Sr. Paula Maher

Sr. Paula Maher

October 6, 2014

When four sisters from the Congregation of Notre Dame went to Guatemala 50 years ago, fireworks, streamers and a procession marked their arrival.

They arrived on Dec. 23, 1964, just two days before Christmas. The waiting villagers welcomed the missionary sisters with applause, and shouted, "Viva las Madres!"

All from the United States, they started the first mission in San Francisco la Union, in the department of Olintepeque.

Their work took on different forms. Sister Mary Frances MacIsaac worked in a clinic, while Sister Marie Celine Caufield did catechesis and census-taking. Sister Louise Virginia Driscoll worked at the elementary school. Sister Rita Rompre worked in adult education and census-taking.

Fifty years later, the Congregation of Notre Dame, long active in the Edmonton Archdiocese, maintains a strong presence in Central America, and is celebrating a half-century of work in Guatemala.

Sister Paula Maher, a Notre Dame sister now living in Innisfail, was a missionary in Guatemala and Honduras from 1990 to 2011. She lived with MacIsaac.

"It was a wonderful experience because we learned a lot. We were exposed to these beautiful people who had been kept down and oppressed for centuries. During that time, in 1990, the 36-year war in Guatemala was still going on," said Maher.

The Guatemalan Civil War ran from 1960 to 1996. It was a war fought mainly between the Guatemalan government and leftist rebel groups.

The conflict also included a large-scale campaign of one-sided violence by the government against Guatemala's civilian population. Up to 200,000 people died or went missing during the war.

"There are many books and write-ups about the massacres of the people and the burning of their villages, and so on. I was younger then, so my nerves were better and I was a little more adventuresome. We wanted to stand by the people if they were in fear," explained Maher.

Despite those troubled times in Guatemala, Maher said she was blessed to live among the people there.

"They faced intolerable suffering. They'd ask, 'What can we do? God is protecting us, God is with us.' They believed and trusted in God. Their faith was just remarkable," she said.

Maher worked with a team of six sisters and the pastor from the main village, situated about 50 km from the Mexican border. Scattered throughout the mountains were 48 villages, and the sisters would travel by donkey to evangelize the people in about five villages per week, giving them the opportunity for Eucharist, Confession and other sacraments.

"I'd work with women's groups and children. We focused on helping the women who, in many of those countries, are very much kept down.

"The women didn't feel very good about themselves, no self-esteem. So we did a lot of work with them to help them learn that they have as much worth as the male partner," said Maher.


There is no finishing point to the sisters' missionary work in Central America, she said.

The government is corrupt. Many people are illiterate and uneducated, she continued. Perhaps worst of all, there are bands of maras – gangs into arms trafficking, assault, money laundering, prostitution, racketeering, robbery and other criminal activity – that run rampant in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

"They have become very violent, and the young men kill to become part of the group. Many of them go to jail, but then they multiply in number. They are street gangs into drugs and extortion work," said Maher.

Since July, celebrations have been organized in various places throughout Guatemala to mark the sisters' 50-year presence in the country.