The Mission Helpers’ history in Venezuela began in 1963 when Pope John XXIII asked all religious orders to send 10 percent of their members to Latin America to address the region’s great need.

The Mission Helpers first went to Caracas, Venezuela, where the bishop asked them to teach religion to the public school teachers, who were allowed to teach religion, but lacked the knowledge or the training to do so. Later, the bishop asked the Mission Helpers to organize religious education for the entire diocese. The Sisters did this so successfully that eventually lay people were able to take over the religious education programs, freeing the Mission Helpers to focus on other areas.Sister Rosa Sofia Toledo, who was born in El Tocuyo, Venezuela, suggested that the Community look into serving the more needy regions of the country. The Sisters visited several Venezuelan dioceses and decided that Barquisimeto, and the 14 villages surrounding rural Manzanita in the northwestern part of the country, were most in need of their ministry. They found the villagers living in “unimaginable poverty and lacking the basic necessities of life.”

The people had not had a priest in many years and were virtually abandoned by the Church. The local bishop agreed that Manzanita was the place for the Mission Helpers. In 1990, Sister Rosa and Sister Marita Rodriguez Segarra began their mission by building a tiny worship space that served as a gathering place and outreach center for the villagers.
That first small congregation has grown into Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish and a new, much larger building has replaced the original structure. In addition to providing the community members with a place to worship and receive religious education for themselves and their children, Mission Helpers have been instrumental in greatly improving the overall quality of life in the region.
Caring for the Children – and the Chickens
Responding to the need for child care while the parents labored in the fields, the Mission Helpers created 20 day care centers. And, more important, they taught the village women how to manage the facilities themselves. They also taught them basic home economics, nutrition and personal hygiene. Sister Marita even taught them how to raise chickens!
The Sisters have also established an industrial school, an elder day care center, a credit fund and a food distribution center.
Sister Marita still lives among the villagers and plays a significant role in their lives. She shares the Mission’s food, medicine and other resources with those who come to her door. When there is a shortage of priests, she conducts the Sunday liturgies and buries the dead. She and the Mission Helpers who live elsewhere maintain close contact with the families during times of sickness and emotional and economic stress, providing both financial and spiritual support.
All Mission Helpers in Venezuela—including visitors from the United States—spend the weekends with the people of Manzanita.

There is a large group of “lay missioners,” young people from all parts of Lara State, who come to the Manzanita Mission several times each year. They practice their faith in community ministry; many return to their home parishes to assume leadership positions.

Sister Rosa divides her time between Manzanita and the city of Barquisimeto, where she is a family counselor working with troubled youngsters and their parents through both workshops and individual counseling sessions under the auspices of the Church and the public school system.

She is joined in this work by Sister Amarilis Flores Arrioja, another native Venezuelan who was born in Pariaguan, State of Anzoategui. She took her final vows in 2007 following a novitiate spent in Florida and in Massachusetts, where she worked with the Hispanic community at Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston.

Formation in Venezuela

In 2008, the Community opened its first house of Formation outside of the United States in Cabudare, Venezuela, which is located between the Manzanita Mission and the pastoral ministry in Barquisimeto. Sisters Rosa and Amarilis meet with and mentor women from Venezuela who are discerning religious life. A comprehensive Formation program that adapts religious life to the Latin American culture has been established and the first postulant, Asdruanny Garcia, is now in her second year.

The program prepares women as missionaries who will not necessarily spend their entire ministries in Venezuela, but who can, if called, serve elsewhere in Latin America as well as in the growing Latino population in the United States.

Sister Mary Ita Hayes, a former president of the Mission Helpers, has been dividing her time between Venezuela and the United States for the past three years as a member of the Venezuelan vocation team. “We have been called to be in Venezuela,” she says, “and we have responded. That is the Mission Helpers spirit!”