Our Friends: The Ochoa Family

By Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

The Ochoa Family

The Ochoa Family

When Maria and Pedro Ochoa came to Minneapolis in September, 1994 – having fled the turmoil, unrest and violence in their native Guatemala – they were seeking a better life for themselves and their family.

Since then, they’ve learned English, found a job, got an education, secured a driver’s license, bought a house and, oh yes, raised four children. One of them has a bachelor’s degree from St. Catherine’s, one is enrolled at the University of Minnesota and two are attending Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, with plans to go to college.

“The Ochoa’s are people of integrity and goodness and faith. They are bringing up their children with values. They are the kind of people we want in the United States.” –S. Mary Virginia speaking to the Ochoa immigration attorney

That’s not bad for a family the U.S. government was seeking to deport in 2007 (Pedro, Maria and the oldest daughter, Marilyn). Not only did they not get deported, they became U.S. citizens, thanks to their dogged persistence and perseverance and a little help from the Visitation Sisters.

The family first met the Sisters at Ascension Church in 2003 and they sponsored the Ochoa girls to the Catholic Youth Camp on Big Sandy Lake near McGregor, MN.   Marilyn recalls they had a fine time and tried to repay the Sisters by doing chores around their house.

Pedro Jr., 14, remembers getting gifts from the Sisters, including Halloween costumes, swim togs and school supplies. “I think I always got my school supplies from the Sisters,” he says. “I don’t think we ever bought ‘em.” He’s now a freshman at Benilde-St. Margaret’s and his sister, Andrea, is a senior there, with plans to become a pediatrician.

Another daughter, Silvia, 20, is attending the University of Minnesota, majoring in economics. Marilyn, 24, has an undergraduate degree in theology and chemistry from St. Catherine’s University and now works at North Point Clinic. She’s planning to attend the University of Minnesota and enroll in the School of Pharmacy.

Pedro Ochoa, Sr.

Pedro Ochoa, Sr.

Pedro Sr. works for a medical company, Mar Cor, that makes filtration and purification systems, some of which are used in portable dialysis machines. For Pedro, this is the job he’s wanted after years of working for firms where he waxed floors, cleaned buildings and catered meals.

“I like the company,” he says, “because when you’re in the medical field there’s always business and customers. And you are helping sick people. I’ve been to a clinic to see those we are helping with our dialysis machines. I always try to do my best.”

Doing his best didn’t stop U.S. immigration authorities from starting deportation proceedings, contending the Ochoa’s no longer needed asylum in the U.S. and had no green cards.

The family hired a lawyer to make their case: They were working, paying taxes, obeying the laws, raising good children, being helpful neighbors and honoring their new country. The lawyer cost money and so would someone to translate Spanish documents into English and vice versa. Enter Sister Mary Virginia Schmidt.  

“She speaks and understands Spanish really good,” Ochoa says. “When we were threatened with deportation, she was right there by our side. All our documents had to be translated and that would have cost us a fortune. Sister Mary Virginia did that for nothing.”

She says the pleasure was hers.

“Their lawyer asked me why I was doing this,” says Schmidt. “I replied that the Ochoa’s are people of integrity and goodness and faith. They are bringing up their children with values. They are the kind of people we want in the United States.

“When they (authorities) dropped the deportation orders, Pedro and Maria took me to lunch and we celebrated. The day they became U.S. citizens, I wasn’t there. But we (the Sisters) celebrated with them later.”

Sr. Mary Virginia and Sr. Katherine on the day of Sylvia Ochoa's quiñcinera

Sr. Mary Virginia and Sr. Katherine on the day of Sylvia Ochoa’s quiñcinera

Schmidt says the family continues to be involved with the monastery. “Whatever the event, they are here. They help us in our monastery and show up for everything, including the Halloween costume giveaway.”

The Ochoa’s have lived on the Northside for 15years, well aware of the crime that sometimes plagues the neighborhood (Pedro’s car windshield has been smashed a half-dozen times). But they have no plans to leave.

“The transportation is good (bus). We have some fine neighbors,” says Ochoa. “And we’re following the advice we got from the Sisters: It doesn’t matter where you live. It’s how you live that matters.

His family is the living proof.

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* This is the ninth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

Sondra Samuels: Northside Pride and Hope

Sondra Samuels, CEO NAZ

Sondra Samuels, CEO Northside Achievement Zone

by Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

Sondra Samuels is not a shrinking violet who wilts under pressure or withers from conflict or criticism.

That’s part of the territory when you’re the CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a partnership of community organizations and schools with a jaw-tightening task:  to prepare 2,300 children in a 18 by 13-block square of North Minneapolis to graduate from high school and go on to college.

“Sondra is an astute educator, a caring mom and wife and community advocate. She is a doer.  She brings pride to the Northside and our achievements on behalf of future generations.” Sr. Suzanne

If this job isn’t enough, add in her husband’s.  Don Samuels was the 5th ward councilman and is now a member of the Minneapolis School Board.  Sometimes the pace can be relentless, the criticism approaches nastiness and the goals can appear hopeless.

These are times when Samuels, the girl who grew up in Newark, appreciates the Sisters who live in Minneapolis. They share a belief in society where character, conscience and courage replace color, class and creed to measure a person’s worth.

“I knew these Sisters were different.  When I asked them what their day was like, they told me when the doorbell rings, ‘We know it’s Jesus at the door.’  And they really mean it.” — Sondra

Samuels remembers her first meeting with the Sisters, at a time when she and Don were grieving yet another gunshot death of a Northside teenager and confronting what they felt was unfair criticism from community loudmouths.

Click to hear Ms. Samuels interviewed by Dave Nimmer

Click to hear Ms. Samuels interviewed by Dave Nimmer

“I remember Sister Suzanne (Homeyer) met me at the door,” Samuels said.  “I fell in with a limp body and I think I shed a bucket of tears.  We went into the Chapel.  We prayed.  And I felt comforted and embraced when I left that house.”

Homeyer remembers that day, too.  “She particularly asked for prayers for her husband and neighborhood concerns, too,” she said.  “There were tears, sharing, laughter, tissues and hugs.  It was the way we meet so many of our neighbors and we both kept our promises.  Sondra has come back to visit with, and without, her family.”

Kind of amazing for someone who isn’t even Catholic.

“That doesn’t matter,” Samuels said. “I knew these Sisters were different.  When I asked them what their day was like, they told me when the doorbell rings, ‘We know it’s Jesus at the door.’  And they really mean it.”

The Sisters feel their support of Samuels is being repaid in full by the work she is is doing in their backyard through NAZ, which got its start with a $26 million federal grant over five years.  That funding is gone now and Samuels is working to raise $11 million a year from the coffers of the state, the city and corporate and private charities.

Part of her pitch she already outlined in an Op-Ed column published in June in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“We also recognized that schools can’t do it alone so we surround students with a team that provides everything from extra academic opportunities, parent education and early childhood services to behavioral health counseling, housing and career support.  In partner schools where the supports are most layered for NAZ students, they are doing significantly better than their peers in reading.”

sondraSamuels gets animated and excited when she describes a recent 12-week program for parents on the resources, skills, tools and techniques they’ll need to better raise their infant children.  “We’re getting Dads to show up for this course,” she said, “and one of the women talked about learning that she doesn’t have to be ‘a screaming mother,’ yelling at her child.”

Samuels is finely attuned to the complexity of life for minorities in America, dealing with the realities of discrimination and prejudice while avoiding the passiveness and pessimism that comes from playing “the victim” role.

“I think Black Lives Matter, and the protests, cause me to say, ’They finally see us.’ They know we’re here,” Samuels said.  “And our problems are the problems of all poor people and we do have to be working for all people.

”But to the people of color, I say, ‘They aren’t coming to save us.  We determine how we’ll do.  I am not bent over.  We can help each other but you’ve got to show up and do your part.”

Will Wallace, who knows the Sisters and Samuels, uses the same message in his work with Emerge, trying to prod young brothers (and sisters) off the streets, out of gangs, into school and onto jobs.  “Sondra Samuels,” he said, “is the real deal.  She’s got the best interests of the Northside young people in her heart.”

The Sisters echo that sentiment, having watched Samuels in action – in good times and bad.   “Sondra is an astute educator, a caring mom and wife and community advocate,” Sister Homeyer said.  “She is a doer.  She brings pride to the Northside and our achievements on behalf of future generations.”

Samuels and the Sisters: a neighborhood partnership that gives hope to that future.

 

* This is the eighth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

Our Friend: Wazeer Brown

Meet Wazeer Brown

Meet Wazeer Brown

by Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

Wazeer Brown, and his brother Emmanuel, are the first youngsters the Visitation Sisters “met” after they decided to locate their monastery in North Minneapolis in 1989.

The two boys, about three and four years old, were standing on the street corner at 16th and Fremont as the Sisters were driving by.  “Here are these two kids waving at us like crazy,” recalls Mary Frances Reis.  “They had a big smile on their faces.  We couldn’t help but noticing their pure joy and excitement.”

In fact, the brothers got so close to the Sisters they had to start a special time – Windsock –  for neighborhood children to come by the Fremont house.  And come they did – for time, treats and attention.

“The Windsock time was really good for me,” Brown recalls.  “It was different from the rest of my life.  It was cheerful and stress free.  I didn’t find that at home or on the streets.  The Sisters were just there for me and brought peace into my life.”

Wazeer and Emmanuel brought their presence into the sisters’ lives, sometimes sitting on the retaining wall in front of the Fremont house.  When they felt it was needed, they’d offer a little advice to  prospective visitors:  “You can’t go in now because the Sisters are prayin’.”

“I’d tell all who wanted to better themselves and change their lives,” he says, “they ought to get to know these women (the Sisters).  They shaped who I am as a person, the person I wanted to be.  I think they kind of put the spirit of the Lord in my heart.” –Wazeer

The Sisters have prayed for Wazeer since those Windsock days two decades ago. Over those years, they’ve read to him, found a mentor for him, promoted a scholarship for him and stood by him through the speed bumps, potholes and sharp curves along his way.

Today, at the age of 29, Wazeer is studying to get his GED diploma, helping raise his two daughters, Destiny, 9 and Serenity,5, holding a full-time job at Walmart and staying in touch with the friends who helped him get this far, including the Sisters.

“What I’m really impressed with,” says Mary Margaret McKenzie, “is how much energy and enthusiasm he’s putting into getting that GED.  A while back, he told me, ‘I’m getting fractions.’  He is actually into his mathematics and, yes, he’s understanding fractions for the first time.  I think that is remarkable.”

McKenzie says she remembers years ago when she helped him and Emmanuel work on a science project to make and inflate a hot-air balloon.  “I don’t recall exactly how that turned out but I do recall thinking that Wazeer was really smart.  You only have to show him or tell him once, and he gets it.”

He “got it” about the importance of going back to school, this time at the Adult Education Center in Minneapolis.  “I think I just realized it’s time,” Brown says.  “My mind is ready for it.”  Once he gets the GED, Brown says he might think about going to a two-year or community college, to help him land a job that makes him joyful and useful.

He already knows how to work hard, according to Jeff Pearson, who, along with his wife Maryann, has been long-time friend and supporter of the Sisters.  They enlisted Pearson to be kind of a mentor/father figure for Wazeer.

“I used to have him come over to my house on Saturday mornings and we’d work in the yard,” says Pearson.   “He hadn’t done a lot of yard work but, I tell you what, he worked hard.  You know, I feel I have a life-long friendship with him.”

The Sisters feel the same way and they haven’t hesitated to call on him to do a favor or two, like talking to a group of seniors at Visitation High School who are spending a week at the monastery, getting immersed in life on the North Side.

“He got up in front of these young women,” says Mary Margaret, “and talked confidently about the value of being grounded when they go away from home to college.  His talk, and his message, were really quite wonderful.”

Wazeer got up in front of another group at his grandmother’s funeral, to talk about who she was, what she did and how she lived.  He has developed this kind of presence in his life and the Sisters have been there to nurture it and, now, to feel it.

Wazaeer in Arabic means “minister.”  Brown is not given to preaching but he’s accumulated enough wisdom for a homily: Change is inevitable.  Get used to it.  Being positive is always a key.  Keep busy in life and work on being a better “you.”  And one more thing.

“I’d tell all who wanted to better themselves and change their lives,” he says, “they ought to get to know these women (the Sisters).  They shaped who I am as a person, the person I wanted to be.  I think they kind of put the spirit of the Lord in my heart.”

 

* This is the sixth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

Linda Goynes: Our sister and friend*

Linda Goynes

Linda Goynes

by Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

Linda Goynes* is a colorful, consistent and continuous thread in the life fabric of the Visitation Sisters of North Minneapolis. For 12 years she was their next door neighbor. Today she proudly wears their Cross of Affiliation, in effect making her an honorary sister.

Over the years, Linda has eaten at their table, shared in their prayers, joined their church (Ascension), cleaned their house, packed their gift baskets and greeted their guests.

In her 63 years, Linda Goynes has suffered enough reversals to relish the recoveries, weathered enough storms to enjoy the sunshine and survived the trials to appreciate the triumphs. So it’s probably not surprising when asked how she’s doing, her answer has always been the same, whether it’s Tuesday or Friday, January or June. “I am blessed,” she says, with a smile on her face.

“It was such a joy to get the Cross of Affiliation from the Sisters. To me it represents the face of the nuns and the work they are doing. I feel what I am doing is taking their spirit out to the world.”-– Linda Goynes

Her journey includes some rough and rocky travelling. She married her first husband in 1984 and they had three children. Two years later she discovered her husband abused the oldest daughter. He was arrested and eventually sent to prison. Linda felt she was partly responsible for her daughter’s abuse and turned to crack cocaine.

It didn’t take long for the drug to control her life and cause a heart attack. She quit – cold turkey. She was clean and sober for six to seven months, until she began getting threatening letters from her now ex-husband, still in prison. She turned again to the cocaine and in 1990 suffered a second heart attack.

This time she lapsed into a three-month coma and doctors warned continued drug use would kill her. She prayed to God to restore her health, promising she would devote her life to serving Him. She recovered. In 1996, she met Robert White, who would become her second husband. They moved next door to the Sisters on Girard Avenue and continued their life together.

Linda stayed clean but Robert was using, and occasionally, selling drugs. “You know,” she said, “he was a good man but he just couldn’t stay away from heroin. He was using until his last days on earth.” (Robert died in 2015).

In service: Linda working at the Church of the Ascension Food shelf

In service: Linda working at the Church of the Ascension Food shelf

“I never knew what was going to happen. One day I would be on the ground in handcuffs after a police raid. And another we’d be robbed by somebody looking for the drug stash or the money. But I always had the Sisters to talk to, and I never felt alone.”

Ironically, Robert also loved the Sisters. He shoveled their walk in the winter, went to some of their neighborhood meetings and even put up their Christmas tree from year to year. But the chaos from his heroin habit eventually got too much for Goynes and she moved out of the house in 2008, to an apartment on Plymouth Avenue.

“Linda is one of the most courageous women I know,” says Sister Katherine Mullin. “She knew she had to leave Robert after all the years of his heavy addiction. She made her decision, found an apartment and kept it together. And then one day (with help from the Sisters) she quietly moved out. But in the years that followed, she also took him to the hospital for his cancer treatments.”

The Salesian spirit has truly penetrated her heart. If we ever needed help with some event, some celebration some project, Linda has been there.”  — S. Katherine Mullin

In 2010, she joined Ascension Church and became a pastor outreach assistant, organizing committee luncheons, setting up for funerals, arranging the food shelf, changing the candles and opening the church.

A few months ago Linda was dealing with a lung problem, making it difficult for her to take long, deep breaths. But she was at the Monday night Salesian gathering, sitting at the table, eating with the others, picking up the trash and staying for the night prayer.

On my way out, I asked her how she was doing. She said she’d be glad to get home and on the inhalation machine that delivered soothing vapor to her lungs. Then she smiled. “You know,” she said, as if to dispel any complaint, “I am still blessed.”

Yes, Linda, we know. And so are those of us who are to be counted among your friends.

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Tune into YouTube video interview here: Vis Companion Linda Goynes Interviewed

* This is the fifth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 


 

 

The Law of Hope: Our friend Dorice Law interviewed*

caption

Dorice Law: Chaplain, counselor, confidant

By Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

Dorice Law leads a life that’s taken her in different directions and destinations. The 60-year-old grandmother has an office in St. Louis Park, a job in Bloomington, a divinity degree from St. John’s in Collegeville, a home in Plymouth and friends on Facebook.

But her heart remains in North Minneapolis, among the friends at Visitation Monastery and the faithful at Ascension Church, where she first met the sisters as they were discerning what their future would be. “I approached them right outside the church,” Law recalled, “and I told them, “Well, Lord knows we need you right up here.”

Law was born in Chicago, the seventh of eight children. She moved to Minneapolis when she was 16 and graduated from North High School.   But she went to Catholic schools in Chicago and was nurtured by the women of the church.

“I grew up standing behind a nun’s big, black skirt and feeling safe and secure,” she said.   “That was the way the world looked to me.”

That confidence enabled Law to raise three children, go to college, earn two master’s degrees, teach in high school, recruit for a community college, run her own insurance agency and, now, serve as a chaplain to a senior-living facility in Bloomington. It’s the role she was made for: Chaplain, counselor, confidant.

“I am convinced that I am good at this because people need someone to pray with them – for them. Since I was a kid, I could pray at the drop of a hat.”

“My personality is to be honest and frank and I am that way with the people at Friendship Village (where she serves as chaplain).   I tell them it’s impossible to shock me, that they can tell me the truth. Everyone wants to be loved and understood.”

For those closer to the end than the beginning, Law has a message of hope. “I tell them all that is God is good. All that is bad is NOT God.”  Her spiritual work is about grace, forgiveness and trust in a loving God.

That doesn’t surprise the Visitation sisters. “Dorice was someone who welcomed us and kind of introduced us to North Minneapolis,” said Mary Frances Reis.   “From the very beginning, on a Sunday morning outside of church, I thought of her as transparent, honest, generous and genuine.”

That hasn’t changed in 26 years and neither has Law’s commitment to the nuns and their ministry.

“I had always made a commitment,” she said, “that anything and everything the nuns had going I’d be a part of. I think I was at their very first study group on the Virgin Mary. This is a place where you can be yourself, speak your mind and not worry about a kick-out.”

The sisters not only didn’t kick her out, they took her in – into the family. Law recalled she got dressed for her wedding in 1991 at the Fremont house. The marriage lasted eight years; the fealty to Visitation is everlasting.

Law’s always believed the nuns accepted her for who she is, how she is and as she is. She said it was the recommendation letter from Sister Mary Frances that facilitated her acceptance into the School of Theology at St. John’s.

Although Law doesn’t live in North Minneapolis any longer, two of her children and her sister do and she’s over there every Sunday morning for church. She’s aware of the neighborhood’s pride, promise and possibilities.    She’s also concerned about the guns, gangs, drugs and violence.

The legal system makes it difficult to change things, Law said. “Once the man is a felon, he is effectively separated from his family. You don’t rent a place where the father is a felon. And if you have a job not making enough to pay the rent, it’s hard to have any hope.”

Hope is what Dorice Law is all about.

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To see a video of the interview with Dorice, visit our YouTube Channel.
* This is the second in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

Vis Companion Profile: Bob Briscoe*

Bob Briscoe, Vis Companion

Bob Briscoe, Vis Companion

by Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

Bob Briscoe is a regular at the monthly, Monday-night Salesian Spirituality Meetings at the Visitation Monastery. He is one of a handful of men among a roomful of women and, along with his wife Khalilah, the former Chicago cop seems to fit right in with conversations about love, understanding and gentleness.

“We are companions on the journey, given to one another as helpers in doing God’s work.” — St. Jane de Chantal

“These monthly meetings lift my soul,” Briscoe said. “What is really good is to see the young people there, who are genuinely trying to help others in the community. That makes an old man feel good about the younger generation.”

The 73-year-old has nurtured his softer side but he is no pushover.  Briscoe defines what a good man is and what a good man does. He and his wife have been raising his 14-year-old grandson, Kameron, since his mother (Bob’s daughter Kontente) died. Briscoe and Khalilah have five grown daughters and two sons from previous marriages.

Bob and his wife Khalilah

Bob and his wife Khalilah

The wisdom he’s imparting to Kameron includes some of those “little virtues” that are the basis of Salesian thought and spirit: patience, humility, honesty.

“I’m also trying to teach him the lessons that the sisters give to me,” Briscoe said. “I tell Kameron that you have to give back. And you can’t get discouraged in the bad or tough times. You can always give your troubles to God.”

Briscoe has known some tough times and good times in his life. He joined the National Guard after graduating from Corpus Christi High School in Chicago. After his discharge, he was a motorman on the “L” in Chicago. And in 1971 he was sworn in to the Chicago Police Department, working the streets for ten years as a patrolman.

He left the force in 1981 and spent several years as a construction laborer. He came to Minneapolis in 2006 and it was no accident that Bob discovered the Visitation sisters. He went to Catholic schools in Chicago and married Khalilah in Ascension Church in north Minneapolis.   That’s where he met Sister Mary Frances.

“She came right up and introduced herself to me,” he said. “And that was the beginning. Being around the sisters remind me of the first women in my life. They live those virtues they preach, right out in the community every day. And they do it for everyone they meet.”

Bob and grandson Cameron

Bob and grandson Kameron

Briscoe’s also serving the community as a member of the Minneapolis Police Conduct Review Panel since 2012.  The panel investigates complaints of misconduct and brutality and makes recommendations to the chief. The former cop sees the issues from both sides of the badge and he passes that perspective along to Kameron. “Be polite. Do not resist. Do not run,” he said. “And call me as soon as possible.”

The Vis sisters appreciate Briscoe’s presence at their functions, and what he has done for them personally. “He fills his day with meaningful activities,” said Sister Karen Mohan. “He took me to chemotherapy (for breast cancer) a couple of times and sat with me.

“He is simply a willing spirit, ready to do anything. He’ll come to help us put labels on our newsletters.   And he’ll be a surrogate father to his grandson.”

For Briscoe, the gain for his soul is worth any pain to his body. “Kameron helps keep me young,” he said. “His curiosity, the questions he asks, always keep me looking for answers. I am always telling him to pray and that helps me to remember to pray.”

* This is the first in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS!