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From shepherding faithful in Lathrop to President of her congregation in Fremont

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In the back of this building is one of Fremont’s best-kept secrets, a park-like garden where trees, many of which are hundreds of years old, can be found on the property of the Sisters of the Holy ...


POSTED January 28, 2014 1:34 a.m.

Editor’s note: The Bulletin will occasionally catch up with people that were once high profile in the community to see what they are doing now.

For many years, the name Sister Gladys Guenther was synonymous with Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Lathrop.

To the members of the congregation, she was simply Sister Gladys, SHF. The letters stand for Sisters of the Holy Family in the San Francisco Bay area with the Motherhouse located in Fremont.

She was the person who laid the foundation of the multi-purpose building that is currently being used as a place of worship on Cambridge Drive, just a block north of Louise Avenue. She was the church leader who went before the Lathrop Planning Commission and the Lathrop City Council during public hearings, and the one who met with the city planners and building officials to obtain all the permits that were needed before the first nails were driven into 4x4s. She was the indefatigable, no-nonsense shepherd of the small mission church who dealt with contractors whom she and church leaders in the building committee interviewed and made arrangements with to get the construction work under way.

While doing all that, she handled the spiritual needs of the faithful in Lathrop, conducting religious classes, meetings, and a slew of other religious programs and activities in the two-story home where she lived just a stone’s throw away from the present church which was then just a vacant lot. Before the building was completed, Sunday worship services were alternately held at Lathrop Elementary School on Fifth Street and at the Union Hall on Louise Avenue just east of McKinley Avenue.

During her watch, church membership grew rapidly. So much so that in 2002, during her 10th year at the still unnamed Catholic congregation in Lathrop – at that time, it was considered as a mission church of St. George’s Parish in south Stockton – Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton made the historic move of officially declaring the church in Lathrop as Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. He dedicated the diocese’s newest parish in the new multi-purpose church building aptly on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patroness of the Americas, on Dec. 12, 2002.

That red-letter event in the history of the Catholic Church in Lathrop also marked the end of Sister Gladys’ decade-long and untiring service to the faithful who lived in San Joaquin County’s youngest incorporated city. Since Our Lady of Guadalupe was now a parish, it needed a pastor to lead the growing congregation. Father Dean McFalls was appointed by the bishop as the first pastor of Lathrop’s new parish. The two-story residential house where Sister Gladys stayed during her 10-year tenure in Lathrop was sold after the multi-purpose building was completed, and she went back to her order’s Motherhouse in Fremont.

Father Dean late last year resigned as pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Stockton where he was assigned after serving Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lathrop. He announced his resignation at the same time that he made the announcement that he has fathered a boy who was born just before Thanksgiving last year. Currently serving as our Lady of Guadalupe’s pastor is Father Narciso Naranjo.

Sister Gladys 10 years later

Almost 10 years to the day after shepherding the faithful in Lathrop, Sister Gladys is once again busy leaving her mark in the service of God and the marginalized as president of her congregation, the Sisters of the Holy Family (SHF) in Fremont. She is now in her second term as president, with two years left of her second four-year tenure.

As religious congregations go, SHF is a small congregation. Currently, their total membership is just 80. At its peak in the 1960s, the number was close to 200. But what makes them a bigger and stronger group is their associate program.

“Associates are a way for us to have our charism” and to support the ministry work that they do, Sister Gladys explained.

Their congregation, which was founded in 1872 in San Francisco, has been a vital part of the communities where they live and serve. These communities include Fremont where they have their Motherhouse, and others in the Oakland Diocese. In October last year, for example, SHS sisters were recognized for their “continuing work to end human trafficking.” They have also received a lot of press coverage for their work on immigration reform. For three weeks in September and October last year, the sisters were “engaged in prayer, fasting and action aimed at urging Congress to fix our broken immigration system,” Sister Gladys was quoted as saying to the news media in one newspaper interview.

In the same interview, she explained that their position on immigration is “an extension of what ‘we have always done – serving and caring for immigrant populations’.”

The sisters’ ministry is simply a continuation of the type of work that they started out doing in the 1880s when their foundress served Italian families and children in North Beach in San Francisco. Today, their work extends to the Kmhmu, Hispanic farm workers, other immigrant groups and people who are marginalized. Their work goes along with their mission “to seek out and advocate for the poor and needy, especially families, for the Kingdom of God.”

Outside of their spiritual works, the sisters are also “blessed to be stewards” of the more than 400 trees that add to the historical beauty and park-like setting of the Motherhouse property at 159 Washington Boulevard near Mission Jose in Fremont. The trees are actually the “longest residents of the Motherhouse property,” not the sisters, according to the congregation’s official web site. “Our Monterey Cypress, although not indigenous to this area, is estimated to be more than 300 years old and was probably planted by the Franciscan Missionaries.”

Unfortunately, an arborist that they consulted after some trees fell during the winter two years ago determined that 41 of the 470 statuesque trees were dead and needed to be removed. Working along with City of Fremont regulations, the sisters are now in the process of removing those dead trees. Their removal is being done in two phases during a two-year period. At the same time, also in keeping with city regulations, the sisters have to “replace 20 trees of significant stature... over the same course of time.”

The sisters welcome any donation to help them in the tree removal and replacement project. Estimated total cost for the removal, purchase and planting of the trees is $65,000. A donation of $40 will help alleviate the cost of removing the dead trees. For the expense of replacing one tree, a donation of $400 will significantly help defray the cost involved.

“It’s quite ambitious,” Sister Gladys said of the “whole idea of sustainability” that they are trying to do is preserve what she calls a historical treasure in the city of Fremont.

Among the major challenges that the sisters are also facing involve their Motherhouse. One of them is to develop housing that is age-appropriate for the sisters, “like an assisted-living facility,” Sister Gladys explained. The convent was built “for young women,” she said. “There were many stairs but no elevators – all kinds of things not appropriate for old people.”

They also downsizing. They are selling five acres of the property, an area that happens to contain the Motherhouse building “which is (a) too big, and (b) over 50 years old,” Sister Gladys explained.

“We’d still own 2.6 acres down here. We are going to live in the new cottages – three cottages – that we’re going to put on the property,” she added.

The congregation also has other properties such as a mobile home in Lodi and others in Oakland and San Leandro where some of the congregation sisters live and are doing their ministries.

She moved to California because her father was in the military

Born in upstate New York, Sister Gladys and her family moved to California because her father was in the military. Her father was a colonel in the Medical Service Corps. His last tour of duty was at the Presidio in San Francisco. After finishing her high school in Washington, D.C., she came out to California to go to college. She first attended San Francisco City College. She then transferred to San Francisco State University where she studied social science majoring in history and political science. Right after graduation, at age 21, she felt called by God and joined the Sisters of the Holy Family.

“That’s what people did back then. I’ve always felt that I’ve been able to do more as a (sister),” said Sister Gladys who has three younger siblings, one brother and two sisters. One lives in Fairfield and two live in Washington state.

Sister Gladys worked for the Diocese of Stockton for 20 years – 10 years at Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the remaining 10 at St. Edward’s Church in Stockton.

For more information about the Sisters of the Holy Family, call (510) 624-4500 or visit The Motherhouse is located at 159 Washington Blvd., Fremont.

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