Sunday, 17 May 2020 15:53

‘I know I am where I am supposed to be, and it was God who brought me here.’

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How Regina Villafuerte’s beautiful voice, amazing musical talents, and her trust in God brought her from Mexico to Effingham

EFFINGHAM — If you were to make the drive between San Juan del Rio, in the State of Querétaro, in Mexico to Effingham, your journey would encompass 1,787 miles and it would take you 28 hours — without stopping. That’s how far away 29-year-old Regina Villafuerte is from where she was born. Villafuerte’s amazing journey from Mexico to Effingham can only be described as providential. Villafuerte has been the director of music at St. Anthony of Padua for about a year now (she is currently working on her R-1 Visa: religious worker — she can only work for St. Anthony Parish). Since her arrival, her charm, commitment to the Catholic faith, and musical talents are bringing a whole new dynamic to St. Anthony Parish.

Catholic Times Editor Andrew Hansen sat down with Villafuerte to discuss her incredible journey, how Effingham wasn’t first on her list, what it has been like living in America, and how grateful she is to the people of Effingham.

Tell us about your upbringing, from your family life and school to your dreams as a child?

I had a very happy childhood. Ever since I can remember, I have always been a very creative and sensitive person, the artistic type. I went to school in San Juan from kindergarten up to eighth grade. You could always find me either singing, drawing, dressing up, acting or playing the keyboard. My mom tells me the story that when I was very little, I would go to Emilia, our housekeeper, and ask her to feed me a taco and, in return, I would sing the Ave Maria. Some foreshadowing going on, I guess. I would sing with my dad all the time; singing is a very common part of our Mexican culture, and we would always do it for fun. My dad has a beautiful voice and he also plays the guitar, so together we would harmonize traditional folk songs and some religious hymns. When I was in ninth grade, my parents, my sister and I moved to Toronto, Canada. We lived there for four years until it was time to move back home. During those four years I was able to discover, with the help of my voice teacher, Laura Pilarski, an interesting opera voice that I kept training over time, and I learned the language.

My family and I have been part of the Catholic Church for generations. My mom was a catechist before and after she got married, and my dad contemplated for some time becoming a priest, but his vocational leader, Father Santos, told him that the world is also very much in need of Christian families, and so he chose married life.

Lucky me!

I began singing and playing at the daily evening Mass at the Chapel of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Querétaro City. There, I met the Sisters of the Poor, Servants of the Sacred Heart, and eventually we became very close. They invited me to be the cantor and accompanist at their convent in Querétaro. I was being called so insistently by God at that time that I thought he was calling me to become a nun at their congregation. Little did I know that he had other beautiful plans for me. I was a cantor, organist and music coordinator of a few parishes in Querétaro throughout the past 10 years.

When and how did you get involved in music?

My dad worked as the administrator at Sacred Heart Parish in Querétaro City. I would go with him every day. The pastor asked me to sing at the daily evening Mass at the small chapel of the parish, until the pastor was reassigned to another parish outside of the city.

Working in Mexico never pays fair and a workday is usually 12 hours long, with only a day off during the week. Finding a job that matches your professional qualifications is nothing but a dream for most people. Professional education is too expensive to afford. Money is an issue in Mexico. Most people will take any job they can to pay for everyday food. Being a professional artist or a musician in Mexico will definitely not pay the bills for many who try it.

After some time, I looked for some jobs to help out at home. On the same day I was accepted to voluntarily sing and play the organ at the Friday evening Mass at the Immaculate Conception Parish, I got a call back from the manager at the ice cream shop that was hiring. He would not let me get out of work for an hour on Friday evenings to go to Mass, so I decided to turn down the job. God always gave me a choice.

That Friday evening Mass became the seed that led me into my musical journey. Little by little, I started playing and singing at more and more Masses, and eventually, I was offered to be the coordinator of music at the parish. I continued to prepare professionally outside of the parish from there.

Describe the joy you have when singing and playing.

Practicing to me resembles to going on a journey; discovering the piece and letting the spirit free; finding where the composer meant to take us. There’s much learning, and I love the creative process. Singing, playing or conducting is taking the congregation and/or the choir on this journey, inviting them to sense the presence of God within them and around them, lovingly delivering the message of God through the music, and guiding the spirits in the assembly, along with the presider, assistants and religious symbols, to the ultimate sacrifice at every Mass: the Eucharist.

How did you ultimately land a job in Effingham and were you looking to work in America?

One day I decided I needed a change. I was living at my small apartment in Querétaro City with my two adorable kittens. My calling happened in the midst of a personal crisis. In my heart, there was always the yearning for something more. I decided to give up my kittens, I ended the relationship with my then- boyfriend, I sold a couple of my belongings, including my beautiful piano that had been a special gift from my dad, and everything else, I donated. Suddenly, I was back at my parents’ house. I went online looking for music jobs outside of the State of Querétaro. I looked for jobs in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey, but no luck. Then, somehow, my search expanded to Chicago and Houston. It’s hard to explain, but in my heart, there has always been the subtle yet persistent dream to live in the United States.

I became determined to find a job as a musician at a church in America. My parents supported me from the very start, but they knew it would be difficult. So, I updated my resume and sent about 15 copies to different parishes throughout the country. I heard back from San Francisco, Dallas and Boston saying that the position had been filled.

Then, a few days after sending those resumes, you got an email from Father Chuck Edwards at St. Anthony Parish in Effingham.

He said, “I’m trying to get ahold of you. Please contact me.” We talked on the phone a few times and he explained the situation at St. Anthony, and I explained mine. He interviewed me over the phone. During these calls, I would get extremely nervous trying to get the words right — I had not spoken English in a few years — but I really wanted to communicate to Father that I wanted the job with all my heart. He asked me if I wanted to wait for the parish’s final decision over the phone or if I wanted to visit Effingham to meet him, the staff, and the community in person. The money I had received for my dad’s piano helped to pay for this trip. During that visit at the parish center, God’s calling was definite and clear as I was playing on the piano that’s in what was my office-to-be at the time. I had tears of joy in my eyes and I answered, “Yes, my Lord.”

Back at the airport in Mexico, I was holding the signed contract as the director of music at St. Anthony Parish.

The petition (legal process) took an additional six months to be approved. In the meantime, I could not take a job, so I stayed at home with my parents.

How often do you go back to Mexico?

I have not gone back to Mexico since I got here, but my parents and my sister have visited me a few times. My parents visited me in February for my birthday. My plan is to visit Mexico in the summer to renew any papers at the American Embassy.

What has it been like living in America?

Overall, it has all been a blessing from that first email from Father Edwards. I know I am where I am supposed to be, and it was God who brought me here. Every day there is a new lesson that God offers me to learn, from adapting with patience to acceptance of myself and of others, as well as lessons in leadership and constant humility. Living alone in a small town far from where I was born can be challenging if there’s a lack of motivation. God keeps inviting me to accept this commitment with all my heart and with all my love. This is my mission, and this is my everyday motivation.

How has the Catholic community in Effingham welcomed you?

I am so grateful to the community of Effingham for welcoming me with so much love. There has not been a time since I got here where I have felt lonely or uncared for. To list a couple of examples, my landlords, after having met me just a few minutes, were so kind to hold my apartment from renting during the wait for the petition to be approved. Let’s just say that I am debt-free from all the expenses from starting a new life here. God has pampered me so much through the many spiritual and material gifts from my new friends and the community that it would be a total neglect to doubt his existence.

Do you hope to stay in America, become a citizen, and live in America permanently?

If it’s God’s will, yes. If it’s not God’s will, then no.

What do you love about America that Mexico doesn’t have and what do you miss about Mexico that America doesn’t have, not counting your family?

America is the land of the free! What a gift it is to be what you want to be. I am most grateful for the chance to have music be all three: my mission, my profession, and my hobby. Mexico struggles with justice and honesty still, but I love my nation — the food, the music, the sights and the joy of the people!

God has blessed you with amazing musical talents. How does it make you feel that you can glorify God through those talents and use them at Mass?

Experiencing the love of God has been the most humbling and extraordinary feeling of them all. I am honored to be called to make music for the Lord, I am not afraid when he leads my life. I feel capable of doing anything he tells me to do, but with him only. Any sound I make when I sing or when I play is only worthy if it speaks of God to others. I have found my calling and my vocation in music. Every note feels like God is embracing me with his loving arms.