LA PAZ, Bolivia – Last month’s Independence Day holiday was not just a celebration of the birth of America. July 4 also was a special day in Bolivia for a 97-year-old Dominican sister and registered nurse.
Sr. Araceli Revuelta Arias, OP, who has worked alongside Franciscan friars in Bolivia for close to two-thirds of her religious life, was honored for her six decades of mission service when Ignatius Harding, OFM, and Thomas Kornacki, OFM – along with Fr. Rene Bustamante, OFM, the Provincial of St. Anthony Missionary Province – presented her with the Holy Name Province Francis Medal at a special Mass on the morning of July 4 at the Basilica of San Francisco.
Established in 1998, the Province’s Francis Medal recognizes individuals who have displayed an uncommon contribution to the advancement of the ideals and values of St. Francis of Assisi.
Sr. Araceli, who has been associated with the Holy Name Province mission since 1959 when she began staffing a medical clinic, has served in many roles. She currently is director of St. Anthony’s Medical Center at St. Francis of Assisi Basilica in La Paz. Early on, and through the years, she taught classes at the parochial school of St. Mary of the Angels Parish on the Alto of La Paz, which was originally the HNP mission’s first parish and center house in Bolivia.
After the Mass, during a celebratory lunch at the residence of the Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary, Sr. Araceli, a veritable thesaurus of memories – and always more than willing to share them – regaled the friars with tales from the past, according to Tom, who has been stationed in Bolivia since 1976.
She was especially animated in her recollections of the antics and magic tricks of Anthony Schneider, OFM, who she said always amused the sisters, but often shocked dignitaries who visited the convent.
“In a very special way, Sr. Araceli represents the six-decades-long partnership between the Dominican missionary sisters and Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province in Bolivia. That’s because she has been part of this collaboration since day one,” said Tom, who described the nun as a companion, colleague and inspiration who has used her education and medical training – along with “an abundance of compassion” – to help those in need.
Travel by Truck, Mule and Foot
Sr. Araceli opened the medical clinic at the mission’s Sorata parish in 1980 and later transferred it to the local hospital as part of a comprehensive health program. During her years in Sorata, she made many visits to the parish’s more than 260 rural communities, which were widely dispersed over difficult terrain of mountains and valleys, traveling by truck or jeep – and many times by mule and foot if that’s what it took to reach families and children in need of care.
“For thousands, she was nurse, midwife, pharmacist, counselor, lawyer and letter writer, all while offering health care training programs for rural nurses and medical assistants – and still finding time to make monthly visits to check the health of diocesan seminarians at the Holy Spirit Seminary,” said Tom, a native of Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania.
She also made an annual grueling two- to three-day trip to the jungle region of La Paz to provide health care to the volunteers working in a development and road building project, and to friars stationed there, treating foot infections, insect bites and other ailments.
Since 2010, Sr. Araceli’s presence has been felt at the St. Francis Basilica clinic in La Paz, and during her 60 years working with the Franciscans, she has looked after most, if not all, of the HNP friars who have served in Bolivia. Tom said Sr. Araceli has seen the mission from its earliest days through its transformation into the Province of St. Anthony.
“Sr. Araceli is a living chronicle of Holy Name Province’s Bolivia mission. She has made valuable contributions to many of the mission’s charitable and spiritual activities and events,” he said.
Iggy, who was stationed in Bolivia for 45 years and traveled from Virginia to attend the presentation of the Francis Medal, said, “What a joy to be able to be there after serving with her in Bolivia from 1972 to 2017, remembering that she saved my life one night at 3 a.m., far from any hospital, when I had an allergic attack after eating some natural honey that closed off all my breathing. She had the shots to open the passage-ways so I am very grateful for her presence as a nurse for everyone every day — 24/7.”
Partnership in Ministry
This year also marks the 60th anniversary of partnership in ministry between the Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary and the Franciscan friars in Bolivia, according to Tom.
The Dominican missionary sisters are an offshoot of a community of cloistered Dominican nuns in Spain founded in the late 19th century to provide mission services in the Amazon jungles of Peru. They expanded their ministry to the highlands of Peru and neighboring Bolivia, and eventually to Chile, Ecuador and Africa.
The partnership ministry began in January 1959 when Sebastian Rabin, OFM, and three Dominican sisters arrived at the construction site of what would become HNP’s first parish and friary in Bolivia, overlooking the city of La Paz. The project was fraught with setbacks: material shortages, cost overruns, construction delays, labor disputes, and the complicated system of government permits, according to Tom. But the sisters took matters into their own hands.
“Sisters Araceli and Trinidad Esparza presented themselves at the presidential palace in La Paz, and after an hours-long wait, they were invited for a quiet chat with Bolivia´s first lady. Three days later, all the necessary documents were on the archbishop’s desk and forwarded to an astonished and grateful Sebastian,” Tom said.
Almost immediately, the sisters began holding classes in the pews of the unfinished church for 300 children who would form the nucleus of the St. Mary of the Angels parochial school – which is thriving today with an enrollment of the more than 1,000 students. At the same time, Sr. Araceli, a registered nurse, and pharmacist, opened a parish clinic – where, according to Provincial annals, the sisters treated 11,500 patients in 1962, with that number growing to more than 14,000 a few years later.
In addition to her service at the clinic, Sr. Araceli visited the sick and dying at their homes, sometimes alone but often accompanied by Duane McDonald, OFM, or Peter McGovern, OFM.
Clinics, Schools and a Humanitarian Mission
The Dominican sisters continue to maintain a significant presence at St. Mary of the Angels maternity clinic and school for special children, caring for a population that has increased from 22,000 in 1959 to its present-day 800,000 residents.
The nuns staffed the grammar school in the Sorata parish when it opened its doors in 1961. For the next 25 years, the sisters served as principals, teachers, administrators, and counselors. They also made their charitable works felt by operating a soup kitchen that featured a free hot lunch for their students since most of them walked to class every morning from distant communities.
In 1968, Sr. Araceli set up a parish clinic in a classroom and storage room – and within a few months, she was treating 20 to 30 patients a day. Also in the mid-60s, she accompanied Joachim Mahler, OFM, on a humanitarian mission to the nearby community of Athahualpani during an armed conflict between local miners and farmers. At great risk to their lives, she and Joachim offered medical assistance to a government official who had been shot, and also interceded, with permission from the warring factions, to take the wounded to La Paz.
Joseph Nangle, OFM, who lived in Bolivia for 15 years, said, “It is such a great gesture on the part of our Province to honor Sr. Araceli with the Francis Medal. She is, perhaps, the only – and surely the best – remaining witness whose memory spans the Province’s history in Bolivia from its very beginnings.”
He continued, “Although I never actually served at any of the mission sites where she was, I came into contact with her on my visits to La Paz and the other parishes of the Province Mission during my four years in Coroico.
“She is a typical Spanish woman: strong, dynamic, business-like, enormously energetic, and entirely dedicated to her work as a medical missionary. She always gives off vibes of quite serious and purposeful dedication to her nursing work. She is someone truly deserving of the honor of the Francis Medal,” Joe added.
— Jocelyn Thomas is the director of communications for Holy Name Province.