Sister Pauline Fierro, CCVI is being remembered for Día de Muertos 2020 by the City of San Antonio World Heritage Office as a notable person in the history of the San Francisco de Espada Mission. She was one of a group of three Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word to start the ‘Espada School’ for the local archdiocese in 1915 at the mission. The other two sisters were Sister Emmanuel Phelan (born in Ireland) and Sister Simplicia Oeffelke (born in Germany).
Sister Pauline was a native San Antonian, born Maria Guadalupe Fierro, to parents Cecilio Fierro and Isabel Games in the Westside of San Antonio on March 16, 1874. She was baptized in April 1874 at San Fernando Cathedral, by Bishop of San Antonio John Claude Neraz. She entered the congregation in 1896, took her first vows in 1898, and final vows in 1903. Her majority of her life’s service was within the Mexican American community into which she was born, for the Mission area families and in the Westside of San Antonio.
The diaries that remain in the congregational archives for the Espada School reveal wonderful details about school life and the Sisters’ life in residence there. As the diary indicates, the physical conditions of the convent when the Sisters initially moved there in 1915 were extremely rudimentary –
“One great necessity was lacking – drinking water, but the willing hand of some of the people kept the house provided with the needed water. Shortly after the opening of the school, this handicap was overcome by the digging of a well near the kitchen late in the month of September .”
Sister Pauline and Sr. Joseph Augustine Molloy conducted the first Religious Vacation School in the Archdiocese of San Antonio (Letter of 9/16/1929), establishing a milestone for the children as well as adults to be prepared for their first holy communions, confirmations, and learn religious catechism. Sr. Pauline and the Sisters who served in these summer schools often lived in housing provided by local families or the parish for the season. They became very involved with the parish families, as they did with the Mission area families during the Espada School year. She served in religious vacation school from 1929 – 1946, for 17 years.
Two female students who attended the Espada School as children and were taught by Sister Pauline became members of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word – Sister Raphael Eccell (born Lucy Eccell) and Sister Anthony William Ripps (born Agnes Teresa Ripps). Sister Raphael wrote a memoir of her childhood, that tells us about how Sister Pauline started the Christmastime Las Posadas processions and La Pastorela folk plays (“Los Pastores”) in the community of the Missions’ families:
“Sister Pauline started the custom of having Pastores on Christmas Eve. It was held in the open, between the church and the school. A cave-like structure of stone served as the cave of Bethlehem. Needless to say, everything was very primitive. Even our cow took part in it, she was supposed to be the donkey. A number of children, dressed as angels, sang ‘Glory to God in the Highest,” from the roof of the school. After the play was over, we all went to Midnight Mass. We also had the Posadas every night for nine days before Christmas. We went in procession , singing hymns, and carrying the statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, from one house to the next one, which was to give shelter to Mary and Joseph for the night. A lantern was hung in front of the house to indicate that the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph were staying there for the night. After the religious celebration we had a piñata. On Christmas Eve, we processed to the Church, to deposit Mary and Joseph in the crib.”
A Motherhouse letter to the Sisters, dated September 8, 1940, refers to Sister Pauline’s assistance from 1940-1942 at the Guadalupe Community Center (now operated by Catholic Charities of San Antonio) on the Westside:
“As is well known, our Holy Father has repeatedly urged the need of organized Catholic Social Welfare Work; cognizant of this, our honored Reverend Mother [Bonaventure Burns] did not hesitate to answer the first request made to her for our Sisters to undertake this great work of charity. Rev. Carmelo Tranchese, S.J., Pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, San Antonio, who has done so much to better the conditions of the poor people living in his parish, appealed to Reverend Mother for Sisters to aid him in his work among the poor. Reverend Mother graciously consented and four Sisters were assigned to the Guadalupe Community Center, as it will be known. The object of this work is to promote family and child welfare for the less fortunate of the city. Sister Mary Victory [Lewis] has been appointed to direct the work; the family case work will be taken care of by Sisters Pauline [Fierro] and Imelda [Walshe] who will visit the homes of the poor; sewing and home making classes will be under the direction of Sister M. Martha [Dardis].”
Sister Pauline’s instinct was clearly to document — she was a natural photo-documentarian – and without her scrapbooks, photos, and diary writing, there would be a great lack of knowledge about life at Espada School and at the religious vacation schools of the area.
Sister left two invaluable scrapbooks – one scrapbook which documents the many years during the summers between Espada school semesters when she taught and lived at parishes where she taught Religious Vacation School, including Weslaco, Saspamco, Kenedy, Somerset, etc. These were mostly small parishes in cities near the Missions area and parishes south of the city.
The second scrapbook is one that presents the history of the missions and related Texas and San Antonio history, and also has many newsclippings and photographs that she took of her life and students at the Espada School.
In 2017, Sister Pauline’s great-niece Rosemarie Mortola (of San Antonio) and Rosemarie’s daughter Joy Burgan (of Belton, Texas) visited the archives to donate various personal belongings of Sister Pauline that they had in storage for many years. Many of these are featured in the painting created for the World Heritage Office Día de los Muertos 2020 event, painted by local artist Eva Marengo Sanchez. Indeed, the painting is authentic in including Sister’s silver whistle, chalk holder, fountain pen, and pages from the scrapbooks themselves with the history of the Missions that she would have shared with hundreds of schoolchildren over her life. We express our deep gratitude for the family’s donation.
Sister Pauline served with great spirit and humility from 1915 until 1955, primarily at the Espada School, and began retirement after that time. She entered eternal life to enjoy the fullness of life with God on August 30, 1973 at the St. Joseph’s Convent retirement home, on the Incarnate Word College campus. It is an honor to remember her example of love for her community, her city’s history, and of the history of the Missions.