Yes, she stood out.
The uniform dress code in college normally consists of blue jeans, sneakers that on a good day actually match and the last clean T-shirt pulled from among the towels, wrinkled, in the dryer. Socks are optional. Comfort is king.
When Sister Servant of Mary Miriam Guadalupe Rivera Martinez showed up for classes at the Delgado Community College Charity School of Nursing three years ago, she naturally wore the bleached, crisp white habit and sparkling white shoes that have been the trademark of her community of nuns who keep prayerful, overnight vigil at the bedside of the terminally ill.
For more than a century, the Servants of Mary have been there literally in a family’s darkest hours, allowing caregivers to sleep through the night while the nuns attend to the palliative care of their loved ones.
“God’s mission for me is to be at the bedside of my patients, bringing peace, love and care,” said Sister Miriam, a native of Ocotlan, Mexico.
That’s why the 32-year-old nun, smiling and gleaming in her white habit, showed up for classes at Delgado-Charity eager to work toward an associate’s degree in nursing. When she received her nursing pin along with 132 other members of the Delgado-Charity class in December, Sister Miriam was the first member of her order since Hurricane Katrina to complete the program.
“I know that it is God’s gift, because it is for him,” Sister Miriam said. “All the effort and all the sacrifices are for the Lord. Just as I’m going to be caring for him (through her patients), he cared for me during this time.”
While Sister Miriam will dispense that physical and spiritual care for the rest of her life, there’s another, hidden story. Through her daily presence on the Delgado campus, several of her classmates and professors said the woman in white transformed their lives with her random acts of charity.
“Her classmates were drawn to her,” said Dr. Cheryl Myers, executive dean of the Charity School of Nursing. “I think it was her compassion. She was always enthusiastic and encouraging. She kind of took them all under her wing, and I know she helped more than one of them get out of school.”
Gabriela Ojeda, 25, said she first noticed Sister Miriam taking nursing classes at Delgado over their first two semesters together, but their relationship was not much more than a courteous “hi” and “bye.”
“When I first saw Sister it impressed me because I honestly didn’t know that sisters could go to nursing school,” Ojeda said.
But in the third semester, the coursework got more intense, and Ojeda, a Catholic, and classmate Ninfa Rodriguez, a Baptist, approached Sister Miriam about forming a study circle outside of class. Most of the study sessions took place on campus, but more often than not, Sister Miriam, with the permission of her superior, invited her classmates to come to the Servants of Mary convent on Perlita Street in Gentilly to study in the sisters’ library.
“I’ve been to convents before, but this one was very neat and the sisters were very sweet,” Ojeda said. “I used to tell Sister Miriam I would rather study at the convent than at school because I felt very peaceful. The sisters used to tell us there was food there and we were welcome to eat. When we got tired of being in the library, we would go out to this huge backyard and walk and read so our minds could change. All of our classmates were surprised when we told them we studied at the convent.”
Their study time always began and ended with a prayer and words of encouragement from Sister Miriam.
“She always told us we have to have faith and trust in God,” Ojeda said. “I was doing terribly, and I was almost to the point where I was failing the semester, and everything seemed so hopeless. When you study so hard for a test and don’t pass, it brings you down. But she was constantly saying, ‘We need to trust God. We need to have faith.’ With Sister, it was always, ‘We can do it. We can do it.’ She told us before we took our test, ‘Guys, I have prayed to God and told him this is what we want and this is what we are here for – to serve people. Our heart is in this for you.’”
Even beyond their small study circle, Sister Miriam was a magnet who seemed to attract the anxious and the hope-deprived. She began recording every class lecture digitally, and she would send the electronic file to any student who asked for it. A professor met her in the stairway one day and asked her to pray for her daughter.
“She was always telling us, ‘I have to go meet up with this lady in the third level because she needs help – she’s failing,’” Ojeda said. “We would ask her, ‘Sister, how are you going to do it?’ because we knew as a sister she has a schedule where she has to pray at certain times and eat at certain times.”
She found the time.
When Adam Maggio, another Charity nursing student, asked to join the study circle in his final semester, the group welcomed him warmly. Maggio was shocked to find out that he was going to a convent to study.
“Nursing school is a very stressful time, and no one really knows what you’re going through except your classmates,” Maggio said. “There were times during the semester that she was there for me, just sending me prayer booklets or just saying she was praying for me before a test.”
After their successful commencement, the entire class celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue, set up by Sister Miriam. It was there that Maggio’s dad Dennis put “two and two together.”
After the Mass, when Dennis saw Sister Miriam walking in her white habit among the Charity graduates, he told his son a story: These were same the nuns who had kept overnight vigil at the house of Adam’s grandfather Joseph, watching over him in his final days. Joseph Maggio died on St. Valentine’s Day in 2009.
Dennis Maggio was so touched by the sisters’ overwhelming kindness he gave them a fig tree to plant in their backyard.
Without ever having realized it, Adam Maggio had studied beneath that fig tree.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.