Share This Post


Visitors Witness a ‘Little Glimpse of Heaven’ at Villa de Las Niñas…

Visitors Witness a ‘Little Glimpse of Heaven’ at Villa de Las Niñas…

Two weeks ago, in the shadow of a pair of volcanos in a poor Mexican town, Father Dwight Longenecker was lifted into another dimension that left him wordless.

The South Carolina pastor and prolific Catholic author was the latest member of the American clergy to become wonderstruck by an ongoing phenomenon at the free Catholic boarding school in Chalco, a hardscrabble town outside of Mexico City. Like other bishops, priests and religious who had visited before him, Father Longenecker was transfixed when the iron gate to Villa de Las Niñas swung open and he began to understand what many regard as “the miracle of Girlstown.”

Is “miracle” too strong a word?

“No,” a visiting priest said. “A miracle of God takes place every day in Chalco. Countless children are raised there from seeming deaths.”

Father Longenecker paid witness to 3,000 Mexican teenage girls blaze with a startling type of joy. He saw children in the process of being mothered back to health and serenity by 56 members of the Sisters of Mary religious community. In many of the villages outside of the Girlstown community are the human traffickers, drug runners and gang members from whom the soul-bruised teenage girls must escape.

Because Father Longenecker had been told of the depth of anguish and wounds the violence of poverty had wrought in the girls, he didn’t anticipate what he regarded as an otherworldly type of joy.

“A visit to Chalco is a little glimpse of heaven,” said Father Longenecker, who wrote about his pilgrimage to Girlstown on his blog. “Music, flowers, children, dancing. The whole experience has impressed on me the importance of using aright the time that is left to me here on earth. … I came away from Girlstown astonished at what God can accomplish through one priest who is 100% for Christ.

“Venerable Al Schwartz was unstoppable — even with a crippling disease he did not give up relying on God’s power.”

A young Tanzanian woman works at a work training center set up by the Sisters of Mary in Dar es Salaam.

Venerable Schwartz — known as “Father Al” around these parts — is the American missionary priest who founded the Sisters of Mary in 1964 in the war-scorched Korean Peninsula, with a mission to nourish the souls of the humiliated, neglected and orphaned. Until his death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1992, the priest from Washington, D.C., had rescued and saved the lives of tens of thousands of the poor, homeless and afflicted.

On Aug. 15, the sisters will celebrate the 60th anniversary of their founding alongside the 20,000 children they care for at 15 Boystown and Girlstown communities in six different countries in Central and South America, the Philippines and Tanzania.

A long line of clergymen like Father Longenecker say that their lives and priesthoods have been changed by visiting Chalco or the Boystown community in Guadalajara. Some priests said these “communities of resurrection” are as spellbinding and sacred as any place they’ve ever seen.

A longtime priest who visited found himself unable to control his tears after his return to America. A bishop said he felt himself “pour himself as a libation,” in persona Christi, in a fashion he had never known. A priest from Maryland said his understanding of the priesthood had been challenged, changed and made holier. Another priest re-engineered his life after a visit to Chalco and returned to nursing school while pastoring his parish.

“I saw that the sisters never stopped working to help their hundreds of hurt souls,” said Father Shaun Foggo, the pastor of St. Joseph’s in Beltsville, Maryland. “Just the other day, I felt a little overwhelmed with the obligations that come with a parish move, and suddenly I thought to myself, ‘How dare I complain about anything?’ I was thinking that I had so much to do — but then I thought of the Sisters of Mary. They have this feeling every day of the year.

“As a priest, I am called to pour myself out, but the sisters pour themselves out every day with constant joy. And it is easy to see how it works. As the sisters love the girls, they adore the Blessed Sacrament, have a devotion to Mary, and follow in the footsteps of Father Al Schwartz. … I’ve heard it said that our minds and hearts follow what our bodies do — and you see this dynamic played out over and over again at Girlstown. There is no other place I know like it.”

Franciscan Father Clifford Hennings visits with girls in Chalco in March.

Father Bob Golas had been a priest for nearly two decades in the Archdiocese of Washington when something foreign — something uncontrollable — began to happen after having visited the Chalco community last year. While at prayer, in the middle of conversations with parishioners, and occasionally while offering Mass at Holy Redeemer in College Park, Maryland, he found himself on the verge of tears. He choked up in the middle of announcements and homilies. Sometimes he just let the tears run down his cheeks. Never before had he experienced anything like it.

When asked about the phenomenon, Father Golas said, “Non sum ego eram. … The Latin phrase keeps running through my head. ‘I am not that I was.’ … I was invited to Girlstown in Chalco and it was there that I found myself falling in love with a dead priest, and it began to affect me deeply.

“I came to know Venerable Aloysius Schwartz. His heroism and abandonment to God truly shook me — and really, I’ve found myself emotional since. … Father Al basically showed me, and everyone who heard and knew him, that until we understood Jesus in the poor, part of our lives would be stunted. And mine was stunted. I think I was doing the best I could as a priest, but really, Father Al showed me that I was partially going through the motions. Father Al was a priest who poured all of himself out for the poor.”

Father Golas said he began to see the Sisters of Mary as tireless workers bringing about healing in places of deep brokenness. He perceived Villa de Las Niñas as a saving ground protected by tall stone walls, where acres and acres of an old carrot farm were covered in God’s graces, goodwill and spiritual and physical rebirth. He saw the five-year boarding school as an ordered place of Catholicity — as a community of risen Lazaruses who seemed to have become choruses of born-again angels.

“These poor girls were Jesus Christ. Jesus made it clear in the Gospel. And Father Al understood this ‘Jesus in the poor’ better than most … I needed to experience that,” Father Golas said. “Now, I feel like I need to go back every year to get away from the ever-running river of American consumerism and culture. It doesn’t really stop here, but it does in Girlstown.”

The children in these communities do not have cell phones or earbuds. They do not play video games or browse social media. Consequently, they have more time to hone their God-given skills. This was Father Al’s pared-down “way.” His desire was for children to have time to pray, play and pursue holiness. The students pray nightly Rosaries, attend weekday Masses and spend a few hours each week in Adoration. 

Texas bishop Joseph Strickland said he became deeply moved by the sacrificial work of the Sisters of Mary after traveling to Chalco this past spring. He said he watched them continually pour themselves out to help free the students from their wounds and painful memories. Thereafter, he began to act accordingly in celebrating Masses, hearing confessions and spiritually directing the sisters and children.

“These girls come here broken, and the Sisters of Mary pray and work hard to heal their trauma,” Bishop Strickland said. “The wounded become healed here by women who want no fanfare. It is the work of God.”

“I began to see the Sisters of Mary’s work as woven into the priest’s call — my own call — to suffer and offer sacrifice with no fanfare. Their ministry of sacrifice and relentless work for souls is the same as the High Priest of Jesus Christ. … As a bishop, I, too, am called to enter into that type of sacrifice and suffering. Otherwise, my priesthood isn’t authentic.”

More than 3,000 students aged 12-18 live at Girlstown in Chalco, Mexico.

Father Rich Vila, the pastor of St. Ann parish in New Jersey, had his life turned upside down after visiting Chalco a few years ago.

“Everything changed. I guess you could say I became transformed the moment I walked from my guest house to the big gymnasium for Mass,” Father Vila said. “The girls were practicing songs for the Mass and I felt like I suddenly was transported to Heaven. The girls were singing so purely, they sang so angelically. It touched my heart in such a profound way that I started to cry. It was as profound an experience as I’ve ever had.”

The moment had such an impact that after returning to his parish, Father Vila felt compelled to return to his past. Before becoming a priest, he had served as a nurse for seven years at a neonatal intensive care unit at St. Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick.

“It was weighing heavily upon my heart to help the girls through my nursing background in some way,” Father Vila said. “It kept coming back to me in prayer. So six weeks after returning from Chalco, I began to study to retake the nursing licensing exam. … If you asked any nurse to take the exam again, they would say, ‘No way!’ The training, study for the exam, the nurse refresher courses, the homework, the clinical hours at the hospital — and then the study to take the Boards. But I was led to see it through because of what happened to me in Chalco.”

On May 2, Father Vila passed the exam. It is now his goal to devise and implement a nursing curriculum for the students in Chalco — a curriculum he hopes becomes implemented at Boystown and Girlstown communities throughout the world.

Father Vila is heartened by the thought of these wounded girls becoming wounded healers as registered nurses in the same towns and villages where they once grew up poor and broken until the Sisters of Mary came for them.

How to help: Sisters of Mary World Villages for Children is a non-profit organization that financially supports the Sisters of Mary as they help children break free from a life of poverty and follow Jesus Christ. WVC provides food, shelter, clothing, medical expenses, Catholic education and vocational training to more than 20,000 children in Boystowns and Girlstowns in six different countries around the world. Donations to the work of the Sisters of Mary may be made at

Sister Elda Gonzalez runs with her spiritual daughters at Girlstown in Chalco. The sisters often run with their students — partly in memory of Father Al, who was a runner and emphasized physical activity for the students.

Services MarketplaceListings, Bookings & Reviews

Entertainment blogs & Forums

Share This Post

Leave a Reply