TOP LEFT: Sister Hortensia Del Villar, SAC, departs her position as the Director of Community Services and Outreach for the Diocese of San Bernardino after eight years in that role. BOTTOM LEFT: Sr. Hortensia speaks at a special Day of Creation for Catholic school students in fall 2021. RIGHT: Sr. Hortensia (right) stands with Bishop Alberto Rojas and others at a visit to the Galilee Center in Mecca, a place where asylum seekers are housed and assisted after they arrive in the U.S.
By Anneliese Esparza
For nearly a decade, Sister Hortensia Del Villar, SAC, has worked in service of the most vulnerable and needy in our society as the Director of Community Services and Outreach for the Diocese of San Bernardino.
“Being able to hear the cries of our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of San Bernardino throughout these years has been an uplifting experience of hope, and also a challenging experience of being creative responding to different needs,” said Sr. Hortensia, who departed the role on Sept. 2.
In her diocesan ministry, Sr. Hortensia worked to coordinate and administer grants, oversaw social concerns training to parish ministers, and worked closely with local and international social services and outreach agencies, including Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services.
“One of my personal calls is to ask, ‘How are we as a Church there for our brothers and sisters, especially in times of most need?’” said Sr. Hortensia.
Outreach work is nothing new to Sr. Hortensia – after she joined her congregation, the Sisters of the Guardian Angel, she served as a missionary for nine years, working in Mexico, El Salvador and the Philippines. There, her ministry included counseling women and children who had survived abuse and working to prevent human trafficking.
When her congregation invited her to return to the U.S. in 2014, Sr. Hortensia was initially hesitant. “It was difficult decision for me. I wanted to continue in El Salvador, but I saw that it was a call coming from God, and I said yes. It was something new coming back to the U.S. after 15 years of being in mission. It’s kind of relearning how to navigate ministry again,” she said.
There were certain big moments during Sr. Hortensia’s time leading the Office of Community Services and Outreach. The first was in 2015, when the tragic mass shooting in San Bernardino challenged her to find a way to reach out to people in the midst of such a horrific tragedy. Her office helped to organize a prayer vigil for peace at Sacred Heart, Rancho Cucamonga, a location which was significant because one of the victims of the shooting was the husband of the Sacred Heart School Principal at that time.
“I remember the teachers were there, the children were there, the community was all gathered in prayer, crying and lighting candles for the victims and just coming together as a community to feel that support, to feel that you are not alone. We are here with you. We are together in this grief, this process,” she said.
Another big moment came a couple of years later in 2018, when a surge in the number of people seeking asylum in the U.S. led to the Diocese of San Bernardino beginning Operation Bienvenida, a ministry to assist, feed and shelter these asylum seekers. “Again, it was an experience of reorganizing my ministry, my responsibilities, to be able to respond, together with [other offices and agencies], again to say here is the Church to welcome our brothers and sisters and to respond to the needs of our times,” said Sr. Hortensia.
In 2020 and beyond, Sr. Hortensia’s office was challenged to respond creatively to the new needs that came about during the pandemic, working in collaboration with Diocese’s Emergency Operations Collaborative (EOC), local food pantries and county/state agencies to help people receive food and vaccines.
One of her most recent accomplishments was helping to get a new community organizing group, Inland Communities Organizing Network (ICON), in the West End Vicariate of the Diocese. ICON is providing formal civic engagement training to several West End parishes and is being funded by a three-year grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the anti-poverty program of the U.S. Bishops..
“[ICON] is now working very closely with seven parishes trying to respond to the pandemic effects in that area, organizing, identifying needs and responding,” she said.
Another area in which Sr. Hortensia worked was Care for Creation. She led the Diocesan Laudato Si’ Committee, which established an annual Care for Creation Day and helped initiate the process for the bishops of California to write a statement on environmental stewardship.
Her next chapter in ministry will be with Catholic Sisters Initiative, a foundation that offers grants to religious congregations and other nonprofits in vulnerable places such as Haiti, Mexico and Africa. Her role will be to assist in the process of evaluating grants and developing relationships with different groups in those countries. Most of her work can be done from home or at the group’s office in Los Angeles, although she will sometimes be traveling to the sites out of the country. As she moves into this next chapter of her ministry, she looks upon her time in the Diocese of San Bernardino with gratitude.
“I feel so thankful, privileged and rich by having had this opportunity to serve our people together with my colleagues and other groups in San Bernardino and Riverside. It’s been the honor of my life,” said Sr. Hortensia.