Hispanic Ministry offers a professional listening ear to area’s Spanish-speaking

Sister Isabel Romero, SCTJM, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Peoria, is pictured with Olga Figueroa, her longtime friend from Mexico. Figueroa is a psychotherapist who offered workshops and private counseling in August to Spanish-speaking Catholics in LaSalle, Peoria, and Bloomington. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

As a priest from Mexico was hearing confessions for 14 hours during a retreat day for Spanish-speaking Catholics of the Diocese of Peoria last summer, Sister Isabel Romero, SCTJM, offered to help move things along.

“Do you want me to tell them to be a little more quick — to just say their sins?” asked Sister Isabel, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Peoria.

“No, Sister,” came the reply from Father Damian Bernal. “These people need to talk.”

This summer, Sister Isabel responded to that need by bringing a family psychotherapist from Mexico to the diocese to listen to the concerns of Spanish-speaking Catholics and offer individual, marriage and family counseling throughout August.

“We don’t have anyone in the whole diocese who works with the Hispanic community in this professional area and with faith,” said Sister Isabel, in explaining why the presence of her longtime friend Olga Figueroa was so appreciated during time spent in LaSalle, Peoria and Bloomington.

LANGUAGE, CULTURAL BARRIERS

“It’s been a great and beautiful experience getting to know the people here and listening to their needs and worries,” said Figueroa, who has a master’s degree in family therapy and does private counseling in the Diocese of Hermosillo in Mexico. “There were sessions that people would say to me, ‘I’ve never told this to anyone in my life.’ It was nice hearing them out and having a space for them to share about their life and their needs, their sadness and happiness.”

In addition to presenting a public workshop in each city, Figueroa had given private therapy sessions to 35 individuals, eight couples, and five families as of Aug. 23.

“There were sessions that people would say to me, ‘I’ve never told this to anyone in my life.’ It was nice hearing them out and having a space for them to share about their life and their needs, their sadness and happiness.” — Olga Figueroa

None of her clients had been to such a session before, in part because of the language barrier.

“It’s not the same for them to have a session in English because their heart is in Spanish,” said Sister Isabel.

“I get that part,” agreed Figueroa, who was part of the evangelization team that conducted the retreat for Spanish-speaking Catholics last July. She explained that, in addition to language, those who came here from Mexico or other nations are also trying to adapt to a new culture.

“Everything’s different here,” she said. “They have in their heart a mixed culture, between what they once were and what was meaningful and important to them in their old country, and what they have become in this new country.”

Figueroa, who also gives individual therapy to seminarians in her home diocese, could empathize with her central Illinois clients as she listened to their struggles and offered counseling on topics such as parenting and marriage communication.

OVERWHELMING RESPONSE

“I think it was a surprise for the people that the diocese was bringing someone to take care of this,” said Sister Isabel. “But we need to take care of the whole person, and mental health is something very important. Our bishop is always attentive to the needs of the people and this is clearly a need of the Hispanic people.”

The sessions were offered free of charge, with Figueroa volunteering her time to address “the totality of the person” — heart, mind, body and spirit.

The response was overwhelming, even without advance publicity. The appointments in LaSalle were filled a day after Father Paul Carlson and Father Tom Otto of the LaSalle Catholic parishes mentioned the opportunity on a Sunday. The same happened in Peoria, where word was spread through a Cursillo women’s group and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and of the Poor serving here.

“We doubled the time because so many people wanted to participate,” said Sister Isabel. Plans are already underway to bring Figueroa — as well as another professional colleague — back in November.

Figueroa and Sister Isabel both praised the support of area priests serving in Hispanic ministry.

Figueroa said she found in her counseling sessions that most clients were active in their faith. “Some had already begun making beautiful changes in their marriages and communications and were trying to live differently and in a better way because of the church and the formation they have received.”

Figueroa, who specializes in art therapy, was to conclude her visit to central Illinois by offering a workshop called “The Selfie: Being True to Yourself” on Aug. 29 at the St. John Paul II Catholic Newman Center in Normal.

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