'Change the Word Burden to Gift'
On March 16-18, The Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society will host its annual Divine Mercy Family Congress in Oakland, Calif. In many ways the conference — which will include speakers, seminars, Holy Masses, and opportunities for confession — represents one woman's promise to God.
Back in 1990, Thelma Orias, the director of The Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society, promised God she would spread the message of The Divine Mercy. It was a promise she made in thanks to God for answering her prayer. In short, her prayer was that He reveal to her His reality.
The following is adapted from articles written by Eric Reslock, which first appeared in San Francisco Faith in May 2003 and October 1999. It is posted here with the writer's permission:
In 1989, general unhappiness convinced Thelma Orias that she needed to firm up her spiritual life. Her work in real estate and other businesses took up most of her time, but she decided she needed to carve out time for commitment to God.
She said she began praying every day for weeks and developed a desire for "a sincere surrender to God."
In February of 1990, a friend encouraged Orias to go to Eucharistic Adoration at Our Lady of Peace in Santa Clara, Calif. Orias started to go at 2:30 a.m.
"At the time, I didn't know anything about these kinds of devotions. I didn't know how to pray," Orias said. After attending adoration for a month, Orias began to feel the results.
"I had no feeling at first. But then in March, I felt a need to ask for forgiveness. I confessed all my sins. Jesus came and taught me how to pray," Orias said. One day, she was moved to tell Jesus in prayer, "I want to serve you. Let me be your servant on Earth."
She continued in her daily Eucharistic meditations until September of 1990 when she received tapes in the mail from the Association of Marian Helpers in Stockbridge, Mass., about the Divine Mercy devotion. After reviewing the material she decided: "This is what God wants me to do."
Today, Orias is the founder of the chapel of Divine Mercy in El Cerrito, Calif., and organizer of local Divine Mercy conferences and celebrations of the devotion.
But Orias is not one to bask in the glory of her accomplishments. When we last spoke, she said she was looking for practicable ways to demonstrate mercy, since the first component of the Divine Mercy devotion is to perform merciful works. In August 2002, she fulfilled this promise by opening a home for pregnant women in crisis in San Pablo, Calif. The house provides a place for women who are essentially homeless, and saves the lives of children who otherwise might be lost to abortion. In doing this, the home also protects women from experiencing post-abortion trauma.
The Divine Mercy devotion traces its roots back to 1931, when an uneducated Polish nun, Sr. Faustina Kowalska, received a message that she was told to spread throughout the world. She was asked by the Lord to become the apostle and secretary of God's mercy, a model of how to be merciful to others and an instrument for God's plan of mercy for the world. ...
When asked to explain the connection between the corporal works of mercy and St. Faustina's message, Orias quoted St. Faustina's Diary.
"Jesus told St. Faustina, 'I demand from you deeds of mercy which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere'," Orias said (see Diary, 742).
Christ told St. Faustina that the three ways of exercising mercy toward our neighbor are by deed, by word, and by prayer.
When asked if she was specifically looking to start a crisis pregnancy shelter, Orias said, "No. However, the desire to have a place for them was in my heart, and I shared to our board members about this ministry, which they approved."
She continued: "This desire to help these women came to me when I went to San Bernardino to attend the anniversary of Fr. Barry's priesthood. Father Barry was the first spiritual director of the Divine Mercy Center in El Cerrito. He showed me their Veronica House, a shelter for pregnant women in crisis. I was touched. The one thing I could not forget was that every time I prayed and reflected on the suffering of people, I always felt the pain of abortion and asked God for mercy. And since then it had been in my heart and mind to help these women."
With the approval of the diocese, Mary's House opened as a shelter in August 2002. With the help of volunteers, a two-story former convent was converted to a 12-room home (nine guest bedrooms and three staff bedrooms), including a large living room, dining room, kitchen, administrative offices, and laundry room.
The first baby born to a mother at Mary's House arrived on Nov. 29, 2002, born to a mom who came to the shelter in her ninth month.
As with her other endeavors, Orias has gone beyond providing the bare necessities.
"We have expanded our base of network providers to include counseling, food banks, public health, medical, government assistance, information about housing and employment, and training in resume writing, interview skills, and budgeting," she said. "The director works individually with each woman to connect her with the appropriate resources and makes sure her needs are met."
Women are allowed to stay up to six months after pregnancy under a program designed to help them become self-sufficient after they leave. There are strict house rules and a structured, scheduled environment.
The need for the shelter in the area is acute. There are no other formal pregnancy/maternity facilities providing residential care in Contra Costa County. San Pablo has the lowest median family income of any city in the county. It also has the highest unemployment. Eighty percent of the residents are people of color; 35 percent of these are Latino. In recent years, the county received more than 5,000 domestic violence 911 calls. In 1999, 2,887 families in the county were homeless, with children. Spanish language ads for abortions are in the area's phone books.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing is that Orias also has a full time job. Asked how she finds time for all she does, she said, "God blessed me with an understanding husband. When I began the spiritual works of the Divine Mercy, promoting the devotion, my oldest child was nine years old, the second one was five, and the third was three years old. My husband knew at the time that my calling to serve God was part of his sacrifice. He believed in my inspiration.
"Although he was not physically present or helping me on all the works, he was busy taking care of my three growing children while I was promoting the Divine Mercy," Orias continued. "He was active in coaching my two boys in baseball. He never questioned me about what I am doing. He trusts me as I trust Jesus. At the same time, although God has sent me very few people to help and support me, the people that God has sent are dedicated and sincere. And most important is their deep faith and true trust in our Lord.
"God sends the right people at the right time that I need them," she says. "Aside from those faithful people, God also sends me good religious and priests, like the Carmelite Community in San Jose, Fr. Michael Barry, Deacon Tom McGowan (liaison to the diocese of Oakland), and other priests."
Hoping to understand the force that is driving her, I asked Orias if she found her burden sweet. She replied, "Let us change the word 'burden' to 'gift.' All that we are doing for the Divine Mercy are sweet gifts from our Lord to glorify His name through us."
Asked to describe Thelma Orias and the difference she has made, foundation board member Thomas Kennedy said, "I think Thelma has had a profound effect on me and everyone around her. She's a person of great faith, devotion, and determination. She does so much, she runs circles around us here in El Cerrito, yet has a family in Union City and a full time job in San Francisco. I just don't know how she does it all. I've never seen her ask anyone to do anything she hasn't done herself, and she is always pleasant and positive. She's an inspiration, an enabler, and a great role model."
For Thelma, the most important aspect of the ministry is prayer.
"We are trusting in God's providence," she said. "The Divine Mercy [community] is composed of sincere and faithful devotees from around the Bay Area, who operate and run all our projects by just trusting in God's providence. We faithfully believe and follow what Jesus told St. Faustina: 'The graces of My mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is — trust.' "
For more information on the foundation, write to: Divine Mercy Foundation, 11152 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530.