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Sister Celine Banuelos, O.C.D. (right), and Sister Maria Corazon Quilang, O.C.D. (left), minister at Sacred Heart School in Palm Desert. An additional four religious sisters serve at other schools in the Diocese of San Bernardino.

By Natalie Romano

“Hi Sister! Hi Sister!” It’s a chorus that follows the Carmelite sister wherever she goes. And she goes fast: black habit flapping, Rosary beads bouncing as she moves with purpose through the halls of Sacred Heart School in Palm Desert. Sister Celine Banuelos, O.C.D., may teach math but wants the children to know that when they see a habit they see love.

“It’s always a joy when you see the children passing by,” said Sr. Celine. “... Whether it’s inside or outside of school, whether they know the Sister or not, they see us and know they are loved ... That’s the most important part to me.”

Sr. Celine and Campus Minister Sister Maria Corazon Quilang, O.C.D., are both part of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. The Order focuses on education, healthcare and spiritual retreats.

The Sisters are a fairly new sight in our Diocese. They started ministering here right before the COVID-19 pandemic, making this their first full year with students in the classroom.

“It usually takes three to four weeks for children to get used to us. Here, in the first week, we already had children wrapped around our waists,” said Sr. Maria Corazon. “We just kind of fit in.”

That’s exactly what parish and school leaders were hoping for. Principal Alan Bruzzio was taught by Sisters and wanted that experience for his students. Generous parishioners, who prefer to remain anonymous, financially made that a reality. Bruzzio says the Carmelites have shown the kids what it means to be devoted to God and have shown the school families an open door and an open heart.

“By far, people are overwhelmingly excited to have them here and seek them out. They’re starving for that spiritual guidance ... it’s almost like going to see a counselor,” explained Bruzzio. “Parents on tours of the school say, ‘That’s so neat. We don’t see Sisters anymore.’’’

Which is largely true, according to the Diocesan Office of Catholic Schools. There are only six sisters working in diocesean schools, despite the fact that a majority of the 26 schools here were either founded by religious sisters or were initially staffed by them.

In addition to the two Carmelites at Sacred Heart, Aquinas High School in San Bernardino has one teacher who is a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word. St. Jeanne De Lestonnac Catholic School in Temecula, founded by the Sisters of the Company of Mary, has three religious sisters on staff.

With so few Sisters around, some explanation was needed when the Carmelties first arrived. The women say they taught the students, particularly the youngest, about their ministry and their wardrobe.

“When new students come to my class for the first time, they do stare,” laughed Sr. Celine. “They ask questions like, ‘So, um, what’s your name? What do we call you?’”

Sr. Celine teaches Resource Math to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The Carmelite of 20 years says she holds high standards for “academics, spirituality and behavior.”

As Campus Minister, Sr. Maria Corazon works on religious curriculum and formation and gives lectures to the students. The Sister of 42 years recently added Altar Server Coordinator to her duties and overhauled the training program.

Some students admit they were initially nervous around the Sisters. “It was a little intimidating,” said Tiffany Chang, 8th grader and Student Body Vice President. “Once I got to know them, they really were heartwarming and really nice.”

Two additional Carmelites, Sister Pia Kuratomi, O.C.D., and Sister Gabriela Sandoval, O.C.D., work in the Sacred Heart parish office. All four women live next to the school in a remodeled duplex that includes a chapel. The Carmelites say they’re happy to bring their gifts to the community, especially the school.

“We are consecrated to the Lord,” said Sr. Celine. “That brings in graces that are unseen that the children do receive, I think ... especially when we ask Him for it.”

Sr. Maria Corazon believes the mix of lay teachers and religious makes for a good collaboration. She’d like to see that model repeated elsewhere.

“It’s a sadness that we’re not seeing as many Sisters,” said Sr. Maria Corazon. “Even when we’re grocery shopping we get stopped ... people say, ‘Are you a Sister? Will you pray for my mom or will you pray for my dad?’ There’s a real thirst for the sacred.”

With fewer women entering convents than decades past, Sr. Maria Corazon hopes for more vocations and says family support is key.

“I think people say religious life is a wasted life, and it’s not,” said Sr. Maria Corazon. “It’s a very, very fulfilling life because Christ is calling us.”

Sr. Celine says she was supported by her parents. She’s also not the only one in her family serving the Church. Her biological sister, Maria de Jesus Ramirez, works as an administrative assistant for the Office of Catholic Schools. Ramirez says they grew up in a Catholic home where serving others was a natural part of their lives.

“I feel proud and blessed to have my sister become a sister,” said Ramirez. “When we were kids, we volunteered for the Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart. We worked and prayed with them ... In our family, we were taught that this was not a burden. We will because we want to.”

The Carmelite order says it is a “labor of love” to serve, and that the strength to serve comes from prayer. The students at Sacred Heart say they benefit in ways both big and small.

“[Sr. Maria Corazon] is great. She’s always teaching us about Catholicism,” said Grace Thomsen, 8th grader and Student Body President. “She’s also so fun. She always makes us laugh.”

Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.