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Where are they now?
Richard Ruiz shares his vision and it benefiting a group of nuns

So many Kansas Citians of Hispanic and Latino descent make their mark on the KC metro area in a big way, whether it’s helping underserved individuals and families in nonprofit organizations, or acting as a diverse voice in city government. And while many stay here throughout their career, others feel a calling to serve elsewhere. Kansas City Hispanic News is proud to offer a new series profiling some of the city’s biggest movers and shakers, honoring the work they have done in the past and looking at how they are shaping the future. Where are they now? We’re here to answer that question.

Leave it to Richard Ruiz to be able to breathe life into a cemetery.

The Kansas Citian, long known throughout the community as a visionary and one of the founders of El Centro Inc. in Kansas City, Kan., is also a familiar face in the Catholic community of Kansas City, Kansas and in San Antonio, Texas, where he divides his time these days, having retired from EL Centro several years ago. Ruiz’ resume is a document that tells the story of a life of service – service to the Kansas City Council as a councilman; to the Bank of Labor as a Board of Trustees member; to several other nonprofits that have benefitted from his generosity, time, and knowledge; and even to his children and grandchildren.

Now, he spends countless weeks working with a team of nuns and a sales staff on a very special project.

In San Antonio, Ruiz has long had his sights focused on a small group of nuns – women who have witnessed his passion for his community and his passion for Christ. Now, as general manager of the Resurrection Cemetery at Cordi-Marian, he has not only expanded the final resting place for so many departed followers of Christ; he has created around it a community where the Sisters of Cordi-Marian themselves can live throughout their golden years, as well as welcome others into their faith. In addition to a larger cemetery, the efforts of Ruiz and the sisters have blossomed into a green, lush campus lined with religious statuary, an Immaculate Heart of Mary chapel, and the centerpiece – a sprawling retreat center that can host groups of people. The center is open to host retreats for numerous churches, religious groups and civic organizations.

For the sisters themselves? An expanded dormitory and bathing facility are on the horizon; they already have a swimming pool … yes, a swimming pool … an addition to which the sisters originally objected, citing the vow of poverty that has guided their religious lives for decades. Though the sisters initially objected to such a luxury, Ruiz convinced them to approve the pool when they discovered it was ADA-accessible, with a device to help assist the nuns with entering the pool. It was, the sisters would soon find, a form of therapy, designed to help keep them active as they age.

“I could envision this campus of beautiful buildings and activity, where we could keep people coming back,” Ruiz recalls of the early days of his involvement in trying to develop the cemetery into a campus that would honor the dead but also serve the living. “That’s where the Holy Spirit was working.”

Humble beginnings

Though the history of the Sisters of Cordi-Marian can be traced back to 1921 in Mexico, it was already a well-established religious order when Sister Matilda Jamie, now an assistant at the cemetery, was assigned to the San Antonio facility as a young girl. The year was 1960.

In San Antonio, there existed only one building on the grounds in those days – a structure Sister Matilda and the six other trainees referred to as “the mansion,” a six-bedroom dorm with bunk beds.

“There was nothing else out here,” Sister Matilda says. “There was a two-lane country road, a gas station about a mile away.”

Two years after she arrived in San Antonio for her training, one of the older sisters died and was buried in the public cemetery in town. That, of course, didn’t sit well with the other sisters in the order, who had always had in the back of their minds an intention to develop a cemetery. There was ample room on which to develop it – the sisters had previously paid $60,000 for 85 acres several miles outside of town.

“She was buried with the intent of exhuming the body and burying her here,” Sister Matilda explains. “The cemetery originally was only one acre.”
Kansas City, here they come

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Kansas, a young man named Richard Ruiz was working hard to establish a nonprofit organization that would address the many needs of the metro area’s growing Hispanic population.

Father Ramon Gaitan, a friend of the order, dispatched the Cordi Marian Sisters to Kansas City to assist with the fledgling organization, El Centro, founded in 1976 with a $10,000 grant from the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas. Sister Matilda arrived in Kansas City two years later, in 1978.

“Most of us were Spanish-speaking, and we knew the language and the culture of the Hispanic community,” she recalls. “Father Ramon was a great friend to the sisters, and he felt we would be a great asset to El Centro because of its mission. Richard was one of the founders of El Centro, and he was working in mental health but supervising the work at El Centro.”

Most of the work the sisters took on in Kansas City was focused on aiding migrant workers.

“There was a great number of migrant workers in Kansas City, and we were helping with their needs – health, food, transportation, translation, all of that,” Sister Matilda says. “Their living facilities were deplorable. Once, we went to visit some of them, and they lived in a barn. Cardboard walls separated families living in the barn.”

The sisters held a Mass there, a seemingly small service that the migrant families saw as a great act of generosity.

“They were so grateful, so happy,” Sister Matilda says, adding that the families pitched in to feed the nuns afterward. “You could see it in their faces. They were happy that we were sharing Mass with them and sharing their meal with them.”

Pleased with the budding relationship between the sisters and KC’s migrant community, Ruiz tapped Sister Matilda to start a migrant tutorial program, in which the sisters would tutor migrant children in English, math, and other subjects after school.

In 1989, the order sent Sister Matilda back to San Antonio; her efforts were needed there as the order faced a sharp decline in new nuns joining the flock.

“Our numbers were dwindling down and we were getting older,” she says. “Younger sisters were needed more urgently. We had to reorganize the whole group. Many facilities in that chapter closed due to inactivity. … Whenever something gets smaller, you get sad. We’re not supposed to get smaller. We’re supposed to get bigger. For us, it was a sad day.”

Power in persistence

For all of the change taking place, the sisters could still count on Richard Ruiz, one of the few constants in a world with fewer nuns. As the years and decades passed, Ruiz eventually began making regular trips down to San Antonio to apprise the sisters remaining in San Antonio of El Centro’s progress.

“Every year I would go down and give a report on what the sisters (in Kansas City) were doing, and I wanted to make sure the sisters would stay with us,” Ruiz explains. “This had been going on for 30-some years.”

It didn’t take Ruiz very long to notice something – the humble, small cemetery had great big potential for growth.

“Early on, I paid attention to their little, one-acre cemetery. It was just for the sisters and their family members,” Ruiz says. “We had discussions, and I encouraged them to expand that cemetery and open it to the public. They just blew me off.”

Ruiz would go on to retire from El Centro in 2000, but his relationship with the sisters and their order would only continue to grow. At the center of that relationship was the one-acre cemetery – and Ruiz wasn’t about to give up on it.

“I had to sell them on the idea that it would be a wonderful part of their overall mission, to help people who were mourning the death of a loved one,” Ruiz says.

Convincing the sisters to approve the expansion of the cemetery was only the first step in a journey that would take plenty of man hours, money, and prayer.

“People had been telling us to think about expanding our cemetery,” Sister Matilda says. “Richard had a lot of vision. He had an idea for this area to grow into something, but I don’t think he had any idea of what it would become.”