Mission Leader Nurtures Welcoming Community
In the fall of 2008, when Sister Arcadia Rivera Gutierrez accepted the pastoral coordinator position at Glenmary's Plymouth, N.C., mission, she was relying on God's grace to see her through. "I knew it would be challenging. I prayed for guidance and courage," she says. More than two years later, she believes that grace is still strengthening her and the mission community.
A member of the Daughters of Blessed Mary of Guadalupe, Sister Arcadia had relocated from her native Mexico in 2002 to work as coordinator of Hispanic ministry at another parish in North Carolina.
The challenges she realized she'd face in Plymouth included being a first-time parish administrator and leading a diverse congregation of Spanish and English speakers. But despite her lack of pastoral administration experience and then-limited English skills, she felt called to the job.
The Scripture verse that helped her most was 2 Corinthians 12:9—"But (the Lord) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.'" She says she "feels very comfortable working with Glenmary, because my order's charism is like theirs: to be missionary and serve the poor."
In addition, she has had the benefit of a valuable, full-time volunteer coworker in Sister Martha Alvarado Moreno, who is sponsored by their religious order.
The Diocese of Raleigh established the small St. Joan of Arc mission in Plymouth in 1959. Decades later, the Glenmary priest who had become pastor of the new Windsor (Bertie County) mission in 2004 also began serving the Plymouth (Washington County) mission in 2005. Glenmary's pastoral associate in Plymouth at that time handled daily responsibilities.
But Sister Arcadia's arrival in Plymouth in 2008 meant the mission had a full-time, resident pastoral administrator.
In her opinion, the mission's strength has always been the prayerful people who want to belong. The English- and Spanish-speaking members both have many gifts to share, she says. What she's done is to let people know that the door is open to all, that they are equally welcome, and that they are one community.
"The most important thing is that more people are coming now," she says, "because they know we're here for them. People need an environment where they are embraced. We are here to listen and talk to them (her English has steadily improved), to be with them on their life journeys, and to help take care of their souls."
In a county where more than 25 percent of the population is living below the national poverty level, mission members sometimes seek her counseling and help to cope with financial struggles.
One sign that people feel welcome is the significant increase in Mass participation. Attendance at Sunday Spanish Mass has risen from 10-12 in 2008 to 60-80 currently, and it's growing—with standing-room-only crowds at special celebrations. About 14-15 have consistently attended Sunday English Mass.
Sadly, the first Glenmary pastor, Father Mike Langell, died in April 2009. A Jesuit priest then filled in weekly. But in August 2010, Glenmary Father Chet Artysiewicz became pastor in Windsor and sacramental minister for the Plymouth mission.
"Father Chet makes a big difference," says Sister Arcadia. "He relates well to everyone. He's very fluent in Spanish. And he's very approachable and sociable." Besides his sacramental ministry, he comes for parish council meetings, special celebrations and other pastoral needs.
Sister Arcadia has taken several other steps that have made a positive impact, such as strengthening the growing youth faith formation program. This program, she says, has done the most to bring the mission community together. The simple reason: older English-speaking parishioners are the catechists, teaching and guiding the bilingual Hispanic children in religious education classes. "This connects the teachers and the children's families, too," she says.
Sister Arcadia also began a needed adult faith formation program and introduced classes for both married and engaged couples. "The marriage classes have made a real difference in the happiness of our families," she says.
Her other initiatives include a Bible study group for Spanish-speaking women and a prayer group for English-speaking women.
In addition, the mission has several special religious celebrations and observances in keeping with members' cultural practices and traditions. And potluck meals throughout the year bring people together to socialize.
Even people from outside the county have found the open door at St. Joan of Arc mission. Each spring, several visiting migrant workers come for Mass. And every week, seven Hispanic families travel 45-75 minutes—one way—to Plymouth "because they can attend Spanish Mass and feel at home here," says Sister Arcadia.
The mission community also reaches out to the larger community through ecumenical social service and worship programs. And the mission donates to the local food pantry.
Sister Arcadia says she's witnessed repeatedly in Plymouth that "God's grace is powerful." She believes it's this grace that will help unify and carry the mission into the future.
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.