Sister Marie Hesed, (right) and Sister M. Amata, both from Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, are photographed inside St. Mary Catholic Church in Willey.
Sister Marie Hesed, (right) and Sister M. Amata, both from Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, are photographed inside St. Mary Catholic Church in Willey.
February 8, 2013

A Catholic sister who worked with Mother Teresa for nearly three decades and traveled the world in the name of her God has a new mission in Carroll County:

Build a "center of renewal" on a plot of donated farmland near Willey.

The center - Domus Trinitatis, or "Home of the Trinity" - will be placed northwest of Willey on Noble Avenue near 250th Street. It will have a convent, a dozen small cottages for personal retreats and greenhouses to grow food.

It will cost $5 million.

Sister Marie Hesed has dreamed of building the place for more than 30 years as her path to Willey veered through India and Cuba and Kenya and other places, where she said she instructed the ignorant, counseled the doubtful and comforted the sorrowful.

Along the way, she met the owner of the Santa Maria Winery in Carroll, who lured her to Iowa in search of a spot for the center. On Wednesday, she stood in the winery restaurant and told the story of her wending journey to Willey.

"It's a very moving moment for me to be standing here," Sister Hesed said. "A dream of 30 years seems almost impossible."

"Tonight," Sister Hesed told the crowd of about 50, "I don't want you to see me as Sister Marie Hesed. I want you to see Jesus through me. That's been my goal my whole life."

Life with Mother Teresa

Sister Hesed was born in Quebec, Canada.

She received a religious vocation at age 8.

She entered the only contemplative cloister in Canada in her 20s.

It was on May 24, 1976 in Bronx, N.Y., where Sister Hesed met Mother Teresa the first time.

She heard Mother Teresa say "I thirst." She knew at that point that she was home.

Sister Hesed was one of the first sisters to join the contemplative branch of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India, which is the order that was founded by Mother Teresa that numbered about 4,000 when she died in 1997.

"Allow me to call her Mother," Sister Hesed said. "Mother always told us to ask ourselves, 'When you leave and go to another mission, what will sisters say of you? I miss her, or thank God she is gone?'"

She said that question has always stuck with her.

In 1988 an opportunity to leave Calcutta and head to Cuba was given to the sisters. Sister Hesed said nearly everyone volunteered to go. Except her.

"Mother asked me why I did not want to go. I said, 'Mother, I do not have the faith.'"

Sister Hesed did not feel equipped for what was before her because of the challenges awaiting in Cuba.

Mother Teresa never asked sisters if they would like to go on missions. She gave sisters a card that had a picture of a hand and child.

The hand was labeled "Jesus," and the child was labeled "you."

"When you turned that paper around, you could be sent to Timbuktu tomorrow," Sister Hesed said. "That's the way it is, you know."

She said years of doing missionary work doesn't make it any easier to leave a place.

"When I come to Willey, you are my family," Sister Hesed said. "When we go, we still cry. It's still painful."

Missionary work

Sister Hesed was in Cuba for five years, and she saw poverty there that was much worse than Calcutta.

In Calcutta, people were born, lived and died in the streets. But to Sister Hesed that was not poverty. Cuba was poverty.

"They had the freedom to go begging," Sister Hesed said about the residents of Calcutta. "They had the freedom of speech, religion."

The poor did not have those freedoms in Cuba, she said.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Sister Hesed helped Cubans make community gardens from blown-out truck tires from the mines. She said part of the tires were used to make sandals for children, and the edges of the tires were used to hold dirt.

Sister Hesed recalled people with bare feet digging gardens with pick axes and shovels. The people built one garden then another, and lined them up side by side.

"For me, I felt the greatest fulfilment ever," Sister Hesed said.

Sister Hesed left Cuba in October 1994 and was suffering from malaria. Sister Hesed said she believes she almost died in Cuba.

"It was the most painful experience to leave my people at the time," Sister Hesed said.

When Sister Hesed arrived in New York her doctor told her she shouldn't do mission work for at least two years as she recovered.

But a month later she was back in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. She was later sent to Nairobi, Kenya, where she helped refugees of a genocide build gardens to feed themselves.

A new mission

She later entered discernment for five years.

Discernment is a time when you cannot see or understand God's will.

Then, in 2003 a friend sent Sister Hesed a letter. It said, "I have found what you are looking for."

It was the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.

The Society was founded in 1958 by James H. Flanagan and is an order that offers the gift of relationships to the world.

"Ours is an order of relationships," Sister Amata, who is in Willey helping with Domus Trinitatis, said. "We desire to have a grace relationship with everyone and see the dignity in each person."

The Society's mission is to restore the relationships with God.

"Where you see the brokenness in the world today is in relationships," Sister Amata said.

Sister Amata explained that members of the Society lead an intense life of prayer with Jesus as their center.

"We live in a community," Sister Amata said. "Jesus surrounded Himself with others. You can't find Him by yourself."

She said Jesus chose to be born among the poor, so the sisters have also taken a vow of poverty.

"Our sole possession is Jesus Christ, and He is our treasure," Sister Amata said.

The sisters have also taken a vow of celibacy as they are vowed to Jesus.

They have also taken a vow of obedience, which means they do only what the Father tells them to do.

"We are obedient to the church and our superiors," Sister Amata said. "Really it's freeing. No matter if I'm in Africa or Iowa, I know I'm doing God's work."

Sister Amata also explained the clothing that the sisters were wearing.

They were wearing gray uniforms with three circles on the front, representing the Trinity.

"The altar is covered with cloth because it's a holy place," Sister Amata said. "Also, we're covered."

Sister Amata said the world needs to know God exists, so when people sees a sister they know that they gave their life up to God so "He must exist and He must love me."

Sister Hesed said the gift that the Society gives to the world is important.

"If I didn't believe that, why would I leave a society that I love so deeply?" Sister Hesed asked.

She said her heart was seeking something that Our Lady provided. When she came back to the United States, Sister Hesed said, she needed a place to renew herself.

Domus Trinitatis

Sister Hesed was brought to Willey by John Guinan, who owns the Santa Maria Winery in Carroll.

Guinan met Sister Hesed while he was visiting his daughter, who is a member of SOLT in New Mexico.

Sister Hesed told Guinan about her idea to build Domus Trinitatis, and Guinan invited her to come see the Willey area. She accepted.

While in Willey, Sister Hesed connected with Leon and Donna Kennebeck, who own farmland in the area. They took a trip to the land, and Sister Hesed asked for 5 acres.

The Kennebecks decided that 12 cottages, a convent and greenhouses wouldn't fit very well on 5 acres, so they upped the number to 10, then later, 31 acres.

We wanted to "give his shepherds a place to renew so they could continue to share his gospel," Leon Kennebeck said. "Our decision to donate the land to our church and our community was not a tough one."

Sister Hesed is hoping to break ground on the center in May. The project is expected to cost about $5 million, and Hesed wants to raise the first $1 million before breaking ground on the convent.

Domus Trinitatis will be open to everyone who wishes to reconnect to God, she said. There will be 12 cottages built for singles and couples. Each cottage will be in an isolated wooded area.

A "center of agriculture" will include orchards, greenhouses and high tunnels to teach the latest and most-efficient techniques for hydroponics and aquaponics, according to the plan for the center. People will be able to learn about nutrition and canning and drying fruits and vegetables.

Sister Hesed expects the building of Domus Trinitatis to be a three- to five-year project.

"Jesus says in the Bible: 'Come and see.'" she said. "I came to Willey and saw. And stayed."