When Ursuline Sister Mimi Ballard prepared for her fiber arts classes to begin at Casa Ursulina in March 2023, she expected the number of participants to be significantly down compared to the pre-Covid days.
Church attendance in Chillán, Chile, hasn’t rebounded since Chile lifted their mask mandate in September 2022, and Sister Mimi thought there would be no chance of nearing the 220 women who enrolled in classes in 2020, prior to Covid shutting down the center.
“I was amazed at how many women signed up for classes,” she said. “We had 180 women sign up in March. They seemed to really like the classes. We have a lot more older people coming. They were very isolated during Covid, they weren’t able to leave their homes.”
Sister Mimi is serving in her 34th consecutive year in Chile, with the last 27 as director of Casa Ursulina. She continues to teach weaving and how to process and spin yarn. The most popular classes are weaving, sewing, knitting and baking.
The classes follow the school calendar in Chillán, which run from March until mid-December. Sister Mimi took the break to return to Maple Mount and her native Bardstown, Ky., until February 2024.
While Casa Ursulina’s purpose has long been to teach crafting skills, it is also to offer emotional and spiritual support to the women, and to build solidarity among them. Sister Mimi now sees a new purpose for Casa Ursulina.
“Our future is outreach to the community, especially senior citizens,” she said.
The senior citizens group is growing at Casa Ursulina.
“They take old clothes that no one wants, cut them up and make blankets to give to people who are bedfast or in wheelchairs,” Sister Mimi said. “In Chile, you need something that will dry fast, because it rains all the time in the winter.”
She’s glad to see that people in their 40s, 50s and 60s have joined the group.
“They can do more than some of the older people,” Sister Mimi said. “The older people may only be able to remove buttons or cut the clothes into squares. The younger people can put the blankets together. It gets people out of their houses, but they don’t have to learn a craft.”
Casa Ursulina began as an Ursuline-supported ministry, but now an independent nonprofit foundation is in charge. Sister Mimi remains president of its board of directors, but she is loving the freedom the new organization offers.
“It’s going wonderfully. It allowed me to get out of the administrative role,” she said. “The woman doing administration now is great. I’ve always hoped that when I have to leave someday, Casa Ursulina can go on. I think that can happen. I can certainly be gone for two months and everything is fine.”
The lack of administrative tasks has freed Sister Mimi to do more of what she enjoys, visiting with older people.
“No one can afford a nursing home in our area, so people who are bedfast just stay with family,” she said. “Four women and I visit these people. A social worker with the public health service gives us a list of bedfast people in our area. A lot of them have family in need too.”
Keeping Casa Ursulina afloat during the Covid shutdown was aided by the creativity of two women, Sister Mimi said.
“During Covid, the two women we hire to teach classes were the only people who kept coming to the house,” Sister Mimi said. “We had tons of boxes of cloth. One is our sewing teacher, so we decided to make things we can sell, and use the proceeds for the house. They made table cloths, shopping bags – there are no plastic bags in Chile stores – and they put them online to sell. After Covid ended, they recruited others who were creative to make items. Everything they sell is money for the house to help with utilities, upkeep, and the food pantry.”
An increase of violence in the region has made people fearful of going out at night, but just before Sister Mimi departed, the city government installed LED lights on all the streets, she said.
“The difference is amazing. The streets were so dark.”
Getting people to gather in the chapel remains difficult, but Sister Mimi is encouraged by increased attendance at a monthly 4 p.m. prayer meeting at Casa Ursulina. The meeting is for Ursuline Associates, but anyone can attend.
“We talk about solidarity, and I say that praying for people is a sign of solidarity,” Sister Mimi said. “People appreciate the prayer box. We have a bible reading and talk about it. Chileans don’t have trouble talking, the conversation is great. Then we pray, and then we eat. There’s always something to share, usually bread.”
The lifting of Covid protocols allowed Sister Mimi to once again visit Vilches, a small mountain town where she is friends with a couple who are Maryknoll Associates. The man produces organic honey and his wife is part of a group of women who learned to weave from Sister Mimi.
Sister Mimi plans to return to Chile in February, and feels ready to start another year of classes in March, in what will be her 57th year as an Ursuline Sister.
“I like the routine I’m in now, spending 9 to 9 ½ months in Chile and the rest in Kentucky,” she said. “It keeps me in contact here, and it takes me out of the picture in Chile so people know they can handle it on their own.”