Fanny Gonzalez was 23 years old in 1994 and had just graduated from a Jesuit university in her native Mexico when she learned about a program called Ursuline Companions in Mission.
“The Jesuits came to serve the poor people in the mountains of northern Mexico. They requested students serve in the missions,” Fanny said. “We would take food and clothes, and talk about Jesus. When I learned about the Ursuline missions, I wanted to be a part of it.”
Little did she know she was about to meet a human dynamo named Sister Fran Wilhelm.
Fanny spent a year serving at Centro Latino, the Hispanic ministry that Sister Fran founded in 1993, using an abandoned elementary school to house and serve migrant farm workers. While it was at times a struggle for Fanny – her degree was in computer systems, hardly a necessity in a ministry that didn’t even have a television – she made lifetime friends with Sister Fran and her co-worker, Sister Nancy Liddy.
On March 14, 2023, Fanny returned to Maple Mount for the first time since 1999 with her sister Gladys and her 11-year-old son Matias to visit Sister Nancy and pay her respects at Sister Fran’s grave.
“I will always have her in my heart,” Fanny said at the cemetery.
Coming to Kentucky
Ursuline Companions in Mission began in 1987, an opportunity for young adults to join with Ursulines initially serving poor areas in New York and Ohio. By 1991 its offices moved to the campus of the College of New Rochelle in New York, and its outreach expanded. That’s where Fanny flew to in 1994 from Mexico to begin her yearlong service, spending a week in retreat before learning she was coming to Kentucky.
The other young people she met there were all assigned to teach, but being bilingual, Fanny was told she would be a great help at Centro Latino, on the outskirts of Owensboro, Ky., in the farming community of Stanley.
With farmers employing more migrant workers, Sister Fran told Bishop John McRaith that there needed to be a center where Hispanics could get help. The pastor at St. Peter of Alcantara Church in Stanley offered the former school building. Brescia College donated old beds, and each of four rooms housed up to eight people at a time. In the early days, the ministry consisted of housing and directing the men to available jobs.
Fanny’s first meeting with Sister Fran was quite memorable.
“I flew to Louisville from New York and Sister Fran picked me up at the airport,” Fanny said. “I will never forget that day, I hardly knew what we were doing. We spent the night in Louisville with the Sisters, because we had to take a guy from Guatemala to a funeral home to identify his brother, who had been shot. It was a shock to me.
“At Centro Latino, most of my job was to help translate for Hispanics. Sister Fran arranged a room for me, she lived there by herself,” Fanny said. “I lived in this tiny room, with a bed, a wardrobe, a table and flowers. I started helping with the migrants, who lived at the other end of the old school.”
Soon Sister Nancy came to live with them, as a novice during her vow year.
“In each classroom, there were bunk beds, a bathroom and shower, and there was a washer and dryer in the building,” Fanny said. “There was a larger room for meetings and parties, and an office for Centro Latino, where we met people. They could use the phone to call home, but they had to pay for the long-distance call.
“Sister Fran asked me to take guys to alcohol rehab or to the doctor and translate for them. She gave me an old Buick so I could drive the people,” Fanny said. “She also encouraged me to have time for myself. I took classes at Brescia, they had an international club. I also joined the YMCA.
“Sister Nancy played music at Mass. Sister Elaine (Burke) also sang at Mass,” Fanny said.
Sister Nancy recalled mopping a lot of floors at Centro Latino with Fanny and preparing music with Sister Fran.
“Music was always a part of Sister Fran’s ministry to the Hispanic community,” Sister Nancy said. “Sister Fran was an excellent musician and we had weekly choir rehearsals with the men. She tried to provide a complete welcome to the people who came to Centro Latino. Singing and praying at Mass in their own language was an important part of that welcome.
“This music had to be carefully chosen,” Sister Nancy said. “The text of the songs needed to mirror the experience of these men leaving their homes to support their families. We couldn’t just sing ‘Pan De Vida’ every week. Sister Fran formed the first Hispanic choir in the diocese,” Sister Nancy said.
There were other innovations at Centro Latino as well. At the time, there were only two Hispanic centers in the whole country providing overnight accommodations for migrants.
“The hospitality was total,” Sister Nancy said. “Sister Fran was breaking new ground.”
Both Fanny and Sister Nancy said they often felt that they didn’t know what they were doing. But Sister Fran put Fanny’s fears to rest.
“I asked Sister Fran, ‘What am I doing here? Am I helping you?’” Fanny said. “She said, ‘Your presence is what is important.’ She was such a peaceful person. Talking to her made me feel so good. I didn’t need to know what I was doing anymore. I knew if I was helping her, I was doing something good.
“My mom came at Easter, she met Sister Fran,” Fanny said. “She could see that everything was fine.”
Life after Centro Latino
Fanny remained at Centro Latino for a year, and Sister Nancy moved onto parish ministry after 14 months.
“The Sisters wanted me to join the community,” Fanny said. “They said, ‘We need your help here.’ I got so involved, and I loved the place so much. But I missed my mom, so I went back to Mexico.”
Fanny returned to the Mount to make her lifetime commitment as an Ursuline Associate in 1999. She stayed in touch with Sister Fran and Sister Nancy for a while, but she got busy pursuing her master’s degree and then her job. She reconnected with both Sisters in recent years.
She worked in Mexico as a project manager in the oil and gas industry. Now she lives in Celina, Texas, close to Dallas, where for the past five years she has been a live-in nanny.
She planned to visit Sister Fran a few years ago, but the Covid pandemic struck. With her son on spring break and her sister – who lives in their hometown of Torreon, Mexico – willing to drive, the three planned a road trip that included Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.
“I had a wonderful experience here, I wanted my son to visit,” Fanny said.
The only thing that would have made the trip better was Sister Fran, who died in the midst of the pandemic in November 2020.
“I know my mom and Sister Fran are together and having a good time,” Fanny said in the cemetery, wiping away a few tears.
Oh, brings back happy memories! we were all so proud of the work they did at Centro Latino. Thanks, Fanny!
The world needs more Sister Frans!
Does the center itself still exist?
Centro Latino moved its home to Owensboro in 2000, and existed until 2018, when Sister Fran and Sister Rosemary Keough retired. Hispanic ministry is now handled through the Diocese of Owensboro.
It was so good to see Fanny again. It was not a new experience singing in the Spanish choir at Centro Latino since I had sung in the Spanish choir in New Mexico. I then sang in the Spanish choir at St. Joe and Paul. Connie Caceres and I were real friends then and still are communicating by phone. Thanks Fanny for coming to MSJ and bringing back such happy memories.