In 1966, Pope Paul VI requested that religious congregations in Canada assist with missionary work in Latin America. The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul felt called to answer this call and in January 1967 two Sisters travelled to Guatemala, Peru and Chile to determine the best location for a new mission. The fact-finding trip so illuminated the desperate need of the poor in South America that the Sisters felt called to open two missions instead of one. The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul established foreign missions in San Cristobal, Guatemala and El Progresso, Lima, Peru.
The first four Sisters missioned to Guatemala arrived in Guatemala City on December 9, 1967 where they were met by Bishop Manresa of the Diocese of Quezaltenango. The Sisters, two teachers and two nurses, spent several days in Gauatemala City, before heading to Quezaltenango for a week. On Sunday December 17, 1967 the Sisters were driven in a decorated motorcade through streets lined with waiving parishioners to San Cristobal where they were officially welcomed to the home of their new mission. San Cristobal, in the Totonicapan Department of Guatemala, is seven miles from Quezaltenango and is a village in the pine covered mountains of the Sierra Madre Range. In 1967 the parish of San Cristobal had about 40,000 people living in the village and the nine surrounding rural communities, known as “cantones”. Some of the cantones were very isolated and difficult to visit. The people of the parish were a mixture of Maya Indians and Spanish. Most of the population was illiterate and very poor.
In December 1970, the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul expanded their ministry in Guatemala to Momostenango, a town fairly close to San Cristobal. The Sisters’ mission focused on delivering health care through weekly clinics in the town and the surrounding cantones, and on teaching religion and sacramental preparation. The Sisters’ ministry in Momostenango came to an end in March 1999.
In January 1972 the General Superior visited the mission in San Cristobal and described the Sisters’ work: “Over eight thousand patients were treated in the past year in the clinics in the town and in those of the four cantones to which the Sisters go on a regular basis. His Excellency, Bishop Manresa and the local pastor, Reverend Father Bruno Frison both expressed great appreciation for the work the Sisters are doing. This includes, in addition to helping the sick, classes in alfabetizacion, assisting in the training of catechists, teaching catechism, music, sewing and English, and inculcating better health practices.”
In 1977 some local Guatemalan women expressed interest in religious life consequently the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul opened a House of Formation in San Francisco el Alto in 1979. The house closed in 1981 when it was decided that the local women should be directed to a Guatemalan congregation. The Sisters missioned to San Francisco el Alto were redirected to work in San Cristobal and Momostenango.
In 1983, Sr. Muriel Gallagher, Superior General, visited the missions in Guatemala and encouraged the Sisters to form an Associate group of lay men and women, many of whom already assisted the sisters in their work with the poor. The first group of Socios consisted of 3 men and 9 women. After two and a half years of formation 17 persons were formally received as Associates on September 28, 1985. Over the years the Associates have renewed their commitment and continue to visit and provide aid to the poor and the sick.
In 2003 the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul’s ministry in San Cristobal ended and the work was passed on to the Sisters at Mater Orphanorum Institute in Guatemala. The Providence Associates in Guatemala are still active and stay in regular contact with the Sisters in Kingston.