When you are called, it is time to go.
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Sister Mary Juanita Villarreal is a beloved figure within the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon community and beyond. Her journey as a Sister began at 18 years old when she made the decision to follow her calling and embarked on a lifelong mission of service, resilience, and faith.
In July, the Sisters of the St. Mary of Oregon will celebrate a remarkable milestone – Sister Juanita Villarreal’s Diamond Jubilee. This special occasion marks six decades that Sister Juanita has lived as a Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.
Born in Texas to a family of migrant workers, Sister Juanita was the sixth of 11 children. Through the years, her family helped farmers throughout Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon. They eventually established a routine of spending their falls and winters in Texas and springs and summers in Oregon. Her father prioritized his children’s education and made sure Sister Juanita and her siblings were working hard in school no matter where they lived. Her father also opposed her joining a convent even though she expressed her interest throughout high school and was set on joining either the Benedictines or the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
However, Sister Juanita came to St. Mary of the Valley as a guest to visit two Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon who had entered from St. Paul, Ore. This resulted in her spending her senior year as a boarder at St. Mary of the Valley. Sister Juanita joined the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon after graduating from high school. The Sisters also helped prioritize Sister Juanita’s education. She attended Marylhurst College and Portland State University earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and an Administration certificate. During her years as a Sister, she has also attended several other universities, such as Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and Universidad de Avila in Avila, Spain.
Sister Juanita credits her migrant upbringing for her desire to serve God through travel. She has visited Mexico on many occasions and lived in Spain for six months. She has spent time in the Holy Land as well as in a number of South American and European countries. Sister Juanita says, “I plan to travel as long as I have the strength and the opportunity.”
Sr. Juanita’s perseverance and resilience have been a source of inspiration to those around her. One of the most affected is longtime friend, Sr. Adele Marie Altenhofen. “I think her special gift to me is how she has helped me become a woman of faith,” said Sr. Adele Marie, President of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon Ministries Corporation. “When I was a student I saw her as my teacher, but then as a mentor, and now as a friend. So, I feel like I’m on a journey with her as a companion, as a Sister in faith and a Sister in community. It’s a tremendous heart to heart, shoulder to shoulder gift.”
Sr. Juanita’s passion for teaching has been a driving force in her ministry. She firmly believes in the power of knowledge and its ability to empower her students. She has taught at the elementary, middle, high school and college levels and was a principal for many years. “I have taught in the classroom for 36 years. I love teaching,” said Sr. Juanita. “I didn’t have to choose whether I would teach. Teaching is my first love, and whether in the classroom or as a pastoral associate, I am blessed to teach.”
Religious life is a path filled with deep spiritual meaning and fulfillment, but it is not without its challenges. Sr. Juanita encourages a fearless approach in taking risks and accepting challenges head-on. When asked about her thoughts for any woman who may be considering a life of service to God. Sr. Juanita says “You have to jump in the water. You can’t keep putting your toe in the water. You have to take a risk. Nothing is for certain.”