“Since I was a little kid I always wanted to be a sister,” Sister Mimi Ballard said, remembering her happy elementary school years at St. Michael School in Fairfield, Ky. “Sister Mary Edgar Warren was my teacher for five of my eight years there. She was so wonderful that I wanted to be an Ursuline just like her.”
Even then, Mimi had wide horizons. She also wanted to be a foreign missionary – a problem, since in those days the Mount Saint Joseph community had no foreign missions. But things changed, and God had his hand on this enthusiastic young lady, leading her to become both an Ursuline Sister and a missionary in South America.
Mary Elizabeth Ballard – rechristened “Mimi” by one of her young siblings – was born into the large and lively family of Lawrence and Mary Orline Simpson Ballard. She was the oldest of eight girls, and there were five brothers.
Still looking toward a future as an Ursuline, Mimi left St. Michael to spend four years as a scholarship student at Mount Saint Joseph Academy at Maple Mount. During that time – in 1965 – the Ursuline community sent its first missionaries to Chile. “That solved my conflict,” Sister Mimi remembers. “I would be an Ursuline missionary in Chile.” She entered the community in fall 1966.
But getting to Chile wasn’t so easy. The community leadership felt it was best for Sister Mimi to make her final vows and to complete her master’s degree before embarking on a faraway ministry. So she funneled her energy into teaching elementary grades for three years at St. William School in Knottsville, Ky., and then initiating and directing – for five years – an on-campus kindergarten at Brescia College in Owensboro. In retrospect, it was all valuable experience.
Finally, in 1978, Sister Mimi arrived in Chillán, the city in central Chile where Sister Luisa Bickett was already engaged in pastoral ministry. Sister Luisa remembers this new young missionary as “a delight.” It didn’t matter that she was still adjusting to the culture and struggling with the language – she leaped into the work with joy and enthusiasm.
Sister Luisa tells about bumping along on a packed bus – the two of them among many more standing riders hanging onto bulging bags from the market. “All of a sudden Mimi started giggling, then laughing aloud,” Sister Luisa remembers. “Pretty soon practically everyone on the bus was laughing with her!”
This was a time of great poverty in Chile, ravaged by the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. There were no jobs, no income. Children begged for bread on the streets. Self-help groups – often led by dedicated women – worked to house, feed and clothe the needy. Sisters Mimi and Luisa pitched in to help.
In 1986, Sister Mimi was called to work with fellow Ursuline Sister Dianna Ortiz in Guatemala. But by 1993 Sister Mimi was back in Chillán – now with a clear vision focused on the needs of women struggling with poverty, single motherhood, unemployment, abuse, depression, low self-esteem and the absence of supportive companionship.
For four years, “Madre Mimi” and a group of dedicated Chilean women met in various homes for prayer and mutual support. They also shared their talents for needlework and began to teach other women, who could sell their products to help support their families. The group grew, and the work expanded. Soon they needed more space.
In 1997, supported by the Ursuline community, Sister Mimi purchased a small government house in the poor neighborhood where she was working. This was the beginning of the Dianna Ortiz Ursuline Center for Women – affectionately called Casa Ursulina. Immediately Mimi, assisted by enthusiastic volunteers, began to develop this place and this ministry, which now brings more than 150 women each year into a learning community characterized by Christian charity, friendship and mutual support among all those who come.
In August 2015, Casa Ursulina will celebrate its 18th anniversary. Its ministry continues to grow and serve, and Sister Mimi continues to plan for its future. “I don’t plan on working anywhere else,” she says with her usual bright-eyed zest for life. After 48 years in religious life, she’s still pursuing her childhood dream as an Ursuline Sister and a missionary to the people of Chile.