CHALCO, MEXICO — It’s not often a priest receives cheers for hearing confessions, but that’s exactly what happened to Father Christopher O’Connor when he traveled to Chalco, Mexico, last month to assist a group of sisters at a school they run for girls.
Father O’Connor, pastor of Blessed Virgin Mary Help of Christians Parish in Woodside, was in Mexico for 18 days in October, celebrating Masses, hearing confessions, and administering to the spiritual needs of 3,000 girls living at Girls Town, a boarding school in Chalco on the outskirts of Mexico City, sponsored by the Sisters of Mary.
Girls Town doesn’t get too many visits from priests, so when Father O’Connor arrived at the campus on Oct. 2, many of the students rushed up to him and eagerly asked him if he was there to hear confessions.
“When I said ‘Yes,’ all of them started cheering. I’ve never had that happen to me before,” he recalled.
The Sisters of Mary opened Girls Town in 1991 to educate girls between the ages of 11 and 16 who hail from impoverished families. The students live with the sisters for a period of five years. Currently, there are 49 sisters and 98 teachers at Girls Town.
The sisters literally scour the countryside to find new students. “Our mission is the same as Mary, guide each child to get closer to Jesus,” said Sister Marilyn Gonzales, who has been at Girls Town for seven years.
The sisters also run a Boys Town in Guadalajara, Mexico, as well as schools in five other countries — Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras, the Philippines, and Tanzania. The nonprofit organization World Villages for Children works with the sisters to set up the schools and raise funds to keep them flourishing.
All of the boarding schools operate under the same concept — giving children a good education as well as teaching them things like computer skills to improve their future employment prospects.
“It gives the kids the chance to break the cycle of poverty,” explained Father O’Connor, who was familiar with the sisters’ work and had wanted to go to Girls Town for quite some time. When the opportunity came in October, he jumped at the chance.
Father O’Connor had many memorable moments at Girls Town — celebrating Mass for a crowd of 3,000 people, holding candlelight vigils, blessing dorm rooms, marveling at the devotion the students had for the Blessed Sacrament, and getting to know the sisters.
He heard at least 125 confessions a day and found that the students fully embraced the sacrament of reconciliation.
But there were sad moments, too. Father O’Connor discovered that poverty wasn’t the only thing plaguing the girls.
“A lot of them came from broken homes and some of them had been physically or sexually abused. There were a lot of tears,” he recalled. “The main thing was to listen to them and allow them to tell their story.”
The sisters were grateful for Father O’Connor’s assistance. “The visit from Father Chris was very helpful to us, especially because we were able to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, both the children and the sisters,” Sister Marilyn said.
Priests from nearby dioceses don’t visit Girls Town often, she explained, “because they are usually very busy.”
Father O’Connor felt his mission was to bring the love of Jesus Christ to each person he encountered there. “I wanted to make sure each girl knew she was loved and that she was important,” he explained.
If the sisters were grateful for his presence, he was equally impressed with them. “The whole set-up they have at Girls Town is amazing. Each dorm is like a family with a sister serving as a mother to the girls in that dorm,” he explained.
Nineteen of the sisters are former students of Girls Town. When they graduated, they decided to pursue a vocation.
Father O’Connor found it difficult to leave. “The girls begged me not to go,” he said. “But I explained that I have my own parish to take care of.”
He is already making plans to return to Girls Town in January.