Miami’s Theatine Sisters have dedicated four decades to the formation of preschoolers in Catholic faith and values
MIAMI | When Araceli Marín was looking for a day care center for her eldest son, someone recommended the “nuns” in southwest Miami, where she lives. When she and her husband visited the day care, they liked the environment so much that they did not mind waiting a year to register their son, because there were no vacancies.
Her son graduated from the Theatine Sisters Day Care two years ago and is now in second grade. Her other son, now 3, started attending a year and a half ago. The youngest already knew the sisters because he went to his brother’s activities, Marín said. On the first day of school, “he was so excited, he came in and said, ‘bye mommy’ and went inside.”
“Day care is more than educational teaching; it is teaching love of God, love of family and friends, because they make beautiful friendships. I am fascinated by their education,” said Marín, adding that her children “learn that discipline very easily.”
“Our center collaborates with the family in the integral education of the children with a formation in the Catholic faith; that is what distinguishes us from other institutions,” said Sister Rosario Gutiérrez, director of the day care center.
This formation is based on the charism and spirituality of the Theatines’ founder, Mother Ursula Benincasa, whose motto is, “No other rule than love.”
For 40 years, the Theatine Sisters in Miami have dedicated themselves to the formation, in Catholic faith and values, of several generations of preschool children. Many of the children do not continue a Catholic education but receive life-long values and learn to love God. Most of the children who attend the day care were recommended by family or friends or are younger siblings of graduates.
Early learning is vital for children, “because the foundations are laid in early childhood for the child’s development in all areas: spiritual, cognitive, social and emotional,” said Sister Rosario.
The sisters teach them “the sense of family; it feels like a family, like an extension of the home,” said Angelique Ruhi-López, a mother of six who sent five of her children to the day care.
The children pray every morning in the chapel that the sisters have in their home and learn from an early age to pray for their intentions and to reinforce Catholic values, she added.
“They also learned the basics, the alphabet, the numbers, but for me and my husband and many of my friends who have sent our children there, the most important thing at first is to socialize and reinforce the values. Because they can learn the letters, but I think you should learn values and how to treat others from a very young age, whether they are adults or children,” said Ruhi-López.
María Alejandra Rivas, who coordinates social media for the Archdiocese of Miami, recalls that she learned to respect what belongs to others. The sisters taught her to “look but do not touch,” and now she teaches it to her godchildren, who also attended the day care.
The center offers a bilingual education, but most parents are interested in having their children learn or reinforce their Spanish, said Sister Rosario, since they will learn English when they enter kindergarten.
The Theatines incorporate the family into their activities. “I loved going there for Christmas, when they did a pastorela (a shepherds’ play) with all the children,” said Vivian Alzola, mother of a 5-year-old girl who attended the day care until last March.
Alzola would help with some celebrations like Thanksgiving, which were held in the center’s courtyard. “The children always put on a nice show, a dance or a song, depending on their age, and the parents also participated,” she said.
Last March, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Miami Dade County schools and childcare centers closed for three months. In June, when the day care center informed Marín that it was open, she was not sure about sending her child.
But the lockdown affected her younger son the most, Marín said. “There was constant fighting at home, raising our voices, screaming, throwing things, and we are not like that,” so she decided to enroll him in July.
Marín said the fear that her son might catch the coronavirus at day care is always on her mind, but she brings him to keep the children in healthy mental shape. “There is a risk. There is always a risk if you leave your home and go to visit someone else,” she said.
Her family has remained isolated, not visiting or receiving visits even from their closest relatives. Yet she feels very safe taking her child to the Theatine Sisters’ day care because “the nuns live in the center. They are religious and they live for God. They do not go out for visits and they know they have to care for our children. There are not that many children, and that gives me more confidence,” she said. In addition, “children miss that togetherness, the friendship of their peers, the socialization.”
Marín said she has seen a big change in her son’s behavior since he returned to the day care; he is a happy boy again.
COVID-19 has changed a very important facet of the Theatines’ day care. Before, the doors of the center were always open to parents. “You could go and see your children playing with other children, sharing with their teachers, with the nuns,” Marín said. Now, parents must arrive wearing a mask and cannot stay to talk.
For Sister Rosario, what has changed the most is the direct contact with the children. “You have to maintain a certain distance. You cannot be in front of them without the mask. The physical contact is not the same.”
Activities have also changed, and there is more distance between the children when they are sitting at the tables. Eight children attended the summer camp that normally would enroll 15 to 20 children.
The coronavirus also put an end to family activities, such as birthday celebrations, Hispanic Day, Christmas, or Father’s or Mother’s Day, in which grandparents, uncles and older siblings participated.
The day care also has reinforced hygiene measures that the children have always been taught. Now they emphasize the cleaning of shoes. When they arrive, “they clean their shoes on a canvas we have with bleach and then they go straight to wash their hands,” said Sister Rosario.
In the washing area, the children have a small picture displaying the process of washing their little hands. The children know “that if you are going to pee-pee, well then, wash your hands; if you are going to eat, well then, wash your hands; if you came in from the yard, wash your hands,” said Sister Rosario.
“Those of us who know that the center is there are blessed, but I think that those who don’t know it, should know,” said Marín.