Ursuline Sister Mimi Ballard has been organizing fiber arts classes for 26 years at Casa Ursulina, the Ursuline ministry in Chillán, Chile. And yet she never knows when she will be called to minister in a different way to people who come to her door.
When the Covid pandemic hit in March 2020, Casa Ursulina had to adjust its mission to care for people who were hungry, and then offer a listening ear for those struggling with isolation. As 2023 began, Sister Mimi found herself immersed in helping an immigrant couple find their footing and reunite their family.
“It’s been the most lifegiving and most stressful thing in my life,” Sister Mimi said on Jan. 23, 2023, a week after she arrived back at Maple Mount for a two-month break. January and February are when children are out of school for summer in Chile.
“It’s interesting how the dynamic has changed,” Sister Mimi said. “When we began, we scheduled our classes around the school year so the mothers could come. Now we schedule around the school year because that’s when the grandmothers are free.”
As Sister Mimi prepares for the first “normal” year at Casa Ursulina since 2019, her heart is lighter knowing a Haitian refugee couple she has been helping are finally on the road to stability.
Prior to Covid, many Haitian refugees arrived in Chillán, and faced the first winter of their lives. Casa Ursulina helped these refugees with blankets and clothing, but the cold weather prompted many of them to move north, where it is warmer.
In April 2022, a young Haitian couple approached Sister Mimi to help them learn Spanish. He was a lawyer in Haiti and his wife owned a store. They fled their homeland not because they were poor, but due to the rising violence. Haiti’s president was assassinated in 2021, and gangs have resorted to violence to take control of the country.
Lawyers were told if they went to work, they’d be killed, Sister Mimi said. The gangs demanded protection money from retailers – like the old mafia days in America – and when the couple didn’t pay, the woman’s store was burned down. The couple left their baby with a relative and escaped to Chile via the Dominican Republic and Bolivia, but had to enter Chile illegally.
They have been trying to follow the correct steps to become legal residents, but were given inaccurate information from an immigration official that stalled their progress. All this has prevented them with being reunited with their child, now 2.
“They got into my heart,” Sister Mimi said. She began calling people she knew in the Chilean government, and finally this month, progress has begun on fulfilling their legal status. The man worked in the fruit exporting business in Chile, but it was a bad year for fruit. He is now working on repairs at Casa Ursulina, which had been ignored during Covid, Sister Mimi said. His wife is learning how to crochet at Casa Ursulina.
“God is good,” Sister Mimi said. “They are faith-filled people. It’s taken my work in a different way, but it was well worth it. That’s our mission, to help people who need help.”
When Sister Mimi returns to Chillán in March, she will begin registration for classes, which begin March 20 and last until mid-December.
Casa Ursulina reopened in March 2022, but Chile’s mask mandate was not lifted until September. Before Covid, there were usually 15 groups of women using the facility a week, Sister Mimi said.
“We had enough room to host three groups at a time. But since Covid, they needed to spread out more, so we could only have one group at a time,” she said. “We ended up with seven groups of women, five days a week. Some meet in the morning, others in the afternoon.
“It was mostly women who had been to Casa Ursulina before, which was good,” Sister Mimi said. “Not all of my teachers could return, due to family situations. I think we will do better this March.”
Some of the classes beginning in March teach crochet, knitting, weaving, painting and sewing. There is an exercise program done in conjunction with the public health service. Another course is called Volunteer Workshop, in which participants take leftover clothing or material, cut out squares and make comforters.
“We give them to people who are bedfast,” Sister Mimi said. Only a handful of women in the group do any sewing.
“Some people may just take the buttons off of old shirts. They just want to have a group to talk to,” Sister Mimi said. There is also a prayer group for Ursuline Associates, but everyone is invited, she said. Afterward, they have tea.
Sister Mimi is excited about some of the new classes being taught this year.
“A lady is teaching a class on turning garbage into beautiful, useful things for your home. We also have a yoga class.”
The biggest classes will have 15 women. For sewing classes, which need more room to spread out, only seven or eight women can participate. Weavers or spinners can handle 12 to 15.
There are no longer external markets to sell the craft items that the women of Casa Ursulina make, but for those who want to sell, there are local craft fairs organized by the government. Some of the women have learned to sell their items online, Sister Mimi said.
“Not everyone wants to sell, it’s more for their mental health,” Sister Mimi said. The easing of Covid restrictions has helped a lot with the emotional difficulties many people suffered due to the isolation, she said.
“Some people died of Covid without ever having Covid,” Sister Mimi said. “They were depressed, they couldn’t handle the change in lifestyle.”
While the Chilean government did well in protecting people from Covid, some of the policies were still harmful, she said. One rule prohibited people older than 75 from leaving their yard.
“You can’t tell older people not to move for two years,” she said.
Another change affecting Casa Ursulina is the rising crime rate in Chillán since Covid began.
“There is so much drug using and trafficking, there has been an increase in purse snatching, or breaking into homes to steal what’s easily sellable,” Sister Mimi said. “Now, public transportation won’t come into the area after dark.”
Catechetical meetings at the nearby parish have always been held at night, after people get off work about 7 p.m., Sister Mimi said.
“We’ve always had our coordinators meeting at night, but now we don’t do that anymore,” she said. “I don’t see a plan to change. There are no programs for addicts to get any help.”
Sister Mimi is now in her 56th year as a Sister and her 33rd consecutive year serving in Chile, with the last 26 as director of Casa Ursulina. The ministry is now set up independently from the Ursuline Sisters, with a board of directors. Still, Sister Mimi looks forward to beginning a new year of classes soon.
“I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet.”