For more than a half-century, Sister Therese Mary Martinez — Sister Mary to her many friends — has worked to help the Mexican-American community in the northwest suburbs.
She has assisted newcomers in finding housing, dealing with immigration issues, establishing businesses, solving family problems. Her work was done through Little Mexico, a Wheeling-based nonprofit ministry she founded and oversees.
A member of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters order, Martinez recently celebrated 60 years as a nun. It's a calling that came to her gradually, she says, when she was a youngster in Dallas.
"My uncle in Mexico used to send my mother books," she says. "One was with St. Therese and the child Jesus. During the summer, every day she'd read us a chapter. (St. Therese) was a cloistered nun. And I kind of got the idea."
One of 19 children — including her twin sister, Carman, who is a mother of six, grandmother of 18, great-grandmother of 28 ("and they're still coming!") — she began contacting convents when she was 20. The Holy Spirit Sisters, which is not a cloistered order, wanted her too.
At 83, Martinez isn't ready to retire. She still can be found running Little Mexico's Thrift Shop in Wheeling. She took a break recently at the store to talk about her work. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: How did you end up here?
A: We're a missionary order. ... I (asked) the Mother General, "Can I go on a mission? I can go to Chile; I know the language." She said, "We have enough Chile here." So since 1958 (when she started Little Mexico) I've been working with Hispanic people in the northwest area.
Q: Were there difficult things you had to overcome?
A: I didn't know how to tell men what to do. A few years later at a dinner they asked me to speak. I told them, "I didn't know how to tell men what to do — but I do now."
Q: What did you do for people then?
A: I helped people get homes. People were living in chicken coops and barns. There was a place on Touhy (Avenue), a barn that had been partitioned into four living spaces.
Q: What was involved?
A: I consolidated their bills first. Then ... I'd get them a basket of food. I had great real estate offices. If they heard of a house our people could handle, they'd call me. I had lawyers, a group of them. ... They were very good to me. I'd go with them to the bank to borrow money for their down payment. One time I was talking to a (bank) cashier, and I was with a man who was getting money for a down payment on his home. And he said, "Sister, if you were not standing there, I wouldn't be standing here."
Q: Do you still help people find homes?
A: The new problem is immigration, so I don't help with housing. If I were to help someone buy a house and they're illegal, the government would take it away.
Q: How many people did you help?
A: We helped more than 200 people buy houses.
Q: Are the local authorities supportive of what you do?
A: Yes. They know my work. And I've agreed to take their people who need to do community service (as part of a sentence for criminal offenders). You'd be surprised how people change. Especially men.
Q: You have this shop, and also in the building are other services for people. Does the shop bring in enough money to do your work?
A: Right now we're just paying our bills.
Q: How many hours do you put in here?
A: I work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday (the store opens at 10 a.m.). I'm here till 3 or 4, sometimes 6. I get a lot of help from my right-hand man, Felix Vences.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: At the convent, we play games. We have recreation nights on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. We like to play Rummikub, with tiles.
Q: I heard you recently went on vacation. Where to?
A: Back to Texas. It was my brother's 80th birthday, and my 60th anniversary as a nun, so we had a big celebration, the whole family.
Q: 19 children. Your mother must have been something.
A: She is my inspiration. She had faith that was unbelievable. She was 49 when my father died; there were still 10 of us left (at home). She made do with what we brought home. We didn't know how she did it.
Q: How long are you going to keep going?
A: I've told them I'm going to retire at 85. (She smiles.) Semi-retire. What will I do? Whatever the superiors decide. ... I tell the sisters, I still have my five senses.
Little Mexico Thrift Shop,111 N. Wolf Road, Wheeling. For more information, call 847-419-8935.
Sister Mary finds needlework a great way to relax, but even then, she uses her hobby to help others. "My relaxation is crocheting," she says. "I just finished a baby blanket for one of the nurses at the convent. She asked me to do it. And I'm doing another, a white christening blanket, but it's taking me a long time."