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Las Cruces nun receives highest honor for a missionary

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A nun in the Las Cruces Catholic Diocese described as fearless is the recipient of the Lumen Christi Award, the highest honor bestowed on a U.S. missionary.

Sister Marie-Paule Willem was recognized for her lifetime of service on the frontlines along the southwest border and in South America, where she survived death threats.

Catholic Extension, the Chicago-based papal organization that raises money to help faith communities in poor and isolated Catholic dioceses, selected her for the honor.

“I couldn’t believe it,” 85-year-old Willem of the Franciscan Missionary of Mary told the Journal. She was selected from 47 Lumen Christi nominees from across the country.

“Sister Marie-Paule teaches us that war, persecution and suffering cannot extinguish the light of Christ,” said the Rev. Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension.

Willem has devoted 60 years to missionary work in troubled regions of South America and in parishes on the southwest border.

Born in Belgium, she survived Nazi occupation as a child.

“I was living in the Second World War. It was all this danger and scary things, insecurity, hatred, name it,” she said. “I lived in this for five years so I was well prepared to do my job.”

She ministered in Argentina and Paraguay in the 1970s and risked her life during brutal military dictatorships.

“They disappeared, so many, many, many people,” she said of her time in Argentina.

In Paraguay, she helped prisoners who were put in outdoor “corrals” and left to starve. “We had to see that they had water and food so they could stay alive,” Willem said.

Her effort on behalf of the Catholic Church to advocate for social justice led to death threats during a time when priests and nuns were killed in Latin America.

“I was on the list three times, on the hit list,” she said.

Willem said she was forced to leave the region and found a new mission in 1980 in the United States in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas working with the poor.

In the border town of Roma, about 100 miles northwest of Brownsville, she was parish director of religious education and worked with women at an immigration detention center. She said living “five minutes” from the Rio Grande was hard for the Franciscan Missionary of Mary nuns.

“There were these people trying to come over drowning, dead bodies, then the dogs after them,” she said, referring to Border Patrol canine units used to track undocumented immigrants.

She moved to the Diocese of Las Cruces in 1999 to serve migrant farmworkers and local families. Now she is the parish administrator at San Jose Mission Church.

“She has a vision for our little parish. We’ve worked on making improvements,” said Juan Moreno, who serves on the parish council.

When Willem arrived, the tiny church in the working-class neighborhood that was the old Picacho Village had only a handful of parishioners and no full-time pastor, according to the diocese.

“She’s tireless for an 85-year-old lady,” Moreno said. “Boy she’s got a lot of energy. She knows what she wants and you cannot say no to her.”

With help from parishioners, Willem has improved the church grounds, which now have gardens, remodeled the parish hall and updated the church. The parish now includes more than 200 families.

“She’s built community with us,” Moreno said.

Willem’s community will share in the Lumen Christi award, which includes a $50,000 grant to help the recipient’s ministry.

Las Cruces nun Sister Marie-Paule Willem is this year’s recipient of the Lumen Christi Award, the highest honor bestowed on a U.S. missionary.