My name is Sister Juana Olmedo. I am currently 74 years old and a member of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Garden.
I am a native of Paraguay, from a place just south of the Brazilian border, not too far from the well-known Iguacu Falls. Both my parents were strong in their Catholic faith. Even though there was neither a church nor even a parish priest in the town where I was born and brought up, I remember very well that there were always different religious activities that took place every evening. In fact, these were organized by my father as the leader who was assisted by other good Christians in our town.
My experiences of church as a young girl were quite different from what most could even imagine! For example, the distance to the nearest church was very far from where we lived and we had no means of transportation to get there. It was arranged that there would be four different groups of Catholics who could attend mass once a month. We would travel to a faraway town where a priest would hear our confession on Saturday evening and then celebrate mass with us on the following day.
To get there we had to walk for about four hours trudging through streams and crossing over fields through where sometimes we were susceptible to dangers from some animals. There were no inns or motels; even if there were, with the size of my family, we could never have afforded that. We relied on the generosity and hospitality of families along our route, staying overnight and sometimes sleeping on the floor in a corridor or outside on the porch of some family’s home. Our greatest desire was always to receive the two Sacraments, Reconciliation and the Eucharist, and so we did what we had to do to get there. The next day, after attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we would return home the same way we came, sometimes in the pouring rain. Aside from that the priest would only come to our town once a year and stay in my family’s house for a week in order to give talks about the faith and prepare the children and adults to receive the different sacraments.
When I was fifteen years old, the priest came for one of these visits and talked to us about what a vocation is and, specifically about the meaning of a vocation to religious life. It all sounded so sublime to me to hear about those who loved Jesus so much that they were willing to give their entire life to him. It touched me in a mysterious way and I started to think that maybe I could do the same, that perhaps the Lord was inspiring me, calling me to give my life to him. Despite the hardship of leaving my parents and my brothers and sisters for the first time, I decided to leave my family behind and go in search of learning more about this wonderful life helping the poor and the sick and educating children. Truthfully, I think this came as quite a surprise to my family because my elder sister was more of the “type” to become a Sister. I, on the other hand, enjoyed sports and working in my family’s store, and I was also aware that there were young men in my town who were interested in me. It was also a difficult sacrifice for my parents because I had many responsibilities at home, including helping to care for my younger brothers and sisters to allow our mother to assist our father in his business. (Little did they know that years later another one of their children would respond to God’s call, this time to the priesthood.)
Up to that point of my life I never laid eyes on a Sister of any religious order. Nonetheless, I joined a community that was mentioned to me, called the Daughters of Our Lady of the Garden, as a pre-postulant, so that I could discern the call to religious life more deeply. Unfortunately, this congregation did not have a house of formation in Paraguay, so not only did I have to leave my family, I had to leave my homeland and make the journey to Argentina. There I spent my years in formation, observing the Sisters and seeing them happy in their vocations and enthusiastically carrying out their various apostolates. It was their joy and spirit of zeal that motivated me to want to continue to be formed as a Daughter of Our Lady of the Garden.
After a year of postulancy and two years of novitiate, I professed my first vows on January 16, 1964. I was nineteen years old. After three days as a professed Sister, I received my first assignment at a hospital in Buenos Aires. I had not previous knowledge about or experience in hospital work and, truthfully, it was challenging work. With God’s grace, however, coupled by my willingness to want to do well in whatever was asked of me, I was able to do it and I was happy to do so.
The Daughters of Our Lady of the Garden are an international congregation, founded by St. Anthony Maria Gianelli, in Chiavari, Italy in 1851. One year after working in the hospital, my major superiors called me to Rome where we have our international headquarters located near the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline Hill to learn the Italian language as it is the language of our Institute, and then to embark on studies that would help me to carry out whatever would be asked of me working with our Sisters in Italy. St. Anthony’s maxim was “God alone!” and he exhorted the Sisters in the order to “Go where others cannot go!”
A few months later, on July 4, 1966 I arrived in the United States where I was sent to join some of my Sisters who arrived there in Connecticut four years earlier as missionaries. In addition to Guarani (the language of the Paraguayan people), Spanish, and Italian, now I was called to learn English and continue my professional studies. I love children and I was sent to acquire a degree in education. I began as a housemother for special needs children at a residential facility in Middletown, CT.
From there I spent many years teaching primary grades in a wonderful Catholic parochial school in New Haven where I prepared my young children to receive Jesus for the first time in Holy Communion. For the last 16 years I have been working alongside my Sisters at Gianelli’s Early Childhood Center in Middletown, CT. After spending several years as a teacher, I am currently the director and administrator of the Center. In the 55 years that I have been in this country, called to serve our Lord in his little ones and their families, I have found so much happiness and I have vivid memories of literally thousands of children who have also taught me about God’s love and care for me!
As the local superior of my religious community, I am in charge of a community of six Sisters – three from India, two from Italy and me. Our ministry with the children and then with catechesis in nearby parishes keeps us all very busy, in addition to our responsibilities in the community and to prayer. It is important to stay well and healthy so that we can continue for many more years. I think I have a youthful spirit and a strong energy level, but this has not come easily to me either. Starting when I was only 32, and for the years that have followed, I have had several health issues that could be resolved only with major surgeries. There is not a day that I am not aware that my becoming a citizen of the United States has made it possible for me and my Sisters to have access to high quality healthcare and assistance. Most recently, I had my second fusion surgery on my back and the grants that my community received from SOAR! have had a direct positive impact on my quality of life. It is my greatest hope and desire to continue to serve our Lord for many more years. God has a plan for each one of us that has everything to do with our happiness. We have only to be bold in our choice to be generous with God. He will not be outdone in His generosity!