History comes with a great deal of duty, responsibility, and fulfillment for Sister Margaret McKenna.

Her digital camera was ready to document all the history-in-the-making possible when more than 300 people gathered in Montebello Sept. 9 to mark the culmination of the yearlong 100th anniversary celebration for her order, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Western America Area (RSHM).  

“Studying history is a strong part of my life because it is always about people trying to live within their existing conditions,” said McKenna, who received a history degree at Marymount College and, since 1974, has been a visual arts teacher at Marymount High School in Westwood, currently serving as its yearbook adviser.

Both educational facilities were founded by RSHM.

“Our RSHM story continues, our individual stories continue, our partnerships continue to grow, and together, history continues to be made,” remarked McKenna. “I am so humbled by the fact that I can record these times as well as being a participant in them. Giving and receiving life is a great way to live.”

It goes back to 1923, when Bishop John Cantwell invited the RSHM to what was then the Diocese of Los Angeles-San Diego, asking them to replicate schools that the order established in Tarrytown, New York in the quickly growing SoCal diocese. It started with Marymount School at 28th Street in Los Angeles, then a junior college eight years later. In 1948, the four-year Marymount College arrived.

In 1942, Sacred Heart of Mary School in Montebello was founded and today continues its mission since merging with Cantwell High School in the early 1990s, right next door to the order’s Area Administration Center.

While education was the order’s initial mission focus, it has expanded in other ways in LA. Two prominent examples: South Central LAMP (Los Angeles Ministry Project) and A Place Called Home, founded with support from RSHM leadership following the 1992 LA riots, are both marking their 30th anniversaries this year.

LAMP is a nonprofit focused on empowering mothers to be more self-reliant through parenting programs. Today Sister Mary Genino, one of its founders, and fellow RSHM Sister Cathy Garcia continue the project’s mission. 

“We would not be here without the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary,” said South Central LAMP Development Director Nicole Cosand Burcham. “Having Sister Mary on the board has brought the RSHM charism, guided in education, compassion, and justice. She is extremely humble, purposeful, and we are incredibly blessed to work with her so closely.”

Sister Patricia Connor, a former RSHM provincial superior and general superior, remains on the board of A Place Called Home, created to support South LA youth programs.

Mary Agnes Erlandson, director of Catholic Charities’ St. Margaret Center in Lennox, was there on the warm Saturday afternoon to honor Sister Evelyn Joyce, who has been teaching ESL at the center for 12 years. Joyce arrived at a time when adult education funding in California was decimated and the center had relied on local adult schools to provide teachers.

“We would have had to eliminate our adult ESL class if not for Sister Evelyn,” said Erlandson. “She has become part of our SMC family, delighting all staff, volunteers, and students with her infectious and joyous spirit — and teaching primarily Latino adults to write and speak English with the slightest Irish brogue!”

Fifty years ago, Marymount College officially merged with Loyola University in Westchester to form Loyola Marymount University (LMU). Father Tom Rausch, SJ, the emeritus professor of theology at LMU, attended the celebration as a way to thank the sisters he calls “dedicated, intelligent, and progressive” in helping forge the merger.

Visitors peruse through archives and keepsakes at a historical exhibit at the RSHM Provincial Center in Montebello celebrating the religious order’s 100 years in California and Mexico. (Tom Hoffarth)

Retired LMU professor and alumni chaplain Father Robert Caro, SJ said he remains impressed with how despite the dwindling number of RSHM sisters, “the values they have espoused have remained with their commitment to evangelical justice.”

Cecilia Brizuela, who with her husband, Byron, helped curate the exhibit that remains open to the public through October, noted that the RSHM Western American Area currently has 35 sisters, eight of whom live at the Montebello campus. One is the order’s official archivist, Sister Mary Leah Plante, who received a history teaching degree at Marymount College.

“When I was younger and there were older sisters around me, they would love to tell stories and I’m so glad I bothered to listen,” said Plante, who just turned 80 and celebrated her 60th year of religious life in 2022. “This is all a reminder of the importance of remembering who worked years ago and to follow them because it is who we are today.”

Sister Joan Treacy, a former provincial superior, entered the RSHMs in 1961 and was assigned to California three years later. Since then, she said, the order’s mission remains “to know God and make God known, and to love God and make God loved,” but “has moved from just being in the classroom to finding ways to focus on social justice and the marginalized in all sorts of capacities.”

As McKenna assessed the wide-ranging multimedia exhibit chronicling the sisters’ impact in California, Mexico, and Honduras, she said her work includes telling the RSHM story to generations to come. The RSHM YouTube channel with archived interviews featuring the sisters’ stories is another aspect of documentation.

“In looking through the photos and stories, I am drawn once again to the heroic women of the past who had a dream and made it happen,” said McKenna, who designed the celebration’s 100th anniversary logo. “The dream was based on making God’s love for people known, by working in ministries that are life-giving, and by helping people discover their gifts so they live a life of purpose.”

What’s next for her order? That’s anyone’s guess, but she does have some historical reference.

“Historically, various forms of spiritual life have existed and evolved in time, and we see vocations coming from new countries such as Africa and Japan,” she said. “Will Los Angeles be considered a place where they come to serve? Time is in the hand of God as is the ministry of religious women. I live in faith and know that God is working.”