Sr. Loreto Andrea Leoń Soto
EDMONTON — By most standards, Loreto Andrea Leo Soto was like any other girl growing up in Santiago, Chile.
Becoming a sister never occurred to her. She had a normal upbringing with close friends and a boyfriend.
But enter religious life she did. After five years of religious formation, Leo was to make her first profession of vows Sept. 20 at Providence Renewal Centre.
Leo came from a strong Catholic home where faith was essential. Christmas and Holy Week were more than just liturgical celebrations, but a time for her family to fully express their faith.
“I grew up in this ambience of faith, which was very normal within the family. Ever since I was a child I went to school with the Sisters of Providence, but I was never attracted to religious life. Actually, the sisters scared me.”
She went to a small, one-room chapel that served a base Christian community. It was situated in a poor area in southern Chile.
“Most days the layperson had to take the place of the priest because the priest was only there once a month. So I was a real lay participant in the Church, doing pastoral work with children and youth.”
She gathered with others there to pray and read the Bible, and also to help people in need. These sorts of activities were enjoyable, as was going out in the evenings and sharing her faith with the people of the streets. She also went to the hospital and talked with patients, bringing them joy and love.
“Little by little this changed my life, but I was never thinking that I’d like to be a nun. My intention was to be like Jesus,” said Leo.
However, it was in that period that her vocation started to become evident. “I felt uncomfortable, as though something was missing in my life. I was doing OK in school and I had many friends, but something was missing.”
A turning point came when she took part in a celebration for the canonization of Alberto Hurtado, a Chilean saint. She felt God calling her to do something significant. She talked with a nun about this unfamiliar feeling stirring within her. This nun accompanied her through the process of finding this calling.
Neither her parents nor friends knew she was discerning a religious life. She kept it secret for a long time.
Eventually Leo spoke with her mother, a woman of tremendous wisdom, and she helped her daughter through prayers and with silence. Upon graduating high school, she needed to make a decision on what to do with her life. She had her registration papers for university prepared, but was having second thoughts. Instead, she chose to join the Sisters of Providence.
“I wrote to the congregation, and the time came when I needed to tell my father. It was difficult for him. He had a lot of high hopes and other plans for me. But now he is happy because he sees me happy,” she said.
Before coming to Canada, she taught catechism in Chile to children aged four, five and six.
Now, Léon desires to live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in community and has a desire to serve the needy. She is an artist, musician, organizer and is hospitable with everyone she meets. She prepares food hampers at Anawim Place for people in need.
In Chile, there is crisis in the Church because of the sex abuse scandals. “Right now there are not many people who participate fully in the Church as an institution. The connection is more with Jesus the person, not with the Church. People say they don’t believe in the Church, but they still believe in Christ.”
This same rift between Catholics and the Church is seen in Canada, and remains a root cause of the shortage of vocations in recent years. An even bigger factor in the declining number of religious sisters is the attraction of modern secular life. Sisters are no longer as visible in the schools and hospitals, as they were generations ago. Religious life is seldom seen as an option anymore.
“How can we put the people in love with religious life? Many other things attract them, and they cannot see the beauty of what religious life has to offer,” said Leo.