Tuesday, November 27, 2012

sister chris

I first heard of the legendary Sr. Chris Cullen nearly 10 years ago when I arrived to Carmen Pampa. Local high school graduates, UAC-CP students, Carmen Pampa community members, former visitors and volunteers, and members of the Franciscan community often told stories of a tough Irish nun who was a mainstay in Carmen Pampa. She contributed in many ways to education in Bolivia's rural area several years before the College existed. She loved sports, driving her tractor, and putting students to work.  She was tenacious and sharp, they said.

Sr. Chris pictured with UAC-CP Veterinary Science thesis student Raymundo Semo.
Though I officially met Sr. Chris (or Hermana Christina, as locals call her) for the first time a couple years ago when she briefly visited Carmen Pampa, I didn't really get to know her until she returned to the College last November 2011 and ended up staying for a year...nine months longer than she originally planned.

In the past 12 months, Sr. Chris dug in deep and took on some big projects at the College.  In fact, the same morning she arrived to Carmen Pampa (after an overnight flight from Miami and 6 am arrival to La Paz), Chris had a quick cup of coffee and was off to do repairs on the church.  Her knowledge of plumbing and electricity and general maintenance--not to mention her ability to manage student workers--launched her into a position of welcome authority at the Campus Manning physical plant. (Sr. Chris even helped move along a couple construction projects in the nearby town of Coroico--organizing UAC-CP students to complete road work that was severely behind schedule).  She also quickly became a member of the UAC-CP team--helping with dorm checks, participating in staff meetings, etc.

Sr. Chris managed students doing community service work around campus.
Observing her and her interactions with other people throughout the past year, I can confirm that the things I had always heard about Chris were true: she is tough and she does love to drive (her infamous yellow tractor has since been retired, but she gladly manuevered the Toyota Landcruiser pick-up truck around the mountainous country roads of the Yungas). She is also a sports fanatic (this past Saturday she somehow got out of the group Thanksgiving photo because she had already snuck up to see the soccer game).

But what I had never gleaned from the stories before is that Chris is unassuming and more quiet than loud--she never yells; she respectfully disagrees; she listens closely--even when you think she isn't.  Never quick to make a decision, it's obvious that she mulls things over in her head. She may seem serious and stern--and can hide smiles well--but she has a fabulous sense of humor and a gregarious laugh.  And based on the stories she told of the days when she lived through Bolivian dictatorship in the early 1980s, I also think she is brave. Her commitment to social justice and her ability to work with people is inspiring to me.

Last Friday night students and staff hosted a surprise farewell party for Sr. Chris on the College's lower campus.  Words of appreciation and admiration were shared from all sides. The College's Veterinary Department presented Chris with a vest that was signed with messages from all of her students. The most common messages? "May God bless you, Sister." and "I will miss you." I think the goodbye party was just as important for Sr. Chris as is was for the students; it allowed students to show their gratitude and admiration for a woman they dearly respect... precisely because she loves and respects them.

This morning Sr. Chris boarded American Airlines 922 bound for the U.S. unsure if she will return to Carmen Pampa sooner or later. The only certainty we have for the moment is that she will be truly missed. "Sr Chris left," a UAC-CP volunteer texted me, "I feel like the campus is empty without her voice and truck engine sound. So sad."

No comments: