By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – Sister Rachel Torrieri, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for the past 70 years, directs parish outreach to Hispanics at St. William Parish in Northeast Philadelphia. Not bad for a woman who just turned 90.
“I know I can’t do this forever,” she said. “I’m in good health and I feel I can still do the work, but what would I do if I retired?”
Although her work is among Hispanics, her voice displays a slight Italian accent, somewhat unusual considering she was Philadelphia-born.
The third of the four children of Maggiorina and Domenico Torrieri, her family returned to their native Italy when she was 2 to care for her father’s aged parents. They came back to Philadelphia when she was 14, and settled for a time in Our Lady of Angels Parish in West Philadelphia. After graduation from Overbrook High School, she worked for the Defense Supply Center in South Philadelphia.
When she decided to enter religious life she chose the Immaculate Heart Sisters primarily because of her mother’s great devotion to the Blessed Mother, a devotion she also shares.
But she also has a devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua and St. Pio. “I love their spirit of poverty, simplicity and humility,” she said, “especially Padre Pio who meditated on our Lord’s passion. Mary, of course, suffered too in a different way; she participated in our Lord’s passion.”
The first half of her career was spent, as she expected, in a classroom teaching the lower grades.
Among her assignments, she taught at the former Transfiguration and Our Lady of Pompeii schools in Philadelphia and Our Lady of Lourdes School, Shamokin. On the secondary level she taught at Villa Maria Academy in Malvern and Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster.
It was just about 35 years ago that she was asked by her congregation to go to Peru to teach at a mission school there. She remained in South America for seven years and it was a real eye-opener. She loved the people but was saddened by the obvious injustice she witnessed.
“I didn’t like the poverty,” she said. “The rich did not create jobs for the people or pay better salaries.”
Since returning to Philadelphia she has been engaged in Hispanic outreach in one form or another.
The real highlight of her work came after her return to Philadelphia. That was Misión Santa María in Avondale where she served for 10 years. “I worked mostly with the children, but I helped any way I could,” she said. “It was a great privilege to work with Msgr. Francis Depman, who was in ministry to the mostly Mexican workers in the mushroom farms. He did so much.”
St. William Parish has a thriving Hispanic community with perhaps 200 people coming to the 10 a.m. Sunday Spanish Mass. One of her initial tasks was home visitation; simply getting the word out that there is Mass in Spanish.
This is further complicated because a great number of the Hispanic residents are undocumented and not registered with the parish. Their employment tends to be in hotels, restaurants or pizza parlors with long weekend hours and little free time for Mass.
“It’s not that they don’t want to come to Mass, they are slaves to their employers,” she said.
Yes, evangelization is a never-ending process, but Sister Rachel understands and loves the Hispanic people.
“I don’t do a tremendous amount of work, but they are so grateful for what I do,” she said. “Hispanic people respond to a friendly gesture and they love to be accepted, that’s the secret,” she said. “They never criticize if you make a mistake in speaking Spanish.”
To sum it up, “It’s Jesus’ mission no matter what we do and what better boss can I have?” she asked. “He gave His life for me, and when you think of it, what He went through takes your breath away.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.