DOUGLAS — For the past 34 years the Carmelite Sisters have provided spiritual and inspirational support and comfort to members of the community as well as the students and staff at Loretto Catholic School on 14th Street.

For reasons that are only being described as “God’s plan” the four Carmelite Sisters currently working in Douglas are being reassigned back to California effective July 1 and no replacements will be coming anytime soon.

Hundreds of community members, many of whom were former Loretto students, showed up last weekend to not only thank the sisters who are currently serving at Loretto — Sister Mary Joseph, Sister Gabriela, Sister Carla and Sister Caridad — but also the many others who have previously served in Douglas and were back to take part in the celebration.

A community parade was held Saturday through the streets of Douglas where residents gathered, many displaying signs of thanks while others provided gifts to the sisters.

On Sunday a lunch and dinner, courtesy of many of the Loretto parents, was provided followed by a special Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Luke’s Catholic Church on 10th Street, where an estimated 180 people attended and the sisters were honored for their years of service to Douglas and the surrounding area, receiving a standing ovation at the end by those in attendance. Bishops Gerald Kicanas and Edward Weisenburger of Tucson were in Douglas presiding over the mass. Cochise County School Superintendent, Jaqui Clay was in attendance and made a special presentation to each of the sisters, referring to them as “my sisters” while doing so.

“This is a hard time for me,” Clay would later say. “These sisters have been so supportive of what we’re doing here. They’re definitely going to be missed.”

Sister Caridad has been the principal at Loretto since 2018. She served here in a different capacity from 1997-2008.

She is being replaced by Rosella Melgoza, who prior to her retirement from the Douglas Unified School District had been the principal at Sarah Marley Elementary.

“We have been very touched by all the love shown towards us,” Sister Caridad said. “We love Douglas and we love Loretto. When we were told we were going to leave Loretto and the city of Douglas it was a sad time for us, however we know that the reason we are leaving is that there is a need for us to serve elsewhere. The Lord sends us where he wants us.”

Sister Caridad wanted it understood that Loretto is not closing; it is staying open, is vibrant and doing outstanding.

“We’re very blessed to have been here all these years,” she said. “It’s obvious the Lord has blessed our efforts. We expect that it will continue and Loretto will soon celebrate its 100-year anniversary. This school first opened in 1924. We would love to come back and celebrate that historic milestone if that is possible.”

She added it’s a joy seeing many of the former Loretto students but she wishes she was seeing them just to greet them instead of saying goodbye.

One of those former students who showed up was Alexa Pena, who graduated from Loretto in 2004 before going on to attend Douglas High School.

Pena stated she was stunned when she got the news the Carmelite Sisters were leaving Douglas.

“I was heartbroken,” she said. “I have such fond memories of this place.”

Pena managed to reconnect with Sister Mary Joseph, who taught her when she attended Loretto.

“Alexa was such a joy,” the sister said. “Her smile lit up the room. The gift of her intelligence; her friendship to others made her such a joy to be around.”

Sister Mary Joseph stated she was very touched by all the love and support everyone has shown.

“I’m seeing some people I haven’t seen in years,” she said. “This has truly been a gift.”

Sister Marina arrived in Douglas in 1988 and left in 2000. She returned this past weekend for the sendoff celebration.

“This is such a beautiful experience,” she said. “The Lord has blessed us and the people of Douglas in so many ways. This community has always been so united and very supportive of us; seeing this doesn’t really surprise me.”

Sister Marina said one special memory she is taking away from Douglas took place when she was first in Douglas.

“In 1999-2000 we had the relic of Saint Therese come and the whole community turned out,” she said. “We had a mass for about 2,000 people at the high school football field. At that time we were very cohesive and strong as a community. It’s nice to see that it has remained that throughout the years. It’s nice seeing some of the children I taught here with their children.”

According to its website, the Carmelite Sisters work in Catholic schools from California to Florida. Since arriving in Douglas in 1987, the sisters, working alongside dedicated faculty and staff, have participated in and spearheaded the spiritual, academic and emotional growth of each of the children at Loretto Catholic School.

They were brought here through the invitation of Bishop Manuel Moreno.

The Diocese of Tucson states it has been blessed to have the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles serving the people of Douglas and Agua Prieta, Sonora.

“Back in 1987, having experienced demographic changes in the community, Loretto Catholic School was on the verge of closing,” the website reads. “Bishop Moreno felt it was important to keep the school open since it was the only Catholic school in all of Cochise County at the time. The sisters tell the story that, even though Bishop Moreno invited them, ‘It was the children who brought us here. When we came to visit the school, the children were holding signs saying, ‘Please Choose Us. ’And we did.’ ”

“Just know we can always meet at the altar,” Sister Caridad said in her remarks at Sunday’s mass. “God bless you all.”