by Marie Elena Giossi
Growing up on a small fruit farm in Mexico, Sister Griselda Morales-Martinez, C.S.J., never dreamed she would be a voice for the world’s most vulnerable citizens at the U.N. one day, much less that her religious vocation would lead her there.
This summer, she will celebrate her 25th anniversary of entering the Mexican province of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon, France. She will also complete her term as the non-governmental organization (NGO) representative at the U.N. for the Congregations of Sisters of St. Joseph throughout the world.
Over the last five years, Sister Griselda has worked to help improve economic and social conditions on an international level. Her day-to-day responsibilities range from attending official meetings, keeping Sisters informed on international concerns, giving presentations in New York and overseas and meeting with legislators and political leaders about issues in their countries.
Human rights, poverty eradication, women’s rights, migration and sustainable development are issues close to her heart because she has encountered them firsthand.
“As God’s creation, we exist for each other,” Sister Griselda said on a recent morning in her office on Manhattan’s East Side. Images of St. Joseph and Our Lady of Guadalupe cover the walls.
“To live with others and for others gives me true happiness and satisfaction.”
Sowing Seeds Among Fruit Trees
Born in Veracruz, Mexico, she became aware of the plight of seasonal laborers at a young age. Adjacent to her parents’ small farm, where she and her siblings played among orange and mango trees, were bigger farms that hired laborers to help with the annual harvest. Laborers lived 15-20 in a room and many brought young children, who had no school to attend.
“I used to visit and play with them,” she recalls.
When she was 15, the state ran a training program for young people to become teachers in rural areas and that appealed to her. Participants had to be at least 18 years old but an exception was made for her because her grandfather was a community leader.
So she left high school and became a schoolteacher but also a catechist, planting the seeds of the Catholic faith among even the youngest farm children.
Over time, her zeal for the faith became evident and people, including her pastor, started asking her about religious life. Her answer: “No way!”
Being tucked inside a countryside convent, praying the rosary from dawn to dusk was her idea of religious life and she wanted no part of it.
“I loved working and living in the community,” Sister Griselda said. She loved teaching, dancing and being around people. She didn’t want to give that up.
The question of religious life rose again and again. So at age 18, she attended a retreat with religious sisters from various orders. Her eyes were opened as she discovered the other face of religious life: apostolic orders with sisters who live in the world, but not of the world.
Sister Griselda knew that was what she was called to do.
For two years she discerned her vocation with an order in Mexico. Then one day, her spiritual director gave her bittersweet news.
“She told me, ‘I think you would be a good sister, but not with us,’” Sister Griselda recalled.
When her pastor heard what happened, he said, “Griselda, I know the congregation that would receive you.”
She didn’t want to be rejected again. But her pastor pleaded with her and took her to the sisters himself.
“He brought me to the Sisters of St. Joseph,” of Lyon, France, Sister Griselda said, smiling broadly.
From that day, she knew she was home.
She met the Sisters in January, 1989, and after several retreats, she made her decision.
“I said, ‘My life, my decision is for the life of the world, especially the most vulnerable people,’” she said.
She entered the congregation on Aug. 14, 1989 at age 22.
From day one she has been given opportunities to engage in pastoral ministry, beginning in Chiapas, Mexico, a land rich in resources, but a place where indigenous residents lack the basic necessities. “That really changed my idea about what religious life is,” she said. “When things become hard, I remember those people.”
Encouraged by her fellow Sisters, she finished high school and earned her bachelor’s degree in theology and social work.
For several years she served a large parish in a petroleum-rich area where big businesses tried to take advantage of the locals. She taught the people how to organize and defend themselves as a community.
Meanwhile, she was following the migration situation as many Mexicans were illegally crossing the border into the U.S. She wanted to better understand the migrant experience and accepted an invitation to minister to migrants in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a city on the border of Laredo, Texas.
“As a young sister who thought everything was possible and I can do anything, it was a big privilege to do that ministry,” she said. “I never imagined how hard it is to be a migrant.”
Charism of Justice and Peace
Around this time she became aware of her congregation’s global ministry and she was invited to represent Mexico and Central America as part of her congregation’s international justice and peace team.
Sister Griselda also heard about the NGO where she now serves and met Sister Carol Zinn, S.S.J., her predecessor.
“I was impressed with the mission,” she said. “The world is interconnected and we have a big responsibility as human beings.
“Justice and peace is part of our charism, our spirituality. It is our mission for the life of the world.”
Knowing that mission and living it, however, are two different things.
Just before Sister Carol stepped down from her U.N. post, Sister Griselda received a call from her general superior, who wanted to submit Sister Griselda’s name as a replacement. She responded, “No way. It’s not for me.”
Working at the U.N. would require her to move to New York, learn English and adjust to a new culture and way of life.
But when Sister Carol called her personally, Sister Griselda realized that she couldn’t brush off a sacrifice God might be asking her to make for the life of the world.
In 2009, she assumed her present role at the U.N. and took up residence with the Sisters of St. Joseph from Brentwood, L.I., at St. Patrick’s Convent in Long Island City.
Where Sister Griselda’s journey goes from here, she does not know, but she is certain that she’s in good hands – God’s hands.
She hopes other young women in today’s world have the courage to allow God to guide their lives as well — even to something as radical and unpredictable as religious life.