Detailing the life and work of Sister Celine

By Frances J. Vásquez | Contributing Columnist

The writing prompt from Jo Scott-Coe, Inlandia workshop facilitator: make a list of the 10 most important people in your life — positive and negative. Briefly, describe why they were important. Over the years, I’ve featured impactful persons on my list in some of my writings.

Sister Celine was a beloved paternal aunt and mentor. She was my father’s sister and one of seven children born to José Vásquez and Teodula Garcia. She was born in 1916 in Highgrove — a semi-rural enclave east of Riverside. She worked for social justice and civil rights endeavors and marched with César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in support of the farm workers.

In the 1930s she joined the Sisters of Social Service — a Catholic community of religious women based in Los Angeles. She professed her vows at the age of 21 and changed her Baptismal name, Maria Brigida, to Celine as her forever religious name.

The Sisters worked as social workers with poor and marginalized people. Because of her impressive intelligence and talents, the Superior General sent Sister Celine to attend Georgetown University where she earned bachelors and masters degrees. She became a brilliant organizer and stellar administrator.

Sister Celine resided at the Mother House on Westchester Place in Los Angeles. On Easter Saturdays she organized wonderful egg hunts and festivities for children. Imagine our delight as we scrambled on the expansive front lawn in search of candy eggs. Lucky kids won prize chocolate bunnies — from See’s Candies! Sister Celine often brought us cardboard boxes of chocolates — “seconds” donated by See’s chocolate factory. Imagine Lucy and Ethel’s antics in the “I Love Lucy” show!

When I was a pre-teen, Sister Celine took me to Camp Mariastella in Wrightwood in the pine-forested San Gabriel Mountains. Mariastella is one of the few girls camps still in service. The Sisters operate it with a focus on outdoor recreation with an ecumenical Christian setting. The camp’s motto: a place to come together, to recognize commonalities and to learn from each other through living together in a cooperative environment. Those ideals resonate today.

Sister Celine was head of Catholic Youth Organization in Los Angeles. When I was 16 years old, my aunt took me during Easter break for an opportunity to volunteer at her office. I stayed at Stella Maris — a large Victorian room-and-board residence for young career women that the Sisters operated. I observed my aunt’s astute leadership skills and marveled at how efficiently she managed the office.

My aunt served on the executive committee to envision expansion of their ministries to Michoacán, México. In 1963, they established their first community in Zacápu where Sister Celine was appointed Mother Superior. Their ministries included community development and training programs for nurses, community health, advocacy, education, and family programs. Sister Teresa (Eustolia Avila of Riverside) was one of the initial team of four Sisters. Afterward, they established a nursing school.

The last time I saw Sister Celine was at a family gathering in Highgrove in September 1983. She was on vacation from her duties in México to help her sibling, Virgina Vásquez, with the student exchange program Aunt Virginia had founded. Sister’s eyes gleamed as she spoke excitedly about her imminent retirement. She was looking forward to taking classes at Marymount College to learn new pedagogies. We discussed the writings of social scientists like anthropologist Margaret Mead and psychologist Abraham Mazlow. I recall feeling immense pride of my aunt’s desire for continued lifelong learning.

In 1983, our family suffered a horrific heartbreak. Our two beloved aunts, Sister Celine and Aunt Virginia died in a tragic automobile accident. They had been visiting prospective host families for the arrival of Guatemalan students. We were devastated. Their deaths changed the trajectory of my life at many levels.

A book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner was of tremendous help. It was gifted to me for consolation, and I have paid it forward many times.

I cherish the Spring 2013 issue of “SOCIAL IMPACT,” a publication of the Sisters of Social Service. They honored the strength and resilience of the communities they serve for 50 years. One photo depicts the founding Sisters as they leave for México: Celine Vásquez, Virginia Fabilli, Teresa Avila, and Mary Christa. The article states, “Sisters have responded to the strengths and needs of local people in a variety of ways as social workers, nurses, parish workers, educators, and in other leadership roles.”

To honor Sister Celine, I planted a Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), known to attract bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Its celestial blue flowers bloom profusely, particularly in August for her birthday — where I visualize her luminous, serene face.

Sister Celine is an extraordinary component of the Vásquez family legacy. Our children, nieces, nephews, and their grandchildren need to know they’re descended from stalwart, resilient people. Our ancestors were refugees of war who fled a brutal Mexican Revolution in 1910 to live and work in Southern California to provide a better life for their family.

An extensive story about Sister Celine is in the 2021 Writing From Inlandia.

Frances J. Vásquez is director emerita of Inlandia Institute.