Sister Jeanmarie Chavez



Tell us about your growing up years and family.

My dad was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and my mom in Sonora, Mexico, they came to the United States met and married. My earliest memory of my school years was first grade at St. Joseph’s elementary school- our Sisters were the faculty. I went to Bishop Conaty HS in Los Angeles and there, the faculty was comprised of six Religious Orders:  Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of the Holy Cross, Sisters of the Presentation and Sisters of Blessed Virgin! I thought I was a typical teenager, eager to drive and go out on adventures. I remember two of my friends taught me to drive and I had my license at the end of my sophomore year. A HS senior, Carmen Boccalero, (later known as Sr. Karen Boccalero) was the assigned “student driver” before I was selected to help out by driving the Sisters on their routine trips and to their special meetings at the convent in Sierra Madre, and sometimes to their medical appointments.

The Sisters were a major presence in my life, it was not surprising at all that I entered the convent right after HS graduation. Around that time, my brother Henry was in the Air Force, was married and had settled in Denver where they began to build a family; my niece Carmen, my namesake, was just about a year old. My older brother Henry was born five years before me, we were very close as children and remained close until his death this year (2022). Our family was small, and tight-knit and our Mexican roots were strong: we spoke on phone almost weekly and my nieces and nephew arranged for us to all meet via Zoom during the pandemic.

Please share a favorite story about your early community service.

After leaving the Novitiate, I remember moving around quite frequently. I was assigned to Holy Angels School in Arcadia. I came from poor working parents, almost everyone in my parish was, just as poor. And my very first assignment would be teaching children from communities dominated by white-collar, well-educated parents! I was concerned and anxious about this assignment, I feared I wouldn’t fit in. These parents had very high expectations: they demanded schools distinguished by rich academic curricula, high standardized test scores, and diverse extracurricular opportunities… and yet the majority of whom went out of their way to be forthcoming, welcoming, and kind.

I spent a couple of years teaching First grade at the school at Grace Day Home, and St Francis Elementary School in the Sacramento area. It was there I met Sr. Marianne and Sr. Dorothy who I admire and esteem today; I had not yet taken my final vows so only limited interaction was permitted at that time. After I had taken my final vows, I was assigned to another affluent school, St. Rita’s in Sierra Madre. I spent two years there and I needed to ‘gear-up’ to meet the children’s needs and their parents’ expectations.

My next assignment was my longest and the most memorable. Sr. Louisa was the principal at St. Turibius and she greeted me and assigned me to teach First grade. Over the next 20 years, I was a teacher and retired from this school as the principal. Most importantly, Sister Luisa and I lived in community until her death in 2010. She was adopted immediately by my family and dearly loved. She had a sense of humor, was very thoughtful and the most generous person I had ever met!

Clearly, we shared our charism and prayed together, we worked together to pour all our efforts into the St Turibius school and community- as they were most in need. They were immigrants, 97% Latino, some monolingual Spanish, they were unemployed/underemployed, uninsured, hungry, and very poor. This had been my parish as a child and …we were poor, it was a familiar setting. However, this community was poorer than I could ever imagine. The school was a community resource and a safety net for the families – the children and the parents were BLESSINGS. The parents and children had very few material items…but they were rich in FAITH and even though most worked two jobs they made time to volunteer: (a) to clean and maintain the church, (b) serve as sacristans, (c) serve as lunch monitors and (d) classroom aides.

Why did you decide to become a sister?

I’ve been asked before why I entered the convent…I felt I never really had a “special calling.” I do think I was a Franciscan in the womb…my mother was a Third Order Franciscan. I think it just occurred to me one day, while driving the Sisters around town and to their appointments. As their ‘designated driver,’ to school, medical visits, and special meetings, I got to hear their conversations, witness their interactions. Over time, it occurred to me, they were just normal down-to-earth friendly women, laughing, disagreeing, and learning from one another! I remember thinking I could do this – I could be a nun! The Franciscans were a clear choice, they were my teachers through 8 th grade, they taught Religion and Spanish in high school; and I was one of their main sources of transportation during my last two years of high school. Our parish was a poor parish-St. Turibius in central Los Angeles. There were Franciscan Sisters there as well, however, they were from Mexico and clearly a different order- the Franciscans were all around me since birth.

Surprisingly, my family was an influence in my life as a vowed religious and continues to bless my life. When I received my veil, I was able to take a name as a religious; I was asked to submit three choices. I can only recall two of the three names: my first choice was Jeanmarie (Jean and Marie for my two nieces…the first niece was named after me!) and the other choice was Mark (there was already a Sr. Mark who had befriended me, and I thought I too could be a Mark). My nieces and nephew check-in with me regularly, even more so since my brother’s passing; now that the Covid-19 protocols have been relaxed they are planning a California visit.

How do you share your Franciscan values and spirituality now?

Currently I reside at the California Mission Inn, an assisted living community. I am in a small self-contained cottage and enjoy family-restaurant style dining with the other residents (250+ residents). There are all levels of care here, and I have been privileged to serve as an ambassador. My ‘duties’ include welcoming new residents and guiding them through the introduction period by introducing them to other residents, pointing out amenities, and referring them to helpful staff (from wellness to recreation). I have never been an extrovert- however, I am a good listener; I suppose that makes me an introvert. Since becoming an ambassador I’ve now become an advocate. I recognize the need for patience as we age…we lose our hearing, and our sight isn’t as sharp as it used to be and of course our memories are fading. As a vowed religious, many times I have been asked to lead us in prayer before our meals. In keeping with our Franciscan charism, and in my daily interactions with my neighbors, kindness and patience is what I turn to most. I am most grateful for the Associates in our community- we have been together in good times and bad. The gatherings are always a blessing.

Please share a favorite quote or verse.

The prayer attributed to St. Francis…Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

My family, most of whom reside in the Denver area, are a true joy and blessing. When they were young it was fun to hear ‘their stories’ and see them grow. As adults I have come to know them at a deeper level. I am honored that they show a great amount of respect for my Catholicism, they may not all be practicing Catholics but they are ALL deep in faith.

On a lighter note: my brother and I were avid Dodgers fans as are all his children; we all still follow the Dodgers, win or lose. Conveniently, my family still schedule their visits to California during baseball season and most certainly the Dodgers are always playing at home. So, we would catch a few games over the years. Go Dodger Blue!

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