is our motherhouse,” Dimalibot said. “This is our home.”

The group traces its roots to 1866, when Bishop Claude Maris Dubuis called for three French Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word to join him in Galveston to care for those in need. Together, they founded the first Catholic hospital in Texas one year later. A school and orphanage followed.

The convent moved from Galveston to Houston in 1926. Villa de Matel offered 65 acres in southeast Houston to foster the sisters and their mission.

“At that time, there was nothing around us,” Dimalibot said. “It was just swamp. We didn’t have any neighbors.”

In the next few decades, congregations and missions opened in Guatemala, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and El Salvador, all coming from a center in Houston. In 1971, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, adopted a focus on social issues including community, the environment and affordable housing.

In the mid-1980s, its leadership realized that Villa de Matel had unreached potential and underused spaces — and the Ruah Spirituality Center was born.

The convent’s dorms and space for prayer were opened to individuals seeking spiritual enlightenment, respite and peace. Unlike other centers that hosted team-building retreats and seminars, Ruah simply made silence, solitude and meditation — all already aspects of life at Villa de Matel — available to groups and individuals.

In the meantime, Dimalibot said, the city grew around the space that was once so isolated.

“Now, we’re surrounded by houses,” Dimalibot said. “A place intended to be away from everything is now in the middle of everything, which is great because you don’t have to travel very far.”

Only 3 miles from downtown, Ruah is accessible to anyone looking for time in thoughtful prayer, Dimalibot said. The rule, however, is that silence must always be observed — to honor the center’s coexistence with the convent and to allow individuals time for prayer.

“This is our house, our prayer space,” Dimalibot said. “We want to maintain that silence and solitude. The more you sink into solitude, the more you experience your union with God. You’re emptying your mind for the purpose of filling it with God.”

Ruah is open to all faith traditions, director Jeannette Easley said. Even individuals who have grown disillusioned with the church are welcome. In addition, the center is open to immigrants who have attended the sisters’ English as a second language classes.

The center also offers spiritual directors who can guide prayers.

Easley became Ruah’s director in 2016, after working in pastoral administration in San Antonio for 28 years. “I knew from the minute I drove through the gates that this is what was planned for me,” she said. “You just feel at home here. The air permeates with sacredness. It’s a sanctuary in the middle of Houston.”

From her first visit, she could sense the slowness, the deliberate calm of Ruah. “You can just feel yourself begin to breath — and I still feel that way here,” she said.

Silence had long been part of Easley’s own personal practice — and she had even created silent retreats in San Antonio.

“Our lives are just so full of chaos, externally and internally,” she said. “God’s first language is silence. Unless we quiet our spirits down, we cannot hear Him.”

When Ruah opened more than 30 years ago, Easley said, the sisters were envisioning the possibilities of the Villa to affect more lives.

“They also recognized an urgent need,” she said. “Everyone is first and foremost a spiritual being. Our focus is to help people go home within themselves.”

Visitors at Ruah start with a day of prayer. Easley welcomes individuals to campus, gives a tour and explains the purpose of the center.

“Then, I’ll sit with you and say, ‘What are you looking for?’” Easley said.

She provides prayer resources and connects individuals with spiritual directors. If the introduction goes well, guests are invited back to stay for a night, a weekend or a week. Some come for a month or longer.

“We journey with them,” Easley said. “We help them to be still enough to listen to that voice of God within them, to become aware of their own spirit.”

Briann Butler has been coming since the 1980s. She and her husband live in EaDo and called to ask if they could visit the convent after driving by the space.

“What started as a day strolling around the grounds ended up being a day of prayer,” Butler recalled.

She kept going back. “I made a habit of it,” she said. “I started with one time a year, and then it became more frequent. I’ve stayed there up to five nights.”

Ruah has become a constant in her life. “We’ve changed churches over the years, but no matter where I was or what I was doing, the Villa was the center of my spiritual walk,” she said. “It’s been an anchor for me. It’s a wonderful place.”

After one trip to Ruah, most visitors come back for more, Easley said. “When life gets too busy, you forget who you are.”

Ruah is about coming back to your center — and that takes practice and discipline, she added.

“Prayer is, bottom line, conversing with God,” Easley said. “We talk and talk about God. We read about Him. We say prayers to him. But the most important part is listening to Him.”

Ruah is also a place of Sabbath.

“Take your hands off the plow. Just breathe,” she said. “Sabbath is so important because it’s about paying attention to what’s most important, taking time to remember who and whose you are.”

Ruah offers space for prayer, including a room for music, one for artistic expression and even a space filled with paintings of icons to contemplate.

Some visitors spend time at the campus’ cemetery, praying with the sisters who came before. There are also nature trails, woods to roam and a labyrinth to walk.

“Everything here is centered around a search for God,” Dimalibot said. “In the labyrinth, you walk, and you think you’re going deeper, but it brings you out again. Once you do reach the center, it’s like you made a pilgrimage.”

Ruah offers weekends of centering prayer, a time to sit and completely empty the mind, Dimalibot said.

“You focus only to bring you back to your center. You’re sitting alone with God,” she said. “When you really quiet your thoughts, you can purify your intentions.”

Dimalibot was a practicing physician when she decided to become a nun in 1999. Now she is able to follow both of her passions; she continues to serve as family practitioner at Christus Point of Life Clinic in Dickinson, one of the clinics sponsored by the Sisters of Charity.

In addition, the sisters actively support Christus St. Mary’s Clinic, Healthy Living Mobile Clinics and school clinics. Sister Rosanne Popp directs St. Mary’s Clinic.

The sisters serve as the hands and feet of Christ, Dimalibot said. “Jesus was here 2,000 years ago, but his legacy lives on,” she said. “This is the life that I want. It’s so huge that it caused me to leave everything. I thought I was giving up so much, but God has given me so much more in return.”

She feels that God placed her in an ideal place to use her gifts.

“Everyone is chosen by God to do different things,” she said. “If you are doing what you are created to be, that’s the happiest you will be. You are expressing your full potential. If you have a light inside of you, don’t be afraid to share it.”

Dimalibot believes spending time in silent prayer can jump-start a process that leads to important change — whether that applies to individuals soul-searching at Ruah or those uniting during the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. “If nothing shifts in our hearts, it’s hard to have a conversation.”

Ultimately, she said, the sisters want to give hope to the community.

“This is our time to strive to be everything we are in our core,” she said. “There is hope. There is so much we can do. We live in a time when we can see stars being born. Why can’t we come up with solutions for our problems, too?”

For more information, visit https://sistersofcharity.org.

Lindsay Peyton is a writer in Houston.

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