By Deborah Castellano Lubov
A documentary film bringing to life the story of the ‘Mother Teresa’ of Honduras, Sister Maria Rosa Leggol, who helped nearly 90,000 Honduran children escape from poverty and abuse, was shown to Vatican officials and the diplomatic corps to the Holy See in the Vatican on Monday.
Her legacy lives on in modern-day Honduras. Initially, Sister Maria Rosa opened a first orphanage in 1964, and founded the non-profit organization Sociedad Amigos de los Niños (SAN) in 1966. As time went on, she would build over 500 homes across Latin America.
Sister Leggol applied a holistic approach, impacting the lives of these children by creating jobs for their relatives and communities through a variety of visionary entrepreneurial and educational programs, as well as bringing healthcare to them through clinics and medical brigades.
She did not let dictatorships, military coups, nor natural disasters disrupt her plans.
Sister Leggol passed away at age 93 in October 2020 after contracting COVID-19.
A private screening of the documentary was organized by the Embassy of Honduras and L’Osservatore Romano’s Spanish edition and was followed by a panel discussion including Jessica Sorowitz, the executive producer of the documentary, and the film’s co-directors, Ms. Nicole Bernardi-Reis and Ms. Laura Bermúdez.
At the end of today’s screening, Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, addressed those watching in the Vatican with a video-message where he said the archdiocese is gathering testimonies in the hopes that they can proceed with Sister Maria Rosa Leggol’s cause for beatification. He encouraged all with testimonies to come forward.
During the film, there was a moment where the cardinal, during Sr. Leggol’s funeral Mass, recalled all she had done and appealed to those mourning her to ask themselves: “How can I collaborate so that all she has done will not finish?”
Ms. Bernardi-Reis sat down with Vatican Radio to reflect on the life and mission of the religious sister whose faith moved mountains.
Ms. Bernardi-Reis, could you tell us about Sister Maria Rosa Leggol?
Sr. Maria Rosa Leggol was a 93-year-old Franciscan sister who, during the course of her life, created countless programs that helped over 87,000 children in Central America get out of poverty.
What were some of these projects that Sister Maria Rosa brought to life?
She had so many over 70 years of service that we’ve actually been trying to get a complete list and we can’t! She began with homes for children. She herself was an orphan at the age of six and knew that she wanted to provide homes for children like the ones she didn’t have herself. She had this really holistic approach. She felt people needed not only be taken care of, but needed to have dignity. She created jobs programs for them.
I get a little overwhelmed with how many things she did [smiling]. She worked with medical brigades opening over 150 clinics in the area. At one point in time, she had a hospice for children with AIDS. She created, in 2001, a girls’ school, a really innovative girls’ school for some of Honduras’ poorest women, which taught also about gender studies, women’s equality, as well as health and academics. In 2019, when she was 91, she was still creating jobs. She was constantly thinking about what people’s needs were and providing for them.
What inspired you to get involved in co-directing this film?
Jessica Sorowitz, our executive producer, called me because I had directed another film about nuns and said, “I have this amazing nun” in Honduras, and I think she’s really worthy of a film. So, I went down and met Sr. Maria Rosa and was really blown away by her and her service and her dedication to the people of Honduras, and her vocation which she received at the age of six. I really fell in love with her and the people of Honduras. We really involved and got to know the people of Honduras, who were instrumental in making this film.
How did Maria Rosa discover her vocation at age six?
She lived in a poor town and she noticed some German nuns who arrived on a beach in their long black robes. At the time, she said they looked a little bit like “little red apples,” because of course they were very hot. Maria Rosa’s parish priest told her that they were there to help orphans and she said, “oh, I’m an orphan.” And so she thought, they therefore have come to help me and others like me. “God wants me to become a nun.” She actually told the sisters that she wanted to become a nun, and one basically said, “oh that’s nice little girl.” They said, “If you really want to do that, come see us on Sunday.” I don’t think they thought she was going to, but she did. She jumped on a train and travelled quite a distance to reach them, basically saying, “Sisters, here I am.” This was what sort of began her vocation journey.
What message do you hope to share?
I hope it conveys that with faith, you can do anything.
What can we learn from her faith in your opinion?
In my opinion, what we can learn from Sor, is that with faith, you can do anything. She just knew she had to do something, and it would get done. Mountains would move. She constantly was getting these little miracles in her work. Once she went to the jail. In Honduras, at the time, they had children living in the jails with their parents. Those were the first kids that she took out of out of the jail to her first homes. And her board has said, “we don’t have enough room.” She took the children anyway, and then right behind her, came a truck with 40 beds that were being donated. And then right behind that truck was food. There was enough to accommodate and feed these children. You can’t really beat that.
Could you share with us about this private screening in the Vatican, and its significance for you and those who have helped bring this work to fruition?
We just finished the film and we are still waiting to have a real premier. This is an extra special event for us because it’s an intimate screening. When we started this project, we never would have imagined that we would be here, but it feels providential. This is the seat of the Catholic faith. It’s just so amazing to be here and bring her story to the world.