Joy amid destruction: La Jolla church raises money for Puerto Ricans in need

The area of Ponce, Puerto Rico, sustained devastating damage during several earthquakes this year.

A La Jolla parish has raised $110,000 for a Puerto Rican group of nuns who have been showing grit during adversity, their building decimated by recent earthquakes.

Deacon Jim Vargas and the Rev. Patrick Mulcahy of Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church on Girard Avenue were compelled to help after a February trip to Puerto Rico sponsored by fundraising organization Catholic Extension, which supports communities where resources are scarce.

“It was brought to our attention the fact that the people were suffering,” Vargas said of the invitation for the three-day trip.

The visit, called an “immersion trip,” took Mulcahy, Vargas and a few other church leaders through the municipality of Ponce, Puerto Rico, a month after a large earthquake caused devastation in an area struggling to rebuild after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017.

“It was amazing what we found,” Vargas said. “The devastation, the destruction of the buildings. … The people were suffering a lot.”

Among the buildings the quake destroyed was the motherhouse of a group of nuns called the Dominican Sisters of Fatima in the town of Guánica.

The nuns normally work with community families, providing “food, material goods and [administering to] the spiritual needs of the poor,” according to Natalie Donatello, a Catholic Extension senior parish partnership manager who also took the trip.

“They really do immerse themselves; they know the community so well,” Donatello said.

Vargas said he was struck by the sisters’ perseverance as he walked through the rubble of their once-solid building as they lived in tents.

“It had just crumbled,” he said. “I was humbled by them. In the midst of their challenges and adversities, they were full of joy.”

“You would never know they were sleeping in tents,” Donatello said. “The smiles on their faces — all they kept saying was: ‘We’re OK. We have our health, we’re alive, now we need to help those less fortunate.’”

“The poor kept coming to them,” Vargas said. “It’s incredible.”

Vargas said the sisters gathered donations and supplies — “basic things that we take for granted.”

Vargas recalled being surprised by the level of devastation in the region, but also inspired by “the response of the community and [its] ingenuity, banding together in order to make some good come out of a bad situation.”

Vargas, who has lived in La Jolla since 1997 and joined Mary, Star of the Sea as deacon in 2006, said the visit was “particularly impactful,” as his parents were born on Puerto Rico.

“During this trip, it occurred to me these are my roots. I felt a sense of connectedness,” he said.

Mary, Star of the Sea Deacon Jim Vargas speaks with one of the Sisters of Fatima during a February trip to Puerto Rico.

On the plane back to San Diego, Vargas said, Mulcahy turned to him and asked, “’Wouldn’t it be great if we could present what we’ve seen to the parishioners at Mary, Star of the Sea and get them excited about helping out?’”

The two began planning a presentation to the parish set for mid-March. However, the coronavirus pandemic “aggravated the whole situation,” Vargas said, with the church having to close its doors as stay-at-home orders were issued to try to stop the spread of the virus.

Vargas and Mulcahy then planned an April Zoom meeting, inviting parishioners to hear about their experience in Puerto Rico. Many parishioners were motivated to help the Sisters of Fatima, with one longtime parishioner pledging to match up to $50,000.

The Mary, Star of the Sea parishioners met the “matching challenge” with $60,000, Vargas said, bringing the total donations to $110,000 for the sisters.

Vargas said fundraising during the pandemic was a challenge, as it was difficult to get the word out while the church doors were closed. “I think if we had had the opportunity to gather together as a community, we would have had more people involved,” he said.

Obstacles aside, Vargas said the “sisters are absolutely elated. They are so appreciative of the generosity, touched that a parish so far away … thought to care for them and their need.”

And with a cluster of earthquakes rattling the area again in May, causing more damage, Donatello said the help is crucial. “These funds will focus on the sisters’ ministry, going out into the community and helping the families in need,” she said.

“We’re so appreciative” of the La Jolla parishioners’ help, Donatello said. “After everything that happened with the pandemic … Mulcahy and Vargas said: ‘We want to help, we saw a need. We want to share the sisters’ joy with our community.’”

Vargas said he maintains contact with the Sisters of Fatima and looks forward to a return trip. “We were blessed to be there with them and experience this with them,” he said.

Those wishing to contribute can visit, click “Donate” and specify that the donation is for Puerto Rico. ◆