Sister Vilma’s fearless faith

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Sister Vilma Franco, S.P. with one of the many children in her ministry in El Salvador, her home country.

Sister Vilma Franco, S.P. with one of the many children in her ministry in El Salvador, her home country. The violence of the Salvadoran civil war continues to affect both young and old. (Photos by Sister Felma Cerezo, S.P.)

IT'S 3 A.M. in Arcatao, El Salvador and Sister Vilma Franco, S.P. heads to her pickup truck emblazoned with Hermanas de Providencia (Sisters of Providence) to deter government officials from stopping her during her rounds. Under the country’s “state of exception” anyone even suspected of helping gangs risks arrest and denial of legal representation, so this Catholic sister needs to be extra careful. She’s about to drive sick villagers three hours to the hospital for life-saving treatments. The machete under the front seat helps when a tree blocks a rainy road, and she hopes she won’t need it today for self-protection.

Franco knows the dangers of simply living in mountainous territory. At 6, she saw her father murdered during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war; she escaped with her mother and two siblings and hid in tiny mountain caves for a time. Her mom crept out nightly to forage for food and water. They once hid in Arcatao’s church as gunmen killed everyone outside on suspicion of supporting guerillas. Franco leads services in the same church today.

Often the sole minister within three hours, Franco leads Communion services in overcrowded village churches throughout the area. One of those churches is San Bartolomé, where murals among the Stations of the Cross on the church walls depict massacres. Her face as a child is painted into one of them.

Government officials once stopped her and demanded proof that she was a nun. Fortunately, she had a letter from her religious community, which pioneered ministry in the coastal town where young Franco first met members of the Seattle-based community.

Sister Vilma Franco, S.P. blesses a girl during a Communion service.
Franco blesses a girl during a Communion service. Franco herself was only a girl when the war shattered her life. Today she hopes to pass on the love that helped her to heal.

Sisters open up possibilities

Franco’s vocation road was rough. It began when Sister Fran Stacey, S.P. learned that Franco worked under abusive conditions as a housekeeper and nanny. From ages 15 to 17, Franco slept on a kitchen floor and rose before dawn to walk miles to school. In 1998 Stacey hired her for odd jobs at the convent, like ironing and watering plants. This gave Franco time to study and allowed her to live at home and participate in parish activities.

“I fell in love with Sister Fran and her ministry,” Franco explains. But Franco’s journey took a perilous turn. When she saw a dead body, which is not uncommon in El Salvador, she flashed back to seeing her father killed. Post-traumatic stress disorder incapacitated her. Her godmother, Azucena Quinteros, coaxed her back to health. Stacey helped her finish high school. They facilitated Franco’s ability to answer God’s whisper to help others.

Pursuing a vocation as a sister meant leaving her home region, her mentor, and her ill mother to attend Central American University. Stacey would visit Franco’s mother during the years her daughter was away, including time in Chile for pastoral work and formation.

Juan Carlos Pineda enjoys a visit with Sister Vilma Franco, S.P..
Juan Carlos Pineda enjoys a visit with Franco. Pineda is able to receive critical medical care, thanks to Franco’s help with transportation and arrangements.

Soon Franco was at a turning point. If she fully committed to the community, she would have to go to the United States for her final formation (preparation to be a sister). She hated the idea. Deep anger made her consider quitting. Countless family members and acquaintances had been killed with U.S. weapons by gunmen trained at the United States’ School of the Americas (as it was named at the time).

“God spoke to me, ‘Go to the United States. Learn, and come to reconciliation,’” she remembers. “My heart was saying, ‘Go!’ But I didn’t want to be there.”

The United Nations reports that 75,000 people died during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1990s, a nation of 4.5 million in 1980. Some 8,000 people simply disappeared. Franco makes a point to show some of her visitors the Sumpul River, site of a renowned massacre. Death squads opened fire on hundreds of families trying to flee to the other side. Unburied bodies turned the river red for days.

Franco’s first vows took place in 2006. She attended Spokane Community College, spent three months in Guatemala, visited the Sisters of Providence’s founding community in Montreal, and studied early childhood education.

But back in El Salvador, her mother’s health worsened. “Do you want me to come home?” Franco asked her mom, who surprised her by saying no, adding, “If I die, you’d be in good hands with the sisters.” Her mother had grown to accept her vocation. “I felt free,” Franco said. “I finally had her blessing.”

At 22 she entered the community and spent 12 years in Washington state. Over time her anger dissipated. “The sisters truly became my family,” she says. And out of love for them she became a U.S. citizen “for the good of the community.”

Return to home and heartache

Franco made her final vows in 2012, expecting to remain in the United States. But her road would switch back to Arcatao. “God was telling me to return,” she says. She felt a strong desire to return to El Salvador to pioneer ministry in the mountains where she was born. Father Miguel Angel Vasquez, S.J., who has known her since childhood, invited her to join the staff of his parish, which stretches to the Honduran border.

“God said, ‘Go be a missionary,’” says Franco. It was a powerful feeling. But in El Salvador? In proximity to so many heartbreaking sites? She shrugs. “Why not go back to my own country?”

A church mural recalling those affected by atrocities during the Salvadoran civil war depicts Sister Vilma Franco, S.P. as a child.
A church mural recalling those affected by atrocities during the Salvadoran civil war depicts Franco as a child. 

She returned “to have an encounter with myself and my own history,” she explains. “We work out our wounds from the inside out.”

Franco believes that the pain she experienced taught her the compassion “to help people who had suffered like me.”

In 2016 Franco approached the Providence leadership team with the idea to serve people in El Salvador whose struggles, pain, and determination to thrive she understood. Her nearest Providence sisters would be four hours away, running a scholarship program in Usulután for students in poverty.

Trusting Franco’s discernment, the community leaders blessed her decision.

Franco arrived in Arcatao with a car, a suitcase, and no cell service. No one knew she was coming. Vasquez was absent; she had nowhere to stay. A family took her in temporarily. She gave herself one week to find a place to live or return to Seattle. Since people knew her family and story, the week was enough. She found a house to rent.

Vasquez suggested that the parish pay her $100 a month. Villagers could feed her, he said. The Sisters of Providence said no; they paid her a living wage.

Not for the faint of heart

Franco is now a linchpin for the Catholic community in the region, noted for having the highest number of massacre sites during the nation’s civil war. Franco facilitates catechetical training for volunteer teachers, delivers pastoral care to destitute homebound parishioners, and encourages young people to dance in a troupe that performs in the parish. She builds awareness of El Salvador’s struggles by taking visitors to a small museum on church property. It includes fragmented warheads from the civil war, drawings children made of what they saw during massacres, and her own First Communion picture.

Franco travels treacherous mountainous roads while serving parishioners. One night around 9 p.m., the road was so bad driving home that her machete wasn’t enough for a felled tree. She slogged through mud—machete in hand—arriving home at midnight to find her rented space flooded.

Sister Vilma Franco, S.P.leads a church service.
Franco leads a church service.

She advocates for public funding in Chalatenango’s remote areas for healthcare and medical transport. Once she drove back to the village with a corpse in the truck flatbed because hospital treatment failed. Who would think religious life would encompass such duties? She ignores the question. She loves her work, the people, and the healing she sees happening all around her.

“I never want to leave,” Franco says, “and yet I will go wherever God calls me.”

She used to imagine having many children. God appears to have granted this deep desire, evidenced in crowds of youth mobbing her after liturgies. Not long ago, five Salvadoran women attended a “Come and See” retreat online with the Sisters of Providence.

With children to hug, young women to mentor, and plenty of other parish duties, Franco offers each day in her Salvadoran homeland to God, the one who brought her full circle. 

Related article:, “Bringing sacred healing to hurting communities.”

Loretta Pehanich author photo
By Loretta Pehanich, a spiritual director and Catholic freelance writer who has published three books. (Photo by Steve Pehanich)




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