In March 2020, more than 200 women who had signed up for fiber arts classes at the Ursuline ministry in Chillán, Chile, were abruptly told to stay home. The Covid-19 pandemic had begun.
“It was so frustrating and stressful,” said Ursuline Sister Mimi Ballard, who leads the Casa Ursulina ministry. “I assumed it would be over in a few months.”
The pandemic continues in Chile just as it does in the United States. The Chilean government acted to curb the spread of Covid, including curfews and fines for those not wearing masks. The vaccination rate in Chile is 98 percent, Sister Mimi said. Even with recent increases in cases since the Omicron variant arrived, no one is dying from Covid in Chile, she said.
But restricting public gatherings produced a new set of problems, ones that caused Casa Ursulina to adjust its mission once again, Sister Mimi said. She returned to Kentucky in November to have back surgery, and has been splitting her time between Maple Mount and her family in Bardstown. She hopes to return to Chile in March.
“By April 2020, a lot of people were coming to us who didn’t have anything to eat,” Sister Mimi said. “We have so many people who live on odd jobs – like selling items on the street. There was no structure in place to help them.”
Casa Ursulina mainly teaches weaving and spinning to local women, while also offering them a sense of community and a deeper spirituality. It has always had a modest food pantry, along with clothing and a supply of adult diapers to help senior citizens. But as the ministry tried to have more food on hand, it quickly strained the budget, Sister Mimi said. She sent a message to the various craft leaders, asking them to share with everyone in their groups that the ministry needed help.
“I was pleasantly surprised how many people came with food,” she said. “Most were people who did not lose their job, or were getting unemployment. We turned the front room into the food pantry. We managed to keep the pantry fully stocked. We never had to spend money on it again after April.”
By May 2020, Casa Ursulina opened up a soup kitchen a block away. The military helped with sanitizing and provided pots and pans for cooking. Sister Mimi reached out to business people whose livelihoods were not diminishing, who in turn put her in contact with food producers and butchers.
“They did great work in getting donations or raising money,” she said. “I got in touch with people who I hadn’t seen in years.”
Those in need did not eat at the soup kitchen. They brought their dish to take food home.
“That was a lifesaver for a lot of people,” she said.
In February or March 2021, the government made money available for every family member living below a certain poverty level, Sister Mimi said. The number of people coming for food decreased dramatically after that, she said. But at the same time, the isolation caused by Covid took a toll on people, especially older women or women living alone, Sister Mimi said.
“I’ve never spent so much time on the phone in my life,” Sister Mimi said. “We told them to come. We have a big space, we could be distanced. We told them they could use the sewing machines, use the spinning wheels, or just talk. That’s been since March 2021. We maybe had 10 to 15 people at a time, but we have three classrooms. That helped them not feel so alone.”
Casa Ursulina classes follow the school year, which begins in March. Sister Mimi is adamant that the new year of classes will begin in March 2022, but it will take some adjusting to keep everyone safe.
“We’ll have fewer classes and smaller classes,” she said. “The class that has the most people is called Volunteer Workshop. It’s mostly senior citizens. They take the old clothes and pieces of material that are donated, cut them up and sew them together to make patchwork comforters. They are perfect blankets for someone who is bedfast.”
It’s a big group, so it will need two rooms for distancing, which means it will need to be scheduled when other classes aren’t meeting. Sister Mimi said any inconveniences will be worth it.
“The people need to be here,” she said.
Casa Ursulina once focused on younger women who could benefit from learning a craft that allowed them to stay home with their children. Now, those children are grown, so the focus will change again, especially as Covid lessens.
“I don’t think we’ll go back to the way things were before. I think we’ll do more outreach to people who can’t come to us,” Sister Mimi said. “Our focus is going to be more on senior citizens than it has been. I think we’ll do a lot of things in conjunction with public health services. They have a program called Independent Senior Citizens. They teach cognitive and physical exercises for seniors. It’s a lot of fun with a lot of people. They have programs, we have the space.”
Casa Ursulina opened in 1997, and this August will mark 25 years – far longer than Sister Mimi ever expected. She first served in South America in 1978.
“Sister Luisa Bickett served 18 years in Chile,” Sister Mimi said. “I thought, ‘There’s no way I’ll stay that long.’ Here I am, 44 years later.”
Now in her 55th year as an Ursuline Sister, Sister Mimi knows that the time she remains in Chile is growing shorter. She and the community leadership have worked to secure Casa Ursulina’s future. The ministry now answers to a foundation, so it will not depend on the Ursulines for its existence. It has a board of directors, with Sister Mimi as the president, but she plans to change that when she returns to Chile.
“I know the day will come when I have to come home,” Sister Mimi said, “but it’s not yet.”