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A helping hand

story by Matthew Hatcher

Sister Fran Wilhelm starts each day with the rising sun. A cup of tea, a morning prayer, and a full day of work begins for the 84-year-old to whom age is but a number.

A member of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, Sister Fran has dedicated her life to helping the Owensboro area’s growing Latino community.

“Many of the adults can speak only the most basic of English phrases,” she says.

That is where Sister Fran comes in.

“She has made it easy for life to us in this community,” Augustina Morales says as the nun visits her small apartment. “Without her, so many would be lost.”

Acting as a translator is only one way Sister Fran helps. There is a high demand for cheap labor, but it is often abused. She and others who work at Centro Latino help people find jobs and make sure they are treated fairly.

“It is very disappointing,” Sister Fran says in a faint voice. “But there are those people that feel they can take advantage of these people and pay them little and sometimes even nothing.”

Sister Fran’s heart holds a special place for the Latino community, because she spent nine years working as a nun in South America.

When she came to Owensboro in 2008, she saw the living conditions many families were forced to deal with.

“My first time I went with Father Shonis to visit a Mexican family living in a one-room house and was shocked to see that all eight of them slept side by side on the living room floor,” she said. “It was then that I decided I could do something about it.”

Since then, the Centro Latino has grown to serve more than 500 families in five counties, providing all kinds of assistance, from transportation to doctors’ offices to marriage counseling.

“What is important is that we could help make life easier for these people,” Sister Fran says. “It still will be hard, but now its not impossible.”

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Sister Fran's schedule can change at any time. "There's been instances where I've had to drop everything I was doing to take someone to Louisville for a doctors appointment," she says.

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Sister Fran Wilhelm's typical day involves driving around Owensboro to visit Latino families and assist them in situations that they cannot handle alone because of a language barrier. "You can see I get my exercise every day," she says.

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"Many of the Latino families in this community have a hard time getting around because either they don't have a car or they can't leave their children at home alone." Sister Wilhelm helps families who can't get to the grocery store keep food in their pantries.

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Sister Fran Wilhelm takes a moment before evening Mass to chat with Maria Reyes (left) and Eutimia and Leoule Carrillo (right) on her front porch at the Centro Latino in Owensboro. Maria, who speaks limited English, had come for help filling out paperwork to apply for food stamps.

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Owensboro's Latino community often faces obstacles that stem from a difficulty to communicate. Many individuals who come to the Centro Latino need paperwork translated, and Sister Fran helps a man read his job application.

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Sister Fran Wilhelm remains heavily involved in the Owensboro community and the workings of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.

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"It has been so wonderful how much people have given to the Centro Latino," Sistern Fran Wilhelm says. "Everything here has been donated or gifted to us." Much of the donated items such as this rosary have been brought back or sent from South America.

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Sister Fran Wilhelm crosses herself upon entering the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center, a nonprofit organization founded by the Ursuline Sisters in 1983.