Sister Lisa’s 40-year Mission Spreads Love of Jesus Around the World

Originally Printed by AD Today
By Gia Myers

Reflecting on the year 1982, Sister Lisa Valentini remembers she was preparing to take final vows as a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (I.H.M.) and to teach religion to second-grade students in a Philadelphia Catholic school. 

She remembers one day reading to the students from a book, which stated that over a billion people around the world have never heard the name Jesus. 

“Someone has to tell them,” she thought at the time, and that’s when she decided to volunteer for a mission trip to South America.

She told her Mother Superior, “I don’t know if God is calling me to be a missionary, but if you think He is, I’m willing to give it a try.”

In 1983, after taking her final vows, she was sent to Lima, Peru for five years not knowing the language or what to expect. 

“I never thought I’d become a sister, much less a missionary,” she said. 

Today, Sister Lisa is a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and she’s spent the last 40 years performing missionary work around the world, in places like Peru, Haiti, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. When she’s not on a mission, she travels the United States talking to large audiences about her mission work.

Listeners are so taken with her stories that they usually approach her afterwards asking to be taken on her next mission trip. She’s now taken thousands of people on mission trips – many of them high school and college students.

Sister Lisa was born and raised in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, the second oldest among six children in a family of Italian and Irish decent.

She attended Saint Jerome Catholic School – before it became Saint Jerome Regional School – and she graduated from Marian Catholic High School in 1974. In the same year, she entered the religious community of the I.H.M. Sisters at Immaculata College – now Immaculata University. There, she studied Theology and English.

It was after her third day in Peru on her first mission assignment in 1983 that Sister Lisa saw the poor and thought to herself, “I belong here.”

Though she found herself assigned to work not with the poor of Lima, but as a first-grade teacher at a school called Villa Maria Academy, where many wealthy families sent their daughters for education.

“One of my students was the granddaughter of the President of Peru,” she said. Though it was not how she had imagined missionary work to be. The needy people she observed in the outside neighborhood moved her. 

So, she took her students and their parents to visit two local orphanages. She took them in groups every Friday and Saturday, bringing toys and clothes to the orphans. They prayed together, and all of the children played together. 

Feeling homesick after five years, Sister Lisa returned home, teaching first grade in a Philadelphia Catholic school. But she saw her old life with new eyes. The many food choices in Philadelphia supermarkets seemed suddenly shocking as she remembered the great need of the poor in Lima.

“I’m not right here,” she shared with her Superior General at the time, who responded by offering Sister Lisa the position of Coordinator for Mission Awareness for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. 

In this role, Sister Lisa visited schools throughout the Archdiocese during the 1990s, sharing stories of her missionary work. Between speaking engagements, also started going on short mission trips to Mexico and Haiti.

During mission trips, Sister Lisa often worked with groups of 40-100 children. She told Bible stories, played guitar – singing and dancing with the children – and engaged them in activities bringing the Bible stories alive for them.

On one of her Haiti missionary trips, Sister Lisa spent time with Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity – Saint Mother Teresa’s order – feeding and holding orphan babies.

In January 1997 – after 23 years as an I.H.M. Sister – Sister Lisa felt called to transfer into The Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (M.S.C. Sisters). She says the M.S.C. Sister’s mission “to make Jesus known and loved everywhere” spoke to her missionary spirit.

At the end of 2000, Sister Lisa was fully incorporated into the M.S.C. Sisters, and she was assigned to a mission in the Dominican Republic. 

During this time, she hosted thousands of students visiting the Dominican Republic on mission trips, in addition to her work with the poor, and she returned to the U.S.A. for a few months each year to speak at various churches for Mission Appeals, gathering donations to fund the ongoing mission work of the M.S.C. Sisters. 

Since 2020, Sister Lisa teaches Religion and Music at Notre Dame of Bethlehem School during weekdays, and spends weekends at a convent in Reading, Pa. “Unless I’m going to some church somewhere in the world to speak at a Mission Appeal,” she says with a laugh.

She still visits the Dominican Republic, though she put her mission trips temporarily on hold during the COVID pandemic. She visited seven times a year pre-COVID, and now only visits “at least once a year. I’m hoping to get it back to five [a year],” she said. 

“I need to be a missionary,” says Sister Lisa, reflecting on her 40 years spent spreading the name and love of Jesus Christ around the world. 

Support the Missions Through Operation Rice Bowl

Operation Rice Bowl is a way for Catholics in the Diocese of Allentown to support the missions during Lent. Since it was created in 1975, Operation Rice Bowl has provided more than $330 million to support programs that prevent hunger and poverty around the world, in places like those where people like Sister Lisa perform missionary work.

Diocese of Allentown Catholics have another special connection to Operation Rice Bowl because it was started here in the Diocese. Together with a rabbi and three ministers, Monsignor Robert Coll, pastor emeritus of Assumption B.V.M. Parish, Bethlehem, who is now retired, first organized Operation Rice Bowl as an interfaith response to the African drought of 1974-75. It was adopted by the Catholic Church nationwide the next year.

The program even drew attention from Mother Teresa. Monsignor Coll extended an invitation to her, and she visited the Diocese on April 27, 1976 to thank the Diocese for the $6,000 donation from Operation Rice Bowl to the Missionary Sisters of Charity, the order that she founded.

To participate in Operation Rice Bowl, families eat a simple meal one day a week, and give the money they would have spent on a more elaborate meal to Operation Rice Bowl.

One-quarter of the funds remain in the Diocese to help those in need locally, and the balance is contributed to hunger relief efforts nationwide and in 100 countries around the world, distributed by Catholic Relief Services.

Operation Rice Bowl is underway in every parish of the Diocese. Please be on the lookout for a purple box distributed by ushers at the end of Mass or placed on pews or tables near the church exits. Your participation helps alleviate hunger and poverty worldwide, as well as within your own Diocese.