Joy in the Midst of Sorrow in Santa Maria Orphanage

This amazing priest not only housed 300 orphaned children from the streets of Mexico City, but he also took care of 20 homeless elders in his own house and started a home for children dying of AIDS. Father Norman also ran a soup kitchen that fed many people in the village.

by Judy Joy Jones

One of the most important journeys in my life began when a tiny note posted in a church grabbed my eye. The note said that a priest who directed an orphanage in Mexico badly needed help.

I immediately called the number on the note and the person who answered told me excitedly that Father Clifford Antonio Norman, the founder of Santa Maria Orphanage in Colon, Mexico, urgently needed help for his 300 children. I hung up and made plane reservations to go and meet the priest the following day.

As soon as I arrived in Mexico City, a stranger came up to me, and asked if I knew the area. We talked briefly and Ron asked if he could come with me to Santa Maria, as he had dreams of one day founding a school for homeless youth. I was extremely grateful to have a friend on the long journey, as I had never been to an orphanage in my life.

Several buses and many hours later, we arrived at the doorstep of Santa Maria Orphanage. Many young children ran up to us, grabbing our legs and pulling our arms down to them, all begging to be touched at once. They had been born or abandoned on the streets of Mexico City and never had an adult to hug and love.

I felt overwhelmed, grateful and guilty all at the same time — grateful and guilty that I had parents. I thought all kids did. My sheltered life was coming to an abrupt end. Part of me wanted to run away from what I was seeing as fast as I could, but I knew there was no turning back.

Even with 300 orphans already living at Santa Maria Orphanage, Father Antonio Norman always had an extra bed and after hugging my new friend and I, he showed us to the young people’s dorms and our beds for the night.

Some of the children were sleeping on box springs even though there were mattresses all around; but they had no adults to put them on their beds for them. They were all running up to us, trying to hand us combs for their hair, books for us to read to them — anything to be touched and loved by an adult that cares they are alive.

A young person in a wheelchair stretched out his hand towards me with a dirty cup in it. He wanted water and could not talk. Another tiny, crippled child was sitting on the floor trying to push himself around. I looked for a spare wheelchair to put him in, but could not find one.

An adorable, two-year-old boy with a huge smile named Cesar was lying on the box springs on an upper bunk bed. He was very badly crippled. I looked into his eyes and promised him I would one day find help for him. Two years later, I took a doctor to the orphanage and she took Cesar to Mexico City to a physician she knew who performed Cesar’s much-needed surgery.

I know I was guided to see young Cesar at that moment and then to meet the doctor. A woman who lived at the orphanage and helped the young children told me she had been praying around the clock for Cesar to get his much-needed operation.

Angels are constantly guiding us to answer one another’s prayers, yet it is sometimes very difficult to follow this guidance. When I do let go in pure faith, miracles abound! If I question what’s happening logically, forget it. The holy spirit whispers a beautiful song all its own in our hearts that can only be heard by those living in the moment in pure faith and letting go of fear.

Laughter and singing could be heard throughout Santa Maria’s hallways. In the midst of great suffering, great joy can be found, and these kids have it. What they don’t have are adults to hug, love and nurture them. Many have no names upon arriving. It is our parents that name us and they don’t have any. Some children have hopped freight trains to Santa Maria to escape violent families. How many frightened children have found refuge in the arms of Father Norman will never be known.

The following morning, Father Norman took me into his office and showed me a check that had just arrived. It was from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. He explained they had never before sent his orphanage any donations. Since I was doing volunteer work at Mother Teresa’s around the world, I knew I was seeing the mysteriously beautiful interwoven spiritual tapestry of our lives.

My journey with Father Clifford Antonio Norman had begun. I first visited his orphanage in 1988, and would continue until his death in 2013. He passed away on May 3, 2013, at the age of 82 at his home in Colon, Queretaro, Mexico.

I never expected to be involved with 300 orphans and a priest for over 25 years. And little did I know at the time that he would call right before he died and ask me to come and help him write his memoirs. I was not able to do so, but will always be extremely honored he asked me.

“The Mothers.” Lithograph by Kaethe Kollwitz

 

Mexico City at that time had an estimated 20 million homeless children; and Father Norman, who was in his fifties with only a dollar in his pocket, struck out all alone to house, feed and clothe, as well as educate, as many homeless children as he could before he died.

He had dreams of building big schools for his children, wanting the best for them, like any father would. But God sent him some of the most unwanted children on earth and by the time he fed, housed, clothed and hugged them nonstop, it was difficult to accomplish all of his dreams. He did build schools, but not quite the ones he had envisioned!

Father Norman said that at least once a week, he would open his front door and find the filthiest child you ever saw. Looking into his eyes, the children knew they finally had found a father.

At any given time, this amazing priest not only housed over 300 orphaned children, mostly from the streets of Mexico City, but he also took care of 20 homeless elders in his own house and had started a home for children dying of AIDS. He also ran a weekly soup kitchen that fed many people in the village.

Father called me often. His huge laugh spilled through the phone and he always asked me, “What do you want to do when you get to heaven?” He told me he wanted to play the piano! If we could measure a heart’s capacity to love, this priest’s would be off the charts!

Father Norman sent me a letter once, saying I would one day sell a painting for a million dollars! And, he said, I would then go to another country to volunteer. He loved my art and did everything possible to keep me painting. Amazing: all those kids, and caring for the forgotten elderly, and yet he never forgot to call and write me, asking about my art.

Always trying to spread the word about the needs of Santa Maria, I put a notice in a church bulletin that said: “Open Hearts and Arms Needed for 300 Orphans.” A woman called and asked what I meant by “open hearts and arms.” I tried to explain that there are some things money cannot buy — like helping to put mattresses on box springs, combing a child’s hair, reading them a book and hugging them.

Another time, Father Norman called and asked me to come see him. So I held a fundraising art event to get the money to travel to Santa Maria. More importantly, I was spreading the word about the needs of the 300 children in any and every way possible. If not you and I doing it, who will?

I have found in life that where one person leaves off, another comes in and carries on. Mother Teresa’s sisters told me of a priest in Haiti that had started an orphanage on top of a mountain for several hundred children. Sound familiar? Our journey through life continues through eternity.

I live in San Francisco, a large city where homeless people die on the concrete streets, while people walk by pretending not to notice, and pretending they don’t see them eating out of garbage cans. Without souls such as Mother Teresa and Father Norman, it would be impossible for me to deal with what I see.

There are people such as this that hear the cry of the poor. They hear the cries of the homeless, the orphans, the forgotten elderly, and then they open their arms and hearts unconditionally to them in whatever way God is asking.

Father Clifford Antonio Norman of Mexico and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India, taught me that the saying on a shirt I was given after donating blood is absolutely true. It read: “Blood is life until given, then it is love!”

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