Two friends from the suburbs of Chicago could hardly contain their excitement after graduating from high school last summer and planning a major trek that promised some radical adventure, and maybe a little danger.
But this was not your average post-high school road trip.
The graduates of Joliet Catholic Academy, Alexandra Fedosenko and Lisa Duffy, arranged to take one year off before college and live in rural Mexico serving people who have nothing but the basics, and hardly even enough of that.
“We’re the happiest we’ve ever been,” Fedosenko says.
How did this happen?
Throughout high school, the two friends committed themselves to service and volunteer work through their school’s campus ministry. Fedosenko also worked through her parish youth ministry service, putting in more than 500 hours of volunteer work in places of need.
“She’s very committed to the life of the Church in an active role,” says Father Thomas Loya, her pastor at Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Ill. “She has always had a feel for doing things for other people, like working in homeless shelters or right on the street.”
Fedosenko and Duffy wanted to devote one year to that kind of work before starting college, and looked for a Catholic mission. A priest friend helped place them with Redemptorist Father Pablo Straub’s Mission Helpers of the Holy Savior in rural Guerrero, Mexico.
“While searching, we just left it up to God and kept praying every day,” recalls Fedosenko. “We were ecstatic when we found out where we were going. We knew it was God’s will.”
The mission where they live and work is on a mountain above the village of San Isidro, about an hour outside Acapulco. “It’s a small, poor village of huts with palm branches and dirt floors,” says Fedosenko. “Some of the kids don’t have clothes. Our job is to tell the children that they’re loved.”
Another job is to teach English to the brothers and sisters at the mission’s convent and monastery, a group that includes Mexicans, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans. They start each day early, with morning prayer and classes, followed by afternoons of help around the convent.
Sometimes, the simple work of cleaning can be hazard duty in so remote a place. While doing a routine job with mop and bucket, Alexandra was bitten on the hand by a tarantula she didn’t see in time.
“I tried to flick it off” she recounts almost nonchalantly, “but it already bit me. Lisa went for the sister to get help.”
With no time to waste, apparently.
“She took me to the doctor, who said some tarantulas are poisonous, so we had to go to the hospital. In the half hour ride, my hand swelled up, my arm went numb, my tongue started getting prickly, and I was getting sleepy,” she says. After intravenous treatment, “they sent me back and said I’d be sick for three days, then I’d be fine. I was.”
“We’ve learned to completely put our trust in God here,” says Fedosenko, and laughing, adds, “I mean there are all kinds of crazy animals here, dangerous areas, sometimes no food — many things. The Bible tells us to trust in the Lord with all our hearts. God provides everything. I honestly don’t think I had the amount of trust I have now before coming here. At home, you don’t have to think about these things. One of the ways we’ve both changed here is in our complete trust in God. Lisa and I have become so much more aware of how we’re supposed to do that, and to just love others.”
Duffy eagerly agrees.
“We’ve learned tremendous things about our faith,” she says. “We came down here to teach them, but we’ve learned so much from them. Their faith is so complete. People are so important here. Back home, things are important. I was a completely different person when I came down here. The people of Mexico are so welcoming and loving and giving.”
The pair experience that each day in the mission community.
“The brothers and sisters completely serve and give to others,” stresses Fedosenko. “Mother Superior is so quiet and humble, and she never stops giving. She makes the simple so special. They are attentive to the little things, serving others in the smallest things. The simple is really the grand. Christ was a carpenter for 30 years, teaching us something of great significance.”
Taking that message into the most remote places is the mission charism of the Helpers of the Holy Savior. Several times a year, they take a missionary trip to some distant village in Mexico, Guatemala or Nicaragua that takes days to reach. Some of the nuns and priests go in advance to invite townspeople to the mission that is coming.
When the rest of the group arrives, they begin a week and a half of daily Rosaries, confession, Mass, Divine Mercy chaplet, adoration and procession. Duffy and Fedosenko have gone with them, and both are amazed at the experience.
“Most of these people in the villages have turned away from Christ before the brothers come there,” says Fedosenko. “The sense of good and evil is so much clearer, like black-and-white, with plenty of corruption and bad influences.”
The brothers and sisters teach local families the Gospel, in sessions for children and for parents.
“The young boys and girls in these regions are influenced by the culture of drugs and indecency,” says Duffy. The two say signs and symbols of evil are evident on billboards and clothing. But the good co-exists with it, even when it’s less obvious.”
“Some of their chapels go without a priest for one to two months at a time,” says Fedosenko. “When the people are exposed to the mission, they really turn out for it. And they’re so devoted to their faith, it’s amazing. The Masses are all filled, even the weekday ones. The people come to it in a procession starting at the four corners of the town and ending at the church. The work of the mission is to bring people back to Christ. By the end of the week, the people of the town turn around so much.”
One of these missions was in Cumbres, a roughly four-hour journey. The villagers are descendents of the Mayans who speak native Amuzgo, though that never hinders communication.
“The children are so joyful, they love to play with us,” says Duffy. “The mothers are so willing to sacrifice. They are very poor people, but they’re so happy and loving and giving.”
When the two returned home for Christmas, they spoke at parishes about the lessons of mission work.
“Alexandra talked about how much joy these people have, though they have nothing,” says Father Loya. “She knows how abundantly blessed she is.”
That was evident in the conversation with the women, a connection they could only make through an unstable Internet connection that repeatedly dropped the call, though they persisted in calling back. As they spoke, in turn, their words and tone expressed deep appreciation and utter amazement at the riches they found in the midst of such poverty.
“Lisa and I have become so much more aware of how we’re supposed to love others,” says Fedosenko. “It’s very powerful. We find the joy in everything now because of these people. I used to want to make a big difference in the world, but now I’ve learned that you just do everything with love and joy.”
Duffy adds: “We’ve grown so much from this mission. Life has a totally different meaning now.”
By summer, they will be tested again in new terrain, when they return home and head to a college campus.
“We talk about how completely different it’s going to be back home,” admits Fedosenko. “But God got us here for a reason. He has a great plan. Next year, we have to be missionaries again, but in a different way. The challenge is to live my faith more than ever before.”
The challenge is to bring joy and simplicity to young people who may have everything else.
Father Loya is certain Fedosenko will live up to it.
“I think she’s always going to be a motivating force for the people here in America,” he said. “She’ll motivate others to awareness and compassion. You know, a good part of the world does not live like us, and people are unaware of that. She’ll help raise their awareness, move people outside of themselves. The generation of young people today was born into a more comfortable existence than at any other time. But there’s a cry of the human heart that materialism doesn’t answer. Giving oneself to others, being altruistic, answers that need. So many young people want to be inspired, and they will give of themselves.”
Fedosenko and Duffy are already on that “mission” and they ask for help.
“There’s a town about 20 minutes away that only has a flimsy chapel made of sticks, with a dirt floor and some stones,” says Fedosenko. “It’s inadequate and dangerous. They need a new chapel and we want to help them build it.”
When the young women were home for Christmas, they raised $20,000 through churches and schools. But they need $50,000, and they trust it will come.
Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is based in Chicago.
Contribution checks for the chapel can be made payable to: The Mission Helpers, in care of Donna Fedosenko, 1101 Buell Ave., Joliet, IL 60435.
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