By Jay Nies
For 57 years, Incarnate Word Sister Peggy Bonnot has been entrusted with a light that helps make God’s love visible.
Now, almost two decades after helping to establish El Puente — Hispanic Ministry in Jefferson City, Sr. Peggy has been elected to the General Leadership Team (GLT) for the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word (CCVI).
She will take up residence at the CCVI motherhouse in San Antonio, Texas, later this summer and will spend the next four years helping chart the course for the congregation in the United States, Mexico and Peru.
She and the rest of the GLT were to be installed in Mexico City on July 14.
A graduate of Immaculate Conception School in Jefferson City, Sr. Peggy has been serving in the Jefferson City diocese for over 30 years.
Fellow sisters nominated her during a CCVI gathering in January of this year. Elections took place after intense prayer, discussion and discernment during the sisters’ general chapter in May.
Several sisters pointed to Sr. Peggy’s broad experience in ministry and understanding of the congregation’s history and mission. They described her as “gentle but strong” — a good combination for leadership.
God gave her courage to say “yes.”
“You feel the power of the Spirit at that moment and that allows you to open yourself up to what God is asking of you,” she said.
She knows it will be hard to leave where she grew up, where many in her family still live and where she’s made so many friends. But after taking part in the leadership team’s first round of orientation, she knows she’s going where God needs her to be now.
“Certainly with God’s help and grace, all of us will be able to fulfill whatever is asked of us,” she said.
Friends got her thinking
Cultivating “a life for God and a heart for others,” CCVIs focus their energy on “making God’s love visible in the world.”
Sr. Peggy always admired the sisters who taught her at I.C. School.
When she was in eighth grade, some friends in the Catholic Youth Organization talked about entering religious life with the CCVIs the following year.
“I was visiting with them one night at a dance, and they told me they were going to go to the convent the next year,” she said.
She thought it was kind of crazy: “These two fun loving girls are going to go to the convent?”
She remained friends with them through her freshman year at Helias Catholic High School, and they all started spending more time with the CCVI sisters at the Immaculate Conception Convent.
She finally asked God in prayer, “What do You want me to do?”
An opportunity came to study in the aspirancy program for girls considering religious life at Incarnate Word Academy at St. Louis. She accepted it and entered religious formation in San Antonio the following year.
“I just kept going after that,” she said. “Each next step seemed like the right thing to do.”
She graduated from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio and began teaching at Catholic schools in Missouri, then in Texas, and then back in Missouri.
She professed vows in 1964, resolving for the rest of her life to radically live out the Beatitudes through poverty, chastity and holy obedience.
In time, she earned a master’s degree in K-12 education with an emphasis in reading.
She taught at Immaculate Conception School in Jefferson City from 1975-80 and at St. Patrick School in Rolla for a year.
She then moved into parish work, serving as pastoral minister at Annunciation parish in California while the current church was being built.
She returned to San Antonio in 1986 for a sabbatical in the Ministry to Ministers program.
She then served as pastoral administrator (now referred to in the diocese as a parish life collaborator) of St. Anthony parish in Rosati for six years, followed by seven at St. Margaret of Antioch parish in Osage Bend.
From the Bend to the Bridge
As a pastoral administrator, she attended meetings of the diocese’s Jefferson City deanery.
Monsignor Donald W. Lammers PA, who was pastor of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City, mentioned at one such meeting that people were asking for Mass in Spanish.
Many young Hispanic families, mostly from Mexico, were moving to central Missouri in search of opportunities and a new beginning. Many were cut off by distance from family and friends, separated from their new neighbors by culture and language, and searching for deeper communion with God and fellowship with others.
“Msgr. Lammers said there was also a need for pastoral ministry in Spanish,” Sr. Peggy recalled. “He said they really needed help with that.”
Something started pulling at her heart.
“We needed to respond,” she said. “Our whole congregation is bent toward working with the poor and vulnerable, with people on the margins.”
Incarnate Word Sister Marianne Kramer, now deceased, a Jefferson City native who had taught in Mexico and knew Spanish and English inside out, was living nearby. She and Sr. Peggy started attending the monthly Masses in Spanish at St. Peter.
They spoke with Precious Blood Sister Ellen Orf, who was serving in Marshall and as diocesan director of Hispanic ministry.
They mentioned what they were thinking to Incarnate Word Sister Margaret Snyder, a Kirksville native, who had worked in campus ministry in El Paso and was nearly fluent in Spanish.
“She said, ‘I just had this dream that I was working with the poor,’” said Sr. Peggy.
Sr. Peggy had minored in Spanish in college. She was far from bilingual but enjoyed using however much Spanish she knew to communicate with her fellow sisters from Mexico and Peru.
“I’ve always had an appreciation for the language and the culture,” she said.
After three weeks of classes and one-on-one tutoring at a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico, she was ready to begin ministering en dos idiomas.
Doors wide open
Later that year, a grant from the CCVI congregation became available for work with people who are poor or in unfunded ministries.
“We wrote a grant proposal, and we got the grant,” Sr. Peggy recalled.
They called the new ministry — a collaboration among the diocese, several local parishes and the CCVI congregation — “El Puente,” which is Spanish for “The Bridge.”
Sr. Peggy soon realized that she would have to step down from her work in Osage Bend in order to work full-time at El Puente.
The diocese provided the sisters a convent near Helias Catholic High School. Renamed Casa Guadalupe, it became El Puente’s first home.
What evolved is a combination of direct services for helping people build community, learn English, find employment, receive medical care and adapt to local culture, in addition to sacrament-preparation, spiritual support, and advocacy within the larger community.
“It’s been a very challenging and rewarding ministry,” Sr. Peggy noted. “I believe the mission of our sisters is being lived out at El Puente in a very real and tangible way.”
Now serving as El Puente’s executive director and the last of the original founders on staff, she is certain that God has been guiding the ministry since Day 1.
“There have been times we thought, ‘Will we be able to pay our staff and continue?’” she said, “and God has always opened the doors for us.”
“Learning on your feet”
Sr. Peggy believes God has been preparing her for this new assignment.
Teaching helped get her ready for parish work, especially one-on-one interaction. Collaborating with parish leaders helped her work with and appreciate various leadership styles.
That all helped her at El Puente, something new and necessary, practical and spiritual.
She’s counting on God’s continued support and guidance as she moves into leadership of a religious congregation with about 250 sisters in three countries, with more than a century’s legacy of healing, teaching and reconciling in the Church.
Sr. Peggy believes having spent most of her time in religious life in this diocese will help her.
“The people here have such a deep faith and spirit of hard work,” she said. “There’s a strong spirit of welcome and generosity that you don’t find everywhere.”
She noted that the priests and sisters in this diocese have a long history of working well together.
“People know each other and they reach out and support each other,” she said.
Witnessing to the Incarnation
Sr. Peggy believes the General Leadership Team will focus much of its energy on emphasizing the CCVI community and charism.
The members will also look for innovative ways to build on and leverage centuries of religious life in the Church.
“I believe the future of religious life is going to stand on the prophetic witness we can give, just by who we are and how we live our lives and bring that to light in the world,” she said.
She expects a large part of that witness to involve concern for people who are vulnerable and the poor, and seeking justice for them.
“We must give witness to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ through our attitudes and in the way we promote human dignity,” she asserted.
She believes laypeople can help make that spiritual evolution in the Church happen.
“I think they do that through their reading and just their openness to what’s going on, their connection with their parish and through their collaboration with others — and by their willingness to serve and to open themselves to what God is calling them to,” she said.
She sees a bright future for consecrated life in the Church, because the need for it has never been greater.
“It will definitely depend on our walking in faith and trust and in continually asking those questions about who we are, what we do and why we do it,” she said.
She is certain that God is still calling women to religious life. Part of helping them answer that call, she said, is to provide a sense of Catholic community in parishes.
“We need to be helping people ask themselves, ‘How do I fit?’” she said.
It’s also necessary to give God a say.
“We all need that ability and willingness to be open and to listen,” she said.
“Step back and listen”
Sr. Peggy asks for prayers for courage, patience and the gift of discernment.
“Pope Francis said we need to get our hands dirty and also listen,” she said. “Sometimes we think we have all the answers, but what we really need is to step back and listen deeply to the cries of the world and the cries of the Church and to suffering and vulnerable people, and try to discern what their needs are and how we can respond.”