Published March 30. 2024 09:04AM
by Bill O’Gurek – [email protected]

She wasn’t sure back in 1974 that entering the convent was something she really wanted to do, but on the eve of Easter Sunday of her 50th anniversary in the religious community, Tamaqua native Sr. Lisa Valentini is solid in her commitment to Jesus Christ and the lifetime she has spent spreading the good news of the gospel through missionary work that has consumed about 80% of her career.

Her story is an impressive one of having spent the past four decades trying to make sure Christians throughout the world, especially young boys and girls in faraway places, know the story of what mankind will celebrate tomorrow, the resurrection of Christ.

“He lived 40 days with the apostles, and it was all about everyone knowing the good news. There are people all over the world who have not heard, so we have to tell them,” said Sr. Lisa, the former Anne Valentini of Tamaqua.

And, as Easter approaches, she adds, “We need people to go out and to the end of the earth to tell the great news.”

A 1974 graduate of Marian Catholic High School, she joined the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) order not long after getting her diploma.

“I decided to give it a shot,” she said of her decision, which now, she says, is one of the best things that ever happened to her, strongly suggesting, “If I had to pick a life, I’d pick mine every time.”

‘Early days in convent’ 

Upon enrollment in the religious community, Sister began studies in theology

and English at Immaculata College. She then began her career by teaching second grade at a Philadelphia Catholic school, before, she said, the idea of missionary work clicked in her head.

One day, “In the kids’ religion book it stated that over a billion people around the world have never heard the name of Jesus,” she said.

“Boom, it hit me,” she recalled, saying she immediately thought, “Someone has to tell them. And then, I thought I could tell them.”

Shortly thereafter, Sr. Lisa volunteered for a mission assignment to Peru, South America, that pretty much set the tone for the rest of her career.

“When I thought then about missionary work, I thought of being among some of the poorest people in the world,” she said, but she quickly learned she was assigned to teach a class that consisted of children of wealthy parents, including the granddaughter of the president of Peru.

At the outset of her five-year stint in Peru, to her surprise, Sister drew an assignment of teaching first grade at a very wealthy girls’ school, Villa Marie Academy. “I felt uncomfortable,” she said. “There I was teaching 180 kids whose families are well-to-do, in an area surrounded by poverty. I thought to myself, ‘this is not why I came here.’?”

What followed was perhaps a key period of her career, as she became moved upon learning the needs of underprivileged children in that country. The feeling prompted her to take her students to visit children in two orphanages in the country. When she met with their parents to discuss the planned visits, “the kids and the parents were fabulous,” she recalled.

“Our goal was to teach them (her students) their responsibilities to their brothers and sisters in need,” she said, adding, “to experience feeding the hungry, and providing drink to the thirsty.”

Sr. Lisa continued, “When I talked to the parents about the idea, I really expected them to say ‘no,’ but they said, ‘You’re right! And we can help, too.’?”

Twice a week (Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings), Sister and about 20 of her students, along with parents who provided transportation, took turns visiting the orphanages for a kind of “play date.”

Christmas was always extra special. The parents would set up an incredible party providing entertainment and activities for the orphans and the firstgrade missionaries – with delicious food and treats.

In addition, thanks to generous parents, many of whom owned businesses, including clothing and sneaker factories, each of the children from the orphanages, received amazing gifts, including a dressy outfit for Christmas, a brand-new set of play clothes, undergarments, socks and sneakers. And, of course, there were toys, too. “I can still remember their smiles,” she said.

The weekly visits continued uninterrupted for the five years Sister was on Mission in Peru. Sister said, “To see first grade girls realize that they could bring joy to the less fortunate, was like seeing a light bulb go off in their heads. They knew they could make a difference. It was an amazing thing to watch.”

‘God makes things work’ 

Her five-year stint in Peru ended.

Sister Lisa remembers not wanting to come back to the states and leave the work the students and parents had been doing.

“I was back to teaching, and my heart was hurt, because I knew where I belonged,” she said. “But I believed God makes things work,” noting she held faith her missionary work would continue.

And, indeed, He did.

“Then I was offered a neat job (Coordinator for Mission Awareness for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia),” Sister Lisa said. The job required her to visit schools in the archdiocese during the 1990s, sharing stories about missionary work. In between, she made short mission trips to places like Haiti, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Sister said she would often speak to high school and college students who after hearing about the missionary work would quickly ask, “Can we go?” Her response, a resounding “Yes, of course.”

For decades, she accompanied hundreds of youths and adults to places around the world. As missionaries, they often worked with groups of 50-100 children, teaching them Bible stories and doing things like arts and crafts, sometimes doing physical chores like painting or gardening.

On a missionary trip to Haiti, Sister Lisa worked with the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity – Saint Mother Teresa’s order – engaging in activities that brought Bible stories to life for the children. She fed and held orphan babies, to which she said, “Was just amazing to experience, to be able to help.” A talented guitarist, she sang and danced with the children. 

‘Changes order’

After 23 years as an IHM nun, in 1997, Sister Lisa felt the call to transfer to the Order of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, whose mission is “to make Jesus known and loved everywhere,” she said. 

She was assigned to a mission in the Dominican Republic and since that time has hosted hundreds of students, young adults and members of parishes who have made mission trips there.

Sister’s assigned ministry is doing “Mission Appeals” which calls her to travel around this country speaking about the missionary work of her MSC Sisters.

Inevitably, during her visits, hands go up, she said, noting “They (high school and college students) feel like they are called to go. They know that people need to see love, and to experience love, as do we, so these missionaries are eager to go.”

The Mission Immersion Experiences include going to Mass every day, praying in the morning and at night, and “they are asked where they found the face of Jesus during the day,” she said.

To date, she has been on 71 missionary trips, and, after 40 years, has no plans on putting on the brakes.