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Barbara Parisi

Since my retirement, missionary work has not only offered me opportunities to continue a pathway to serve and travel in Christ’s name, but also to give back for so many blessings throughout my life. Africa has always been a destination for me as a missionary and after much discernment and prayer, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ answered my calling. Missionary work is not for the lighthearted. It demands giving your all, compassion, an open heart, non-judgmental service in sometimes primitive conditions, cultural acceptance, embracing the unfamiliar and an abundance of patience. My husband Tom and I chose a month of service in Meru, Kenya, where an orphanage, grade school and girls’ high school supported by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, with many needs welcomed us with open arms.  The experience was life changing, a gift where we received more than we gave.

The name Africa is of Greek and Latin origin; however, its real name is Alkebulan – meaning Garden of Eden and Mother of mankind. Throughout our stay we were awed by the beauty surrounding us, the people that welcomed us everywhere we went, and the heartfelt warmth and spirit filled life of the PHJC community that shared their mission with us and gave us purpose. The rural area in Central Kenya where our mission for a month began is stark, but despite the grim circumstances we witnessed the resilience of the Kenyan people every day to overcome their impoverished circumstances and live a spirit-filled life was humbling.  We arrived in Nairobi late at night, exhausted after an 18-hour flight with a four-hour stopover in Paris.  Along with personal belongings, we carried two suitcases stuffed with school supplies, books, soccer balls, and a bag of tools to fix whatever was needed at the orphanage and schools.  After staying the evening with the PHJC at their convent in nearby Thika, we rose early for the four-hour trip to the Saint Joseph Orphanage in Mitunguu, in Meru County.  Driving through the rice fields, and landscapes of rolling hills, fields of corn and tall Bana grasses, roads lined with donkeys and cows grazing along the roadside, people and children heading to work and school, kept us glued to the windows as the everyday life of this heavenly piece of Kenya flew past us.

Caring Place St. Joseph Home for Orphans and Needy Children, has 44 boys ranging from four years to twelve years old.  During our week and a half stay among these amazing children, staff and PHJC, was filled with fixing desks and chairs, building bookshelves, going to the Market for much needed food supplies, and playing football (soccer), with the children. Mass was attended by all the children, Sisters and villagers before the day began and it was a glorious experience to witness the song and dance that filled the rafters throughout every service. The PHJC Sisters at the orphanage watched over their children like guardian angels. The love and warmth they gave them was in abundance. Despite food shortages, and scarcity of water, little personal belongings, and lack of school supplies the children were fiercely protective of each other and bonded together as brothers and sisters. They shared everything from clothing, food, and whatever belongings they had. They played together, prayed, and sang together, and wiped each other’s tears when they spilled down their faces.  Their faith and commitment to education was their common journey, and despite few books and meager supplies, they eagerly ran to their classes when the day began. Their smiles radiated whenever we saw the children and we could not get enough of their endearing hugs and smiles.  They often followed us whenever we appeared, seemingly fascinated with who we were and what we were doing. It was pure joy to assist them with purchasing textbooks, material to make their uniforms and a day’s journey to bargain at the Market for much needed food supplies.

Our second stop was St. Francis of Assisi Day and boarding school.  We were greeted with overwhelming excitement by the children who named us Mzungu, (white man) and McKenna, (Happy one), and surrounded us with their smiling faces wherever we went.  They had never seen a white person, so we were a fascination.  512 children filled the complex, which was also a mini farm, with gardens for the children to work in, a few goats, cows, pigs, and a chicken project. The children all had chores to do as well as washing and drying their own clothing and bedding by hand. When chores were completed and studies were finished, it was off to the fields they shared with the goats to play football, which they did barefoot.  The list of needed repairs was extensive, but top on the list was installing a door screen so the Sisters could say their morning prayers in their chapel without getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. We quickly went to work repairing the playground, so the swings and seesaws were usable. The students were enthralled with “Mzungu” and his “fixing”.  Teaching the handymen, including Sister, to use the power tools was essential because when our mission was over, we were leaving these tools for their use.  Our week and a half stay also included daily Mass, trips to the Market and fixing whatever we could, including bookshelves, more desks, computers, and swings.  We were introduced to Chi tea (black tea in Swahili), Chapati flat bread, arrowroot, greens, beans and rice and occasional chicken stew. The Sisters were adamant; we eat three hearty meals and drink plenty of water.   Praising the Lord before every meal, and after, either in song or prayer, was not just a ritual it was a spiritual connection to our missionary purpose.

Our last week and a half we spent with the Sacred Heart of Jesus Kinoro Girls Secondary School. The two hundred girls at the school attended grades nine through 12 with the hopes of going forward with their education at a community college or technical school.  We found the school was in desperate need of doors for the girls’ lavatories and clothes lines so the girls could hang their clothes that they washed by hand. We were housed by the PHJC in Igoji and for the first time on our trip had the luxury of staying in a small apartment with hot water for showers.

We visited the St Anne’s Mission hospital and gave out desperately needed suntan lotion to the Albino children who also stayed at St. Lucy’s school for the Blind. The hospital only had one ambulance and one X-ray machine, medical supplies were sparce, but they could keep their doors open with the help of overseas volunteers and assistance from PHJC Sisters, to serve the community’s medical needs. We were able to finish many of the doors for the girls and assist with food resources, which is always a need.  They have no well and, as the orphanage and St. Francis, use rain water for their source of water.  The girls are proud of their school and despite a lack of textbooks and supplies their dedicated and ingenious teachers improvise to provide them with course work in all major studies including English, trigonometry, chemistry, history, and religion.

The highlight of our stay in Igoji was attending the house blessings with Father Philip.  We spent a morning walking down the dirt roads with the villagers singing and drumming along as Father blessed the houses and fields of the villagers, culminating in an outside Mass. It was a glorious event that occurs twice a year.  We ended our stay with the Kinoro girls gathering in song and dance to bid us farewell and despite their meager belongings, presented us each with a Kikoi, a vibrant colorful wrap.

We could not leave Kenya without taking a day for Safari. Ol Pejeta Conservancy is on the Equator, and we were delighted with the sights and sounds of Kenya’s national treasure as the guide drove us through fields where Cheetas, Elephants, Gazelles, Hyenas, Rhinos, Water Buffalo, and Lions to name a few of the wild animals that called the 99,000-acre conservancy its home. The guide instructed us on the dangers these beautiful animals face from poachers who hunt them for their ivory tusks (Rhinos), and hands (Cheetas), killing and maiming hundreds. They are their protectors for now, the Lords overseers so others can enjoy their magnificence.

Leaving Kenya, the children, the holy fathers, and dedicated Sisters of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, was not easy. There is still so much to do and contribute to ensure the orphanage and schools the PHJC supports thrive and their children grow, as the Lord guides each of them to become Kenya’s story of prosperity and success. My husband and I will be forever humbled and grateful for the experience of our Kenyan mission, our faith strengthened and a resolve to serve in Christ’s name for as long as we are able.

Joan Fiel
Joan Fiel – retired nurse, returning volunteer
Barbara Parisi
Barbara Parisi, Kenya
Melinda Weidman
Melinda Weidman, 2023
Pat Rader
Pat Rader, South India, 2023
Sr. Connie Bach, PHJC
Sr. Connie Bach, PHJC
Barbara Allison


The bitter-cold, first week of January was tempered by the warm, service-oriented hearts of 17 students from Badger Catholic, a group of students from the University of Wisconsin and Edgewood College in Madison, who joined Sister Connie Bach’s PHJC Volunteers in making an impact at several PHJC ministries. Accompanying them was Father Tim Mergan, who served alongside the students and celebrated Mass during the visit for the students, Sisters, and residents.

In their third service trip with The Poor Handmaids Volunteer Program, Badger Catholic students served at Sojourner Truth House in Gary, visited Albertine Home in Hammond, worked at the campus greenhouses, and packaged and delivered food and basic needs to two hotels that house the vulnerable in Plymouth, Indiana.

For many of the students, it was their first hands-on volunteer experience since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. Edgewood College senior nursing student Grace Brennan was delighted to serve in-person again. “I love being able to help out, especially amid COVID, but there were limited opportunities. Last semester, I couldn’t get eight hours of hands-on service in; nothing was open to in-person service.” While in Hammond, the students visited the Albertine Home to play bingo with the residents, something Grace, pictured above, appreciated since she’s worked in senior care while earning her nursing degree.

Badger Catholic Focus Minister Erica Nossaman relished spending a week serving others, and for the new experiences, so rare during the pandemic. “Any small thing you do, you can do for Christ. I’m super thankful for this opportunity,” she said as she and Grace transplanted lettuce heads in the greenhouses.

Many students expressed gratitude for the community they built both with one another and with the Poor Handmaid Sisters. Junior Lydia Heinen noted that UW Madison is such a big campus and has a large Catholic community, so she was meeting some of her fellow volunteers for the first time. “It’s amazing how close we’ve grown in this opportunity to serve and encounter Christ in others,” she said.

Hunter Wallace, co-leader of Badger Catholic, also a junior, found the Sisters “super welcoming and mindful of the students’ needs, too. It’s a service-oriented group that’s been so cool to be a part of,” he noted while he and Father Tim hauled and stacked wood to be burned and made into biochar, an organic soil supplement used in the greenhouses.

The students created instant community with a man they delivered food and hygiene supplies to at Plymouth’s Red Rock Inn as they serenaded him with Happy Birthday. Freshman Dina Cianca noted of the experience: “The Poor Handmaids’ hospitality, simplicity in service, the sense of community, and love will keep us serving God for a long while.”

Sr. Connie Bach, PHJC
Cristy Contreras

The opportunity to volunteer with the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ was a wonderful experience and I would recommend it to anyone. When I started looking into joining a volunteer program I wanted to go somewhere I could help and feel useful. My main goal was to get a sense of fulfillment after quitting my job of ten years. Although that did end up happening and I am heading home with an overflowing heart…I received much more than I could have hoped for. A friend of mine mentioned that I might end up getting more that what I give, and now, I think that is true. 

Living in intentional community connected me with others in a special way and I know I’m leaving Querétaro with life long friends. The bond developed over daily prayers and meals is a strong one. Initially I was worried about not doing enough, but thanks to the volunteer coordinator, Sr. Connie, and my spiritual director, Sr. Marybeth, I was able to focus more on the small works/gifts and on the ripple effect of my time here. 

When I say I got more than I could’ve hoped for, it is in the sense that I was able to focus on me and my spirituality in a way I don’t think I would have been able to back home. In looking to help others, God was looking to help me…and gifted me with the present of time for myself and spiritual growth. Yes, there is always something to be done, but the sisters have a different rhythm in life…one that allows for prayer, reflection, and self care. I plan to keep keep those values with me going forward.

Due to unforeseen circumstances I stayed a month in the formation house and was able to get into a comfortable routine of prayer and teaching along with early risings. Being open and flexible are key when going into something new, and although I had no idea what to expect, my month at the capital was wonderful. I was able to teach English to the novice Ilsy and aspirant Yessica. On Wednesdays I would join either one of them at their respective ministry site. Ilsy’s ministry site was Niños y Niñas, a center dedicated to tutoring kids and helping them with homework. Mostly it’s kids that need the one on one attention, and it was my favorite to work on their reading. Yessica’s ministry was Casa Cuna, and that is a religious community run daycare. I mainly worked with 1.5-2.5 year olds and they were so precious! My favorite was watching them practice the dance they would perform on Independence Day. The morning and evening prayers and daily mass was a big difference from my normal weekly mass and once a day prayer, but it was just what I needed. Developing these habits have been instrumental in my time since the end of my mission. During the morning prayer we would review the gospel of the day, and we would discuss what spoke to us or what we understood. At first it was a bit intimidating to speak up, because I had never really discussed the Bible much…but Sr. Silveria and the girls were so great at explaining and sharing their viewpoints that it soon became a natural part of my learning. 

After a month at the formation house I was able to move to San Ildefonso, which is a small town closer to Amealco and about an hour and a half from Santiago de Querétaro. I had the opportunity to meet and work with some of the Otomi indigenous residents of San Ildefonso. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I taught the kids English, computer skills, and crafts. Tuesdays and Thursdays I taught English and computer skills to the adults. Safe to say the crafts portion was the favorite part of the class for the children. One of the crafts was making a God’s eye, and one student in particular loved making them. I gifted her the remaining material so she could make more. Her grandfather said he could likely sell them for her, so she was excited about that. Most of the students that came by were from very humble homes, but one group of siblings in particular was in need of dire assistance. Their mom was unable to provide food for them, and Sr. Mary was able to secure them a grocery sponsor from the states. Although it was heartbreaking to see so much need, it was good to see that this religious community exists and is truly doing Jesus’s work. It’s not exclusively praying (which is beautifully powerful in itself), but it’s full of action as well. As the days went by our plate seemed to get more and more full, and I loved it. By the end of my time there Sr. Mary and I were going to San Pablo for choir practice on Saturday evenings, Tepozán for guitar lessons (taught by Sr. Mary) on Wednesdays, trying to visit the sick on Tuesdays, Bible study on Saturday morning, and I taught morning and evening classes three days of the week. It seemed there was a never ending task list, and it felt so good to be involved in the town and neighboring villages. The people always greeted us with such warmth and kindness. One day after mass we were invited to a home and we ended up leaving with a bag of tomatoes, peaches, and lemons. Mind you, it was the host’s birthday, and we were the ones leaving with our hands full. There were many other instances such as that one that would just fuel the soul. I was so grateful to share those experiences with Sr. Mary, they were all possible because of the community she cultivated over more than a decade of being in San Ildefonso.

During my time in San Ildefonso I met a young mother of four and we became fast and close friends. She and her family were one of the many blessings from the town. She welcomed me into her home and her family. She was one of my students along with her kids. I fell in love with her children and they gave me the sweetest send off along with the cutest farewell letters when my time there was over. They still go crazy when they see a plane flying by and send me adorable messages via WhatsApp.