On a cool and breezy evening, members of the Community of Norbertine Sisters began to pray their evening Holy Hour in the convent chapel. Through the cracked-open windows, they suddenly heard the rustling and rumbling of a noisy shopping cart passing by on the street outside. 

The commotion could be heard from nearly a block away, and the man pushing the cart began to speak to himself rather loudly. The sisters were reminded, once again, of the poverty that surrounds their convent in Wilmington, California. 

Every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday throughout the year, people within the neighborhood line up outside the convent gate in great need of food or clothing. One might wonder why these people, a great number of whom are homeless, would gather outside of a convent, of all places. But attached to the Norbertine Sisters convent is the Poverty Program of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, led by Sister Roberta Sprlakova, s. Praem., the president of the Poverty Program. 

During opening hours, the people are called from the line one by one to receive their food donations, which are distributed to them by the sisters and other volunteers. 

These food items are usually donated to the Poverty Program by local grocery stores such as Smart & Final, Trader Joe’s, Albertsons, and even Gulf Avenue Elementary School. Mothers with small children can receive diaper donations if they need them. 

The Poverty Program currently serves about 700 families, and its volunteers have been serving the Wilmington community for decades. Many years before the Norbertine sisters arrived in Wilmington from Slovakia in 2011, there resided seven Irish and American sisters, known as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. These sisters came to Wilmington in 1951, and they were each so immensely loved by the Wilmington community. 

The community especially treasured Sister Lelia Clarke, who was in charge of the Poverty Program at the time. During the late 1970s, Lelia was truly the Mother Teresa of her day. She was very slight in stature, a strong woman who did so much to help the needy, and an undeniably dedicated religious. 

At the time, she was recuperating from serious health issues. She told the Lord, “Lord, if you give me health, I promise I will use it to serve your poor.” Sure enough, the Lord answered her prayer, and Lelia kept her promise for almost 20 years. 

In the early 1990s, a new pastor, Father Peter Irving, was assigned to the neighboring parish of Sts. Peter and Paul. The pastor briefly described the parish and its surroundings at that time:

“Everything was run-down. There was a tall iron fence all around the buildings, rectory, and church. It was very foreboding to say the least. ... There used to be housing projects which were a locus for lots of problems — gangs, drugs, etc. The apartment building across the street was also a very lively place with idle youngsters hanging out and playing loud music.” 

Slowly but surely, Wilmington seemed to gradually go downhill, and the rates of poverty began to increase. However, “Sister Lelia, with her gentle, velvet-gloved hand of steel, her smile, and irresistible Irish charm, twisted many a metaphorical arm to help aid the needy with services, money and goods,” recalled Sister Genevieve Vigil, one of Lelia’s beloved Cluny Sisters. 

In January 2008, Lelia’s illness began to intensify, and it was then time for her to finally meet the Lord. “Even at Sister Lelia’s death, the needs of the people, and the poor, were in her thoughts and on her heart,” said Sister Genevieve. 

Rebecca Diaz, who has volunteered with the Poverty Program for more than 35 years, described  Lelia as “a very good sister, and a very good person. I loved her so much. She was very charitable toward the people and would help everyone. I think — no, I know — Sr. Lelia is with God.”

Norbertine Sisters with donated food for families in need. (VICTOR ALEMÁN/ANGELUS)

The incredible work and ministry of Lelia and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny lives on to this very day. The Poverty Program is now run by a growing community of contemplative-active Norbertine Sisters. And recently, the program celebrated its 40th anniversary in the 150-year-old church. The celebration was hosted for the needy families, benefactors, friends, and volunteers of the ministry. 

During the event, Sister Ana Paula Rios, a Norbertine Sister, was able to publicly share her testimony and express what it now feels like to be on the “other side of the gate.” 

About 25 years ago, when finances for her family were difficult, Ana Paula’s mother would wait in front of the convent for food, along with many other families in need. This was certainly not easy for her family, but the need was evident. 

“The [Cluny Sisters] would make house visits to determine the needs of the family, and eventually they came to our house. My mom came to the Poverty Program for a period of four to five years,” she said. 

“Looking back, I see that the items we received were more than just donations. They were gifts. Gifts given with love and care by people whose hands and hearts were directed by Christ. All Jesus asked was for us to receive and enjoy. Whenever possible, in whatever small ways, we should give to others as Jesus has graciously given to us.” 

The gift-giving seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas are always exciting times for the Poverty Program. They receive generous bags of food donations, toys, and clothing from different parishes, charities, and organizations. 

Today, the pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, Father Hildebrand Garceau, volunteers his time and efforts toward distributing bags and food for these special occasions. Families and their children often leave with such extraordinary looks of gratitude and delight. The Christmas and Thanksgiving tradition continues as a hallmark and a tremendously memorable time for each and every family in need.

Throughout the years, the sisters have each discovered something very significant about the poverty here in Wilmington. There is indeed an increasing rate of gang violence, a considerable amount of peer pressure within schools among the youth, and a great brokenness amidst many families within this neighborhood.

But the sisters have found that the Poverty Program offers much more than simply helping those who struggle to pay their rent or utility bills, or just plainly handing them food, water, or clothing. It is about the joy of doing each and every little act of kindness with a heart full of charity, generosity, and love. 

As Mother Teresa herself said, “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty, than the person who has nothing to eat.”

SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus the practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!