By Linda Andrade Rodrigues, Anchor Correspondent
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — In the wake of Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, the world watched the apostolic visit of Pope Francis, including Mother Superior at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette.
Sister Maria Milagros Dela Cruz, SNDS, was born and raised in Ramon, Isabela, in the far north of the Philippines.
A visit by the pope is a great blessing to the Filipino people, according to the vibrant, animated nun, affectionately known as Sister Mila, 65.
“I watched the Mass in Manila, and it was raining,” she said. “We Filipinos don’t get discouraged when it rains. The old people would say it is a blessing from God.”
Sister Mila came from a very large family of 17 children, including eight girls and nine boys. Her parents would also adopt another son.
“I was number 10 and a blue baby,” she said. “The doctor told my aunt that they did their best, but the baby was dead. The doctor left, and then my aunt said I started crying. My aunt reported to the doctor that the baby came alive.”
Consequently, the doctor baptized the preemie Maria Milagros (Miracles).
Her siblings walked to school, which was two miles away; but Sister Mila was too weak to walk a long distance.
“My father would come with us, and he put me on his shoulders,” she said.
He also gave her a small dog so that she would never be alone. She named him Pepsi.
“I had him for 16 years,” she said.
Learning to write her long name in first grade was a trial. Her classmates’ names were short, and they would tease her, “Mary Miracles!”
“I would come home crying,” she said.
Many years later when she went to college, she was asked to translate her name into English.
“Your name is very beautiful,” said the professor. “Your name is ‘Miracles of the Cross.’”
“That teacher was very stern, but I loved him,” she said. “He was the only one who was able to tell me the meaning of my name.”
Growing up in a very poor family on a small tract of farmland, Sister Mila remembers the long years of drought.
“The La Salette Fathers came to my area and did a Novena at the farm,” she said. “They carried the cross and sang songs in Latin. We saw cracks in the soil, and you know in those cracks we found edible frogs. We could not plant rice, but God gave us frogs. We brought them to the market and sold them.”
One of the La Salette priests, Father Conrad Blanchet, gave the family a gas-powered well pump so that they could plant rice and irrigate the land. They also watered a neighbor’s field.
“We were very poor, but my mother and father always shared,” she said. “Lots of people who needed food came to our house for help, but we always had something to eat. It is a mystery.”
Sister Mila attended La Salette High School in Santiago, and that’s where she first saw a statue of Our Lady of La Salette. She learned about the weeping mother and received her calling.
“I told them I wanted to become a Sister of La Salette, even though we had none in our area,” she said.
Her formation was done in Manila at their regional house. In her fourth year, she received her veil. Through the years she served the apostolate in schools as Religious Education coordinator, guidance counselor, registrar and principal.
Three of her siblings also had vocations; two joined the La Salette missionaries and a third is a Maryknoll.
In October 2007, Sister Mila was assigned to the U.S. mission in Miami, where she served as school principal.
“The American culture was itself a challenge,” she said. “I was unprepared to deal with all the technical demands of my job, including using computers. Amazingly, I learned quickly how to do many things, and I was even able to teach others to do the same.”
Now serving at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, Sister Mila works in the shrine church as Liturgical coordinator of their 80 volunteers — acolytes, lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, altar servers and sacristans — and assists the priests.
Living in Cumberland, R.I., about 30 minutes from the shrine, the nuns leave their house early each morning to take part in Community Prayer and Mass at the Attleboro monastery. Two nuns, one from Madagascar and the other from Connecticut, work in the gift shop. Sister Mila’s day revolves around the 12:10 and 6:30 p.m. Masses. When the nuns return to their convent at the end of the day, they go directly to the chapel to pray.
Pilgrims from all over the world worship at the shrine church, where Sister Mila offers a special ministry. She set up a box for prayer petitions and also answers prayer requests online every day.
She recalls the first time she was approached by someone in need of prayers. “Sister, I want to talk to you,” said a young mother with three small children.
“We have priests,” Sister Mila replied. “I can get you a priest.”
“No, no, Sister,” the woman said. “I want to talk to you.”
“I just came from the doctor’s office, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” said the woman. “I have a short time to live.”
“Don’t worry,” said Sister Mila. “I will pray.”
A year later, the priest in charge of vocations came looking for Sister Mila.
“Do you remember a lady with three children who talked to you last year?” he asked. “She wanted me to tell you that her breast cancer is gone.”
“And she’s not the only one,” said Sister Mila beaming. “You cannot believe how many prayers have been answered.”
Still a farm girl at heart, Sister Mila also tends the many beautiful live flowers that thrive at the shrine even in winter.
“We need a beautiful place for people to come and experience the nearness of God,” she said.