The Power of Language

Posted by Kacie Emmerson

May 5, 2023

By Dana Hinton | Director of Communications, Western Province

Maria is a hardworking mother who came to the United States from Mexico. She is determined to improve her skills and build a better future for herself and her children. With the support of Rosemarie Kirwan, SCN, Maria’s enthusiasm for learning is a source of inspiration to all.

Among the stacks of books in the quiet of the Motherhouse Library, in a corner near the back, sit two women at a wooden round table. They are discussing verbs. Meeting as they do each week, Sister Rosemarie points to the dry-erase board behind her. Maria (name changed for her privacy) repeats her words. Using workbooks and lesson plans, the two women are engaged in the power and promise of English as a Second Language (ESL).

“It gives me an advantage to know Spanish, so that does help, and it gives us an opening for vocabulary,” Sister Rosemarie said. She said Maria came to her ESL lesson that day asking about the word “them” and how to use it. 

She appreciates that Maria learns through observation and says that it helps that Maria was educated in Mexico. Although she has lived in the United States for many years, she still needs assistance with the English language. Most of Maria’s family still lives in Mexico, so she has little support or a network she can turn to. 

Maria is driven to improve her skills to land a better job, and she wants to read to her children. Her children have helped her with learning the language, along with watching television and movies in English. 

Years ago, Brenda Gonzales, SCN, met Maria through another ESL student she had placed with a Sister. Maria was matched with Elaine Puthoff, SCN, and they studied for about a year together until Sister Elaine died in 2015. Maria looked to find a new teacher. While in town one day, she happened to run into Sister Brenda and asked for her help finding a new teacher. “We had so many Sisters who taught ESL but few now,” Sister Brenda said. 

While Sister Brenda was looking for a new ESL teacher for Maria, Maria was getting restless. She decided to come to Nazareth to see if Sister Brenda had found anyone, but unfortunately, her truck broke down. What did Maria do? She walked to Nazareth from her home in Bardstown. 

Sister Brenda was in luck. Sister Rosemarie had just retired from her position as Motherhouse Treasurer, a role she served for 12 years. She might have some free time. 

Sister Rosemarie has served in teaching positions for most of her ministry life. She taught at several grade schools in Kentucky as well as at Pharr-San Juan Alamo High School in Pharr, Texas. For many years, Sister Rosemarie lived and served in Belize. Recently she took a trip with Sister Brenda to serve at the Mexican border, and she has taught English as a Second Language in the past. Sister Rosemarie recalls that while living in Texas, she helped a woman who was a farm worker to learn English. She remembers Sister Caroline Field, who would educate other Sisters on how to teach English as a foreign language many years ago. 

When Sister Rosemarie received the call from Sister Brenda, she was taken with Maria’s gumption. “She is a very eager student. The best I’ve ever taught,” she shares. Between work and family responsibilities, Rosemarie knows it is difficult for some to meet with her regularly. The women often have children to care for. She recalls several years ago when she would drive to a woman’s apartment in Bardstown to help her with English. The woman had three small children at home, and when school was out, it was a challenge to concentrate on the English lessons. Sister Rosemarie explained that English is already difficult to learn without distraction, and she was disappointed when their lessons ended. Maria, too, is a mother, and the two women have aligned their calendars to work their lessons around the children’s schedules. 

Sister Brenda says that without a good grip on the language, people may want you to clean their house or provide a service, but they can take advantage of you. Maria said that when they know you need the job, the employer may be unfair. 

Sister Brenda is pleased with this teacher-student match. “I think it gives both of them energy.”

Sister Rosemarie considers herself a tough teacher, but she understands that the English language is difficult to learn. “There’s nothing in English that can be a rule. Today, we are working on the three different ways to say plurals.”

The pair have become friends, and Sister Rosemarie has found other ways to help student. After a couple of weeks of ESL, Sister Rosemarie realized that Maria was having trouble seeing. She contacted Sister Brenda, who helped her get glasses and assisted her with other health care needs. “Brenda is the connector. She has so many connections,” said Sister Rosemarie.

“SCNs resource each other when needs arise,” Sister Brenda added. “We check with each other and see whom we can connect with in the SCN or civic community.”

Sister Brenda connected with the local free clinic to help meet Maria’s health needs. Since the free clinic began in Bardstown, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth have supported it. Barbara Joseph Lammers, SCN, currently serves on the board.

This isn’t the only way Sisters Brenda and Rosemarie partner up in service. Each Monday, the pair spend their day volunteering in the food “Pantry of Choice” with Sister Visitor in Louisville. Sister Visitor Center provides emergency assistance for basic human needs, such as food, hygiene and cleaning supplies, to Louisville residents. Paris Slapikas, SCN, is the director of Sister Visitor. Sister Paris is grateful for the volunteers, especially because they can speak Spanish with clients when needed. “A lot of our services rely on volunteers,” says Sister Paris.

Sisters Rosemarie, Brenda and Susan Gatz have been present once a month to give out food from Feeding America in Bardstown and translate for the Spanish-speaking families that come. What do these Sisters have in common? They have been in ministry in Texas and Belize. Now that they have returned to live and serve in Bardstown, Sisters use their skills to help the local Spanish-speaking community.

As has been the pattern since their first meeting in September, the recent lesson ends in time for Maria to head home and retrieve her son from the afternoon school bus. 

Sister Rosemarie said, “I love her enthusiasm, and it’s a delight to come here every Wednesday afternoon.” 

“And I love it, too,” Maria said.

Find this story and more in The Journey Magazine. 2023, Vol. I


  1. Eugenie Coakley scna

    So glad the connections, talent, and energy among Maria, Sr. Rosemarie, and Sr. Brenda worked out!

  2. Linda Soltis, SCN

    Understanding the language makes a world of difference in someone’s life. Having taught ESL, I know what a valuable service it is to someone’s life. Thank you for making a difference for Maria and your work with the Hispanic community. How good that you are all bilingual. It really helps!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like…

Lending a Hand in Maryland

Lending a Hand in Maryland

Join us for an immersion experience in Maryland from May 13-17 for a unique volunteer event. In collaboration with St. Mary’s Ryken High School, we’re offering the chance to help families in need with home repairs while staying at the beautiful Camp Maria Retreat Center. Don’t miss this fulfilling experience!

We Are the Easter People – Associate Reflection

We Are the Easter People – Associate Reflection

On the bright Easter Monday morning April 2, 2024, in central Kathmandu city, half a dozen SCNAs (including two couples) gathered to celebrate their first Easter together in a deep spiritual way.