WATERLOO — A Waterloo-born Roman Catholic nun who has headed a Latino outreach and support organization in Hampton for more than five years has been elected to head the Northeast Iowa congregation of her religious order.
Sister Carmen Hernandez, a native of Waterloo and graduate of Columbus High School and the University of Northern Iowa, has been elected president of the 100-member Dubuque congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation.
She has been executive director of La Luz Hispana, a Latino outreach and support organization in Hampton in Franklin County for several years. She is marking her 35th anniversary as a Presentation sister this year.
It’s a “bittersweet” development, said Hernandez, 60. “I had a lot of soul searching because of this ministry,” she said, referring to La Luz Hispana. “I love this ministry, obviously. It was our dream when we started this eventually we would turn it over to the people. It’s probably a good time to try and hand it over ... and see that it thrives.”
La Luz is a place where Hampton’s growing Latino population can meet and take part in various programs. She and associate director Sister Maura McCarthy, who is retiring, have received considerable support from agencies and local businesses in reaching out and supporting the local Latino community with services and employment.
Meanwhile, she said, “I’m excited about the opportunity” to head the Presentation order locally and continue its programs and service principally within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque in the northeast quadrant of Iowa. Internationally, the order is made up of some 2,500 women worldwide.
Hernandez grew up in the City View area of Waterloo’s east side and her family attended St. John’s Catholic Church, where she also went to grade school.
She said her parents and grandparents “had great respect for the sisters and priests, and we were always encouraged to get involved and volunteer” as a family. “My father and mother identified with their faith and were very involved in the church, and we were expected to do that too, in school.” She said her late father kidded her that it was more fun cleaning house at the nuns’ residence than at home.
A nun at St. John’s, Sister Mary Kay Nicolay, approached Hernandez when she was in the seventh grade about considering the sisterhood. “At first you say, ‘No way!’ But she planted the thought in my mind.”
Hernandez graduated from Columbus High in 1976. There, she competed on the school’s first girls basketball team under legendary coach Mel Kupferschmid. She also played at UNI. After graduating from UNI, she taught school for a year in Osage before deciding to enter the convent.
Hernandez said she will continue working with the Latino population as part of her new duties. Her ministry has deepened her own identification with that community, being half Latino herself. The indigenous Latino population was much smaller in Waterloo during her growing-up years in the 1960s and ‘70’s. She recalled, on a trip to Chicago years ago, she was told, “you need to stay here and work with your people.”
“I never forgot that,” she said.
Hernandez will be formally installed as president June 3, and she will be based in Dubuque. She is assisting in the search to fill Sister McCarthy’s and her positions while preparing for her new duties.