St. Philip High School senior Irene Hibbard has three sisters at home, and a few dozen more in La Ceja, Colombia.

The Colombian “sisters”, however, are Catholic nuns.

The Hibbard family’s relationship with the convent at La Ceja began when their oldest daughter Adrian, a 2016 BCACS graduate, visited after her graduation.

Irene went the following summer, taking with her a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish and desire for new experiences.

One of the beautiful sights in San Luis, Colombia.

“Some may think that nuns are boring, but I experienced more of the culture through the nuns than I could with anyone else,” Irene said.

One trip wasn’t enough. Irene returned in the summer of 2018, this time fluent in Spanish and bearing gifts – donations of clothes, food, and books for the nuns and the families they assist.

The gifts nearly didn’t make it. Irene’s suitcase was 10-pounds overweight, and the airline asked her to remove items.

“The lady asked why I had so many books, and I told her I was donating them to a convent in Columbia for poor kids,” Irene said. “She let me go over three pounds. All I had to do was say the words ‘nun’ and ‘poor kids.’”

The nuns welcomed Irene with open arms.

Irene’s first photo upon her arrival in Rio Negro, Colombia last summer.

Irene helped the nuns with the duties around the convent and in aiding local families. She helped them cook, including sewing up chickens stuffed with carrots and onions, and made rosaries.

Irene joined the nuns in prayer, even when it required her to attend daily 5:30 a.m. masses.

“They always told me that I didn’t have to get up, that it wasn’t my obligation,” Irene said. “But I felt it was my obligation when I was there. Watching the nuns worship was very moving.”

There was downtime at the convent, too. Irene played games with the nuns, including basketball, where this varsity ballplayer was proud to claim victory.

Irene especially enjoyed her time with the espirantes, girls her age who were considering the religious life. The espirantes peppered Irene with questions about America and often asked if Irene wanted to be a nun.

Irene with one of the espirantes, who wanted a photo with Irene because she was “rare”. “She had never seen a white person before,” Irene said.

“I didn’t want to dissuade the espirantes, but I don’t want to become a nun,” Irene said. “I think it is a very beautiful life, and I admire them, but it’s not for me.”

She went with the nuns to their hometowns to stay with their families. Irene helped some of their siblings with their English, while other siblings taught Irene how to salsa dance.

Irene with her two young English students.

One of the sister’s cousins teachers Irene to salsa dance.

“There was no translator or a bodyguard to protect me, only the nuns and the people I met,” Irene said. “That being said, the nuns were better than any bodyguard. No one messes with the nuns.”

Irene returned from Colombia with a lighter suitcase but a fuller heart.

“I visited Medellin, San Louise, and many more towns,” Irene said. “Every town was filled with new people I could learn from and listen to their stories. Not only did I learn the stories, I learned more about the Catholic faith.”

One of the many churches Irene visited.

Irene encourages other students to travel in this way. Her younger sister Eve, a St. Philip sophomore, will visit the convent this summer.

“My experience was a one of a kind mission,” Irene said. “I hope that others can do something similar to get an international experience and explore the Catholic faith.”

The Hibbard Family would like to thank all those who contributed to the gifts Irene brought to the nuns in La Ceja, Colombia.

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Questions? Call Cathy Erskine at 269.963.1131