February 2009: SISTER CELESTINE RIVERA (entered eternal life on July 26, 2021)
God speaks to us. For some, it is an indescribable sense of calm. For others, it is an experience with a higher power. No matter how it occurs, the voice of God is real – as long as we are open to it.
Throughout Sister Celestine Rivera’s life, God has spoken to her. While many of us may not have been as privileged to have been given this gift, maybe we did not realize it happened. “When you open your heart and soul to God, you begin to realize that he speaks to us,” Sister Celestine said.
Her story begins in the southwest
Born on Feb. 14, 1929, in Gibson, NM, she is one of eight children born to Celso and Crescentia (Gishinbegay) Rivera. Soon after, the family moved to Gallup, NM, where their home life was filled with music, led by Celso, a professor of music – especially as leader of band music for the community of Gallup. Each of the Rivera children played a musical instrument.
From her earliest memory, Sister Celestine wanted to be a nurse, and she was assured by her mother to “listen to God – where you think God wants you to go, He will lead you.” Her mother prayed that one of her daughters would be a sister.
The seed of a vocation had been planted within Sister Celestine, and her desire was to be a Carmelite nun. She graduated from Cathedral High School, Gallup, in May 1949 (the same time that the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis began serving at St. Francis Parish, Gallup), and soon met the Sisters. “Sister Jean Sudkamp was very inspirational for me and explained what kind of ministry the sisters provided. I saw what the Sisters did and was impressed - I liked the idea of being a nursing sister,” Sister Celestine said.
In January 1950, Sister Celestine boarded a train for Springfield, IL with Sister Jean. “My father blessed me as I left, and I remember his parting words: ‘we must go where God wants us to go and lead us.’ On January 31, we arrived at St. Francis Convent, and on February 2, I met with the other women entering religious life. I was confident of my decision because of God’s reassuring hand in my life,” she said.
Service as a Hospital Sister of St. Francis
Now more than 50 years later, she reflects on her vocation. With her nursing responsibilities, she has served at several of the Sisters’ sponsored hospitals in Streator, Green Bay, Springfield, Highland, and Belleville, along with Alverna Home Nursing Center, Chicago.
She also served in Arizona and New Mexico to minister to those in need and set up small clinics at Round Rock, Tsáile, Rock Point, and Wheatfield. In Lukachuaki, AZ, she served in a dispensary and in home health services (homes are called hogans) where she assisted the mothers in delivering their babies. “I respected the Navajo belief that the baby must first touch the ground before the mother holds it (hogans had dirt floors). What a beautiful belief as the baby first interacts with Mother Earth, for it comes from there,” she said.
In addition, she served at St. Catherine’s Indian School, Santa Fe, NM, as a school nurse. She also served as a missionary in San Timato, Venezuela, where she worked with others in setting up four health clinics. After obtaining her nursing degrees, Sister Celestine worked at the Navajo Community College as director of the health center and taught Maternity and Pediatrics.
Presently, Sister Celestine volunteers at St. Francis Convent and serves as a mentor at Riverton Elementary School assisting first grade students with reading and word pronunciation.
“Life can be challenging, but when we have faith, God will lead us through the difficulties. Whatever our calling, we are doing the work of God, and so we need to be reminded to always love unconditionally and recognize that we are given the gift of healing – whether through word, deed, or action,” she concluded.
As the only Native American Sister of the American Province, Sister Celestine is a graduate of St. John’s School of Nursing and earned an Associates Degree from Navajo Community College (now Diné College), Tsáile, AZ. She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ.
She is a graduate of Catholic Catechism for the Diocese of Gallup, NM, and taught catechism to young children wherever she was sent and assisted many in their preparation for their First Holy Communion. She also instructed adults on catechism in Chicago.
The Hospital Sisters ministered at St. Francis Home Nursing Center, Gallup, NM (09/15/49-08/15/54); St. Isabel’s Mission/Health Dispensary for Navajo Indians, Lukachukai, AZ, and surrounding areas (06/17/53-07/29/80); and Our Lady of Fatima Mission, Chinle, AZ (09/10/61-01/01/94).