Sister Rafaela Mendoza was born October 24, 1907, in the town of San Diego de Alejandria in the state of Jalisco in Mexico. She was one of eight children of Gregorio and Jacinta Martinez Mendoza.
The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 when the government collapsed. There were violent battles for power, with several individuals vying to lead the country, including wealthy landowner Venustiano Carranza and General Pancho Villa. Carranza's faction eventually won out and he was elected president in 1917, but one-tenth of the country's population died in the civil war, and many northern Mexicans fled across the United States border to escape the violence, including the outright murder of partisans and their families.
This is Sr. Rafaela's story, in her own words, about how her family was threatened and forced to leave their home to seek a better life in the United States. The story culminates with the family eventually reaching Chicago. It was there in 1924 that Rafaela crossed paths with Father John Joseph Sigstein, who convinced Rafaela to join his fledgling Society of Missionary Catechists, which would later become Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters. Her sister Otilia later joined the community as well. Sr. Rafaela would serve 83 years as an OLVM Sister before she died in 2008 at the age of 100.
An Immigrant's Journey
By Sr. Rafaela Mendoza, OLVM (1907-2008)
My parents moved from San Diego to Leon, Guanajuato. My father was a merchant who brought fruit and vegetables from far and near. Often times he stayed away for days and weeks. It was at this time in December 13, 1914, when Otilia was born and father was away, when about 2 p.m. I was outside with my two cousins watching the cannonballs thundering and coming closer and closer to Leon. My grandmother came out and all excited and rushed us into a cellar and covered us over with big straw baskets and told us to lay still, otherwise the soldiers would kidnap us.
The cavalry troops came into our yard, went into the house and ransacked the place and took whatever they could see. When they came to the bedroom where Mother lay they demanded that she tell them where my father was. They believed that he belonged to Pancho Villa (these were Carrancistas — Carranza's soldiers — that came into Leon). They threatened to kill my mother and the newborn baby Otilia.
After three different times that Mother was threatened by the Carrancistas so much that one night we were awakened by soldiers who ransacked the little we had, and three of the soldiers came to Mother where all of us were clutching to her and frightened. One of them picked up the baby Otilia from Mother’s lap and was going to kill Mother and the baby but one of the soldiers said “don’t kill her — let her live for the sake of the rat.” They left leaving us frightened to death. Ten days later my father came and saw how much Mother was suffering. He decided to move — but where? Mother said “to el Norte!” And to el Norte we came.
The trip from Leon to El Paso usually takes 18 hours by train, too us it took a week. It was a perilous trip. Carranza troops stopped the train frequently thinking that Villa’s troops were on the train. They twice burned bridges. We arrived at Juarez, Mexico, hungry, poor and dirty from the week’s trip.
We crossed the bridge to the USA riding on a buggy and I can remember my father paying the immigration officer an American penny. My mother gave a sigh of relief and said, “Gracias, a Dios.”
Our stay in El Paso was a time of struggle between shelter and hunger. My father’s money had been taken away by the Carrancistas soldiers that halted the train several times. We spent the days on the outskirts of El Paso. My father would go out daily to the “Reganche Office,” the American employment office to be hired. Sometimes he would go to the restaurants to be hired — or to beg for food for us. One morning, Mother saw a church a long ways and said, “Let us go and pray that God will help us.” After visiting the church, Mother sat by the church steps and all of us with her, when a gentleman passed by and gave Mother a coin. She looked up and said “Gracias, Señor.” That afternoon my father came beaming and saying, “I have been hired, we are to leave for Finlay, Texas.”
The train left us at midnight, out in a railroad section called Finlay. No other houses or stores except the section house with men who had been working loading and unloading coal from the car loads. If a man was fortunate to empty a car load, he was paid $1.25. That is how much my father earned, from 5 a.m. until late evening.
Fortunately, my father was given the choice later to move on to East Texas where we went and my father was given work on the railroad.
With Mother so frail and undernourished she became a victim of malaria fever from the swarms of mosquitoes that were in that Hitchcock, Texas. Somehow my father found work chopping wood in the pine forest, and there we lived in a cabin and burned pine night and day to keep mosquitoes away. After some months, Mother felt better. Her fever did not last so long in the mornings.
My parents’ concern was that we were losing school and the Sacraments. No church around. My father would walk 10 miles to the nearest village to buy food. Once he noticed a little church with a cross over the steeple, and he though the Padre might come next Sunday, so we children got ready, Mary, Agustin and I and began to walk the 10 miles with our father. When we got to the little chapel we waited until noon and no padre or people came. We did that for three consecutive Sundays. On the fourth Sunday we were overjoyed to see the padre coming in on horseback to celebrate Mass at 11 a.m. He was as happy to see us as we were to see him. The congregation was made of two elderly couples and a family of three besides us — my father and we three children. Padre told us in his very limited Spanish to come back in “uno, dos, tres y cuarto domingo. Un domingo no, dos domingos no, cuarto domingos yes, si.” My father, in his gentle manner and gratitude said, “Gracias, Padre.” We walked home in the hot sun of Texas, but happy that we had been to Mass after so many, many months.
Our life in the forest was a pleasure one for us children. We discovered nature to be so full of wonderment. So many things to eat! Berries, and even honey, which my brother and I discovered in one of the hollow trunks of a tree. We went to the cabin and told Mother but she warned us not to go near it but to wait until my father would go and get some honeycombs.
When Mother was better, and we moved to Alvin, Texas, close to Houston. There my father worked on the railroad, we started school, and settled there. Years went by and we were growing and struggling with school. We children — Mary, Agustin, and I went to school and guessed most of the times what our teachers taught. English was our most difficult part of growing up.
Hardship was in store for us again. My father was thrown off from a railroad trolley car as an unexpected train was flying towards the trolley car with the group of men. Their only salvation was to jump off and save themselves. My father was severely injured on his spine and he had to lay flat on the floor for over a year. Little by little our means decreased, until we had nothing to live. Mother would go out to the American homes to wash whenever she was fortunate to work.
There came a time we had absolutely nothing in the kitchen pantry to eat. I remember it was a Sunday morning that Mother made fire in the stove put on the tea kettle with water. All of us came to prayer and to our Catechism lesson. Then my father announced that God our Father would not let the sun go down before we will have something to eat. That we should pray for our daily bread. The hours passed, our stomachs felt the pangs of hunger. Noon time came - no food. A friend of my father heard we lived in Alvin and he decided to look for us. He found us around 1:30 p.m. My father and he talked and talked and enjoyed their visit. Mother was very mortified because he hadn’t offered him anything to eat. Finally late that afternoon this friend said to my mother if he could have a cup of coffee. Mother replied, that she would willingly give him even more if she had it. When he discovered we had no food, he took Agustin to the nearest grocery store, and brought home plenty to eat and celebrate! This friend took care of my father, he massaged him daily, he stayed, worked, and fed us until my father was able to walk. Later on, this friend took him from Alvin to Chicago where he could find lighter work. About four months after working my father had us move to Chicago. We arrived in April, 1924.
My father and mother were happy in one way, he was feeling better and was working. There were churches very near where we could attend Mass and even Catholic schools! But on the other hand we lived in cramped quarters freezing all the time.
About that same year, Chicago was booming with work on the steel mills and many Mexican men were being brought from Mexico. When we came to Chicago, we seemed to be the third Mexican family with children. All the other hundreds of Mexicans were men.
Father Kane, S.J., from Loyola University had been a missionary in South America, and he came to visit the Mexican boarding houses, and when he saw the need for a place of worship, he got an empty store for prayer and Mass. After a short time, he had a chapel built there and a Mexican padre took care of the Mexican population.
It was in the chapel where I would stop daily to visit the Blessed Sacrament after school when one afternoon the padre called me in to meet an American priest. It was this first visit which happened to be on my 17th birthday that Father Sigstein invited me to be a missionary for the poor, especially in New Mexico where two of the catechists were already working. I had always dreamed of being a missionary in China, but never in New Mexico! Father insisted that Our Blessed Mother wanted me to work among my own people. He invited me to go to Gary, Indiana, and meet the catechists the following Saturday. I did, and stayed and visited a long time with Father and studied the photograph pictures he had and pamphlets so much that he caught me as a fish in a pond. He asked me when would I come, and I told him I had no money and that I was very poor. He assured me that Our Blessed Mother would take care of that, would I come next Saturday? I readily said, “Yes.” I went home happy thinking of the mission work in New Mexico.
I told our Padre about being invited to join the Missionary Catechists and he said. “Fine, when are you leaving?” When I said “Saturday,” he went that evening to my parents and tell them about my decision. They were very glad, and encouraged me to be obedient and to be a good religious.
On November 1, 1924, both Mother and Father brought me to Gary, and met Father Sigstein and through Catechist Benes as a translator they conversed with Father and the other catechists. Before leaving, they blessed me, and exhorted me to be good. That is a memorable day for me. I did not feel the separation until we moved to Victory Noll in Huntington, Indiana, on December 7, 1924. The convent was so big and so cold, and we were so few, only nine of us.
Father Sigstein kept us busy with studies of pedagogy — catechetics, nursing (first aid), sewing, singing, learning to play the organ - besides, oh yes, the most important study was Christian Perfection that was a must. Our days were full besides doing our daily chores, washing the barrels of restaurant thick dishes, and our own laundry to be washed on wash boards and boiled and rinsed and ringed. Oh how my hand joints hurt! I just couldn’t ring out the sheets!
The happy and excited day came when Our Father said to me he had good news! I was to go to Anton Chico in New Mexico and take the place of good Catechist Olberding. She and Catechist Srill were to come back from their mission to pronounce their vows. Catechist Kozla and I and Catechist Keller were to go soon! It was March 3, 1926, when we boarded the train to Las Vegas, New Mexico. There, Mr. Frey would meet us and take us to Anton Chico and Chaperito. My three months in Anton Chico were rich in many ways. I had a chance to put into practice what I was trained for. I loved the children and enjoyed teaching them Catechism. I looked for the mornings when we visited the out missions, Delia, Tecolote. Visiting the sick also was a privilege to heal their pains.
Then in the month of June, 1926, Father called us to go to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and begin to clean a building that had served as a Santa Fe Hospital. It was to be our home where all catechists come together for the summer and semi-annual retreats. Oh how we loved that place! All catechists looked forward to our reunions there. To my surprise, Father wrote me a letter in late August, 1926, saying that I should go to Victory Noll to pronounce my vows and become a professed catechist. Great! And then a vacation to my home in Chicago. Oh, what a joy to see all at home! It was December 9, 1926, that our Father decided to have a solemn departure at the Cathedral in Fort Wayne. There were a number of catechists going to the missions. I was then missioned with Catechist Doyle and Catechist Barthen to Holman, New Mexico.