I recently published a book on my extended family, a collection of oral histories, memoirs and profiles. We came from a remote community in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico called Terromote.
We received little or no formal religious education and were often unable to attend Sunday Mass and other religious services because we lived too far from the parish church. We had only horse-drawn transport and rain or snow made the dirt roads impassable. Outsiders viewed our faith as deficient.
Yet faith and religion were strong, guiding the entire course of people’s lives. Families got down on their knees each night and recited the rosary. My great aunt Casimira’s father led her family in praying the Stations of the Cross during Lent.
"At Christmas we rocked a cradle with a statue of the baby Jesus, and the grown-ups gave us candy and apples," remembered Cousin Josephine, who eventually became a Franciscan nun.
In times of drought, families processed through the fields with a statue of St. Isidore, patron of farmers, praying and singing hymns. The community built and maintained the chapel in the area.
Divorces rarely occurred. When children were orphaned, they were taken in by relatives or neighbors. Grandpa and Grandma on my father’s side had 11 children but still adopted two orphans. Since there was no public assistance then, these poor farmers helped one another in times of need. No one starved.
Religion remained strong when we moved to other states in the 1930s and 1940s in search of a better life. We were active in the parishes we joined.
As if catching up for the opportunities we had missed, we always went to Sunday Mass, and at times every day of the week. Six of my brothers and I were altar boys, as were other cousins. We never missed the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes. Aunt Pablita sang in her parish’s choir.
"In my 27 years of teaching international management at Illinois Central College (in Peoria), I was surrogate father for 150 students, all non-Christians from Lebanon," said cousin Anthony R. Alle, whose father was Lebanese.
"When they sought me out, I said to myself, ‘My dad (who had already died) is not here, but I am in a position to guide these boys.
"My wife Martha and I opened our home to them. All did well after graduation. … During a Cursillo night after 9/11, I shared the story of these wonderful boys."
Alle also helped to start the Hispanic church in Peoria that he said "is going strong now."
Like Alle, who graduated from Carroll College in Montana, many of our family went to Jesuit colleges, and that influenced their choice of work and professions.
I worked 36 years in Catholic publishing in Ohio and New York. My brother Antonio, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Regis University and a doctorate at Kansas State University, gave up a brilliant career as a professor to become a permanent deacon in full-time ministry for 37 years.
In retirement, cousins Theresa Suazo and Sara Fillin did volunteer work in their parishes.
Cousin Josephine worked part time at an ecumenical center, where she counseled women contemplating abortions. "I enjoy working with such God-loving people," she said. "I have seen many small miracles."
All this and more came from a people unschooled in doctrine who knew and lived to the best of their ability the first two commandments, to love and serve God and their neighbors as they loved and served themselves. It’s how you live what you know that makes all the difference.
Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.