In the courtyard at Our Lady of Guadalupe School on Hazard Avenue in East Los Angeles, a monument to the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban who taught at the school for 40 years connects the inner-city school with the religious order.

But it’s not the only place where memories are honored, or where the tangible bond between the sisters and their former students is evident.

This year, the Columban Sisters mark 90 years as a religious community. To assist their ministry (and their alma mater), the OLG Alumni Association is hosting an all-day fundraiser in November selling food after each Sunday Mass followed by an all-day feast, music and dancing event. All funds raised will be hand-delivered to the Columbans in Boston by OLG alumni.

Indeed, the members of the dedicated group of alumni (many from graduating classes in the 1960s) have made it their ongoing commitment to keep their alma mater alive and thriving. For the past seven years, they have assisted the school with financial, physical and emotional support as well as organizing fundraisers and being spiritual cheerleaders.

“If it wasn’t for the alumni, I don’t know if we would be here. They have kept this school going,” says principal Teresa Villarreal, an OLG alumna (as are many of the current teachers). “I can ask them for anything and they will get it or work toward it. They represent the best of what the sisters wanted us to be when we were their students. They are the Columbans’ legacy.”

The alumni say their returned presence at their school is their way of honoring and serving the Columban Sisters who taught them not just their ABCs but life lessons.

“They taught us so much, showed us how to live the faith and gave unconditionally — and they worked for free,” says Robert Razo, shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s dedication and love. They did everything at that school. They would not want the school to close and that’s why we come together, for them and the kids and staff here.”

Beginnings and challenges

In 1924, the Columban Sisters were founded in Ireland by Columban Father John Blowick and Lady Frances Moloney, a young widow who felt a calling for overseas mission work.

In 1947 Archbishop John Cantwell invited the sisters to open and staff Blessed Sacrament School in Westminster (then part of the L.A. Archdiocese). Three years later, 13 sisters staffed Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Today, three Columban Sisters live near St. Thomas More Church in Alhambra, including Sister Margaret Devlin, pastoral associate, who taught at OLG School in the 1960s.

But after the sisters left the school, the economic landscape proved challenging to the parish, and just seven years ago, closing the school seemed imminent.

That’s when Razo got a call from Columban Sister Margaret Devine, a former OLG educator who was living in Boston. She had heard about the tight-knit alumni association that gathered annually to reconnect with their old schoolmates, and invited this group to “step up and keep the school going,” especially since Principal Villarreal was just starting.

“When Sister asks, you do,” smiles Razo.

Assembling resources, the alumni quickly formed into a non-profit organization and quickly got their hands dirty. They re-landscaped, painted, purchased school supplies, polished hallway floors, and acquired playground equipment and earthquake kits for the students. They even brought back the tradition of Santa Claus visiting the school on a fire truck to distribute presents to students.

“We were just paying back what the sisters did for us,” says Margaret Tapia-Hernandez who with her husband Alex head up the school’s sports program (gratis, of course). “We loved being here and we loved the sisters.”

Indeed, the memories of the Columbans are fresh in the memories of so many alumni despite the years, as they recalled at a recent meeting. “We had to stand on our dots outside and say our morning prayer,” said one. “Then they would play a Sousa march as we entered the building,” another recalled. “We had big classes — 47-54 kids! — and the sisters didn’t have teacher’s aides.”

Alumni remember an active Mother’s and Father’s Club that took care of food and athletic needs of the students. And the sisters’ kindness still brings some to tears. One anonymous donor wrote about how she and her sister had to walk three miles to school in the early mornings (rain or shine) when their parents set off to work, arriving hours before school started. The sisters would invite them into their convent and gave them hot cocoa as they warmed up.

“No one felt poor here, we were all the same,” recounts one alumni member. “We were just family.”

“It was the sisters’ faith and devotion,” says fourth grade teacher Nancy Figueroa, another OLG alum. “They taught us and planted a seed and now we’ve come back to do this for them. We do it for them.”

The Our Lady of Guadalupe School Alumni event for the Columban Sisters will be held Nov. 9, with food served and sold after each Mass, and music and dancing until 5 p.m. Information: (323) 269-4998.