In 1985, the first time Sam Stanton and Cecilia Espinoza went to Chile as Maryknoll Lay Missioners, the married couple had two toddler girls and a six-month-old baby boy in tow. And Augusto Pinochet was at the height of his brutal dictatorship, which would claim at least 3,197 murdered or “disappeared” lives and about 30,000 victims who were tortured during his 17-year rule.

In 1996, when they went back to the South American country as missionaries, Cecy was 14, Mai, 13, and Victor, 11. And the Republic of Chile ranked high in democratic development, with a congress, senate and constitutionally elected president.

“The first time, it was a very tense time because it was in the middle of the dictatorship,” Sam said during an interview at the Maryknoll Sisters’ retirement center in Monrovia. “And the bishop we worked under was a very outspoken critic of Pinochet. So it was tough.”

Cecilia was nodding at the wood table: “You were afraid because we needed to be on the road a lot visiting communities. And we knew the things that were happening. The church was motivating all the communities to form into base communities. But the people were afraid because there was a lot of persecution.”

“Especially in rural area,” pointed out Sam, who hails from Kansas. “It was much different in Santiago [the capital] and big cities. The rural people were fearful.”

Turning to Cecilia, he asked, “Remember when those kids were killed?’

She nodded, even before he finished the query. “The ones from the diocese?”


Sam, in fact, headed up the local diocese’s Catholic charities office, which was connected to a group doing legal aid work for the detained and disappeared in Santiago. Cecilia, a native Chilean, was a local music coordinator and postulant in a religious community. They had met at a symposium on human rights in the capital, and married in 1981 after she had left her community.

The Stantons returned to the states in 1992. He served as executive director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, while she did promotion work for the group.

But four years later, with their two daughters and son, they went back to a radically changed Chile. For starters, the country was once again a democracy.

“There was a lot of hope for doing a lot of good things for the country,” Cecilia said. “So we actually worked with a lot of professions in Chile. And that was very exciting. And it was a good time, also, for the kids. But this was hard work because the three of them were facing adolescents.

“So as parents we needed to learn what it means to have adolescents in Chile. And it was kind of relearning for me, especially, as a Chilean, what are the customs of Chilean people. A lot of things had changed from my time. I was a young person during most of the dictatorship.”

Cecilia, by this time a family therapist, also counseled family members of those murdered during the dictatorship.

‘Pastoral presence’

Once again Sam runs the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, while Cecilia heads up two programs: Friends Across Borders immersion trips and returned missioners alumni. Both work out of Maryknoll headquarters in Ossining, New York. Together, they make nine or ten trips in the U.S., speaking mostly at parishes and Catholic groups, the reason for their SoCal sojourn.

They talk passionately about the crucial role of lay missionaries today in a Church still reeling from the sex abuse crisis and declining vocations. Their mission now? Raising funds and awareness.

A former Maryknoll priest and missionary who worked with the couple in Chile, recently told Sam: “When I looked at the lay people, especially the families like you who came on mission with their kids, they could open doors and develop relationships in the schools with other parents. So you had a pastoral presence that we as clergy didn’t have.”

“And I think that is something,” Sam said. “The whole thing about kids’ presence in mission opens up all kinds of doors, and allows us as lay people to really make connections in ways priests and religious can’t.”

Cecilia agrees. With lay missioners, heavy issues and concerns can be broached that people don’t ordinarily like to discuss with sisters, brothers or priests. “You know, there are a lot of private things that happen in families,” she said. “And I think because we are families, we are couples, you see things and people feel open to share with us.”

Glancing over at his wife, Sam said, “We always stress that it’s not an either/or thing. But I think laity can complement. And we say we’re ‘called’ to work with our priests and religious in the church. It is a vocation to mission. And I think that complementing is really important.”

For many of their dozen years in Chile as Maryknoll Lay Missioners, Cecilia and Sam along with another lay couple did, in fact, worked closely together with two priests — a popular team effort. “And many local people told us,” Sam recalled, “one of the things they really liked about Maryknoll was to see this —

“Ecclesial team,” Cecilia said. 

“Ecclesial priests and lay people,” Sam continued, “working together very much as equals.”

The Chilean-born lay missioner was nodding one last time: “With a strong relationship and friendship.”

Both also noted how most Catholics just assumed Maryknoll Lay Missioners must be supported by the much larger and well-established religious communities of Maryknoll priests, brothers and sisters. Sam stresses, however, that the lay missionaries have been completely independent economically since 2007.

“So we’re always on a shoestring budget,” he acknowledged. “But we assume that responsibility, and we’re really, really working at it. I don’t want to give the wrong impression; the Maryknoll fathers and brothers and sisters have been very good to us over the years. But they have their own challenges now.”

After finding the right words, he went on: “A lot of Catholics still don’t understand lay people doing ministry and mission work. But it’s crucial for the future of the church. And Maryknoll Lay Missioners is interested and positioned not only to build up our own organization, but to really help the Catholic Church’s whole — ”

“Laity,” Cecilia said.