You Must Have Loved Very Much

Celebrating the life of Maria “Ile” Pereira, regional director of the Focolare in Los Angeles and the Dominican Republic

By T. M. Hartmann

A joyful, balanced, reflective, tenacious and prudent spirit, Maria “Ile” Pereira, Focolare regional director, died July 5 in Los Angeles. In a climate of profound peace, her tranquil passage was accompanied by Eletta Fornaro, Sharry Silvi and the focolarine of her community.

“Her generosity was striking, and so was the joy with which she gave,” said Marliese Becker, who has now taken on Ile’s position in Los Angeles. “She gave everything.”

Ile (pronounced “ee-lay” and short for “Ilare,” or “joy”) was only 58, having suffered an aggressive form of cancer first diagnosed in February. During the surgery and chemotherapy that followed, she was continually supported by the local and global community, prompting one doctor to note, “You are surrounded by so much love—we can tell you must have loved very much.”

At her request, she was buried at Mariapolis Luminosa, the Focolare’s North American center in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Ile was able to live her illness and death collectively, allowing others intimate access to her suffering and her identification with the forsaken Jesus (see Mt 27:46). The local community drew close to her, and she inspired many around her to live their lives fully. The way she lived is a trove of experience for the worldwide Focolare community.

When her condition worsened, Ile wrote to Chiara Lubich on June 22, “I said a new ‘yes’ with all of my heart and soul.”

Chiara wrote back: “Thank you for your faithfulness, for your self-giving, for your offering for the Movement. May Mary our mother reward you, be near you and accompany you in this important moment of your holy journey.”

On August 6 the Focolare community of the Dominican Republic—where Ile lived for 15 years—came together in Santo Domingo for a ceremony during which the Mariapolis Center’s main hall was named after her. Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez and Bishop Tomas Abreu of Mao-Monte Cristi later celebrated Mass in memory of Ile in the oldest cathedral of the Americas.

Child of the Americas

Ile was born Maria Antonia Pereira on January 8, 1948, in Santiago, Cuba. She was the oldest of three sisters. When she was fourteen, she and her four-year-old sister were the first of her family to emigrate to the United States, where an aunt, a Salesian sister, lived.

“I was suddenly faced with the reality of suffering, of being alone in a strange country without family or friends, without knowing the language or having material possessions,” she said.

“Suddenly, all of my dreams collapsed — I felt I had grown up in a day.”

Her parents and younger sister would follow three months later. The family moved from city to city trying to settle, and for the first year her mother was terribly homesick. Yet this was a time during which Ile felt close to God and confided in God often.

Things gradually improved for the family, but at a price. “In the same measure that things started to go well, I started to forget about God,” she said. Eventually, she had everything she wanted — enjoyable work, night studies, even a new Mustang.

She felt anxious, however, as she began to ask deeper questions within. She always had a great love for freedom and truth, but became disillusioned with the realities of society and the way people treated each other.

“Is it possible that one day I will die and there will be nothing left?” she asked herself. “I had found that a new car could make me happy for a few days, a party for a few hours. I wanted much more out of life.”

A Mariapolis — a Focolare summer gathering — provided an outlet for her yearnings. Although she had been to other similar gatherings, this time she felt ready to participate without reservation. Upon her arrival, she remembered telling Jesus, “Here I am, ready to do whatever you want from me.”

When one of the workshops at the Mariapolis consisted in going door to door in the local town to invite people to an evening program, she initially shied away, but then she remembered her promise. “For the first time, I was loving with a pure love … something I wouldn’t have done for anyone else but God,” she said.

Ile made a wonderful discovery that week: she realized God’s personal love and generosity for her. “It struck me like lightning what all these people were trying to do, to work so that ‘all may be one’ (Jn 17:21). For a moment I understood the greatness of this undertaking, a revolution of love that could change the whole world, and I wanted to be part of it.”

She decided to dedicate her life to God through the Focolare and moved to New York in 1974, where she joined a household of other young women aiming to deepen their knowledge and experience of Focolare life. The following year she left for Loppiano, the little city of the Focolare in Italy, to continue her training program.

Ile returned to the U.S. in 1977. Because of her balanced, stable personality and talent, she was eventually asked to head focolare households in Boston, Washington and Toronto before opening a focolare in the Dominican Republic. She transferred to the Los Angeles community in 2001.

Living Together, Dying Together

Sharry Silvi tells of the exceptional experience of unity, she lived with Ile Pereira during her final days.

By Sharry Silvi

There were three of us coming from Rome for her. We arrived in Los Angeles at 2 a.m. As I expected, I was told Ile’s health was rapidly deteriorating. I saw this with my own eyes a few hours later when I was able to visit her in the hospital.

Yet how wonderful it was to see each other again. After a lifetime of joys and sufferings, successes and failures, lived together with a common purpose to work for unity, words were not necessary! We would now live together this part of our journey. Only God knew who would “depart” first.

And together it was. She shared the depth of her love of God in her readiness to do his will. “When and how he wants to take me,” she would say.

The present moment was hers to live well! Doctors’ visits, precious moments when she received the Eucharist, friends and relatives frequently stopping by. Moments of pain, relief, long nights, diminishing strength. Moments of fear, hope, faith. Her luminous smile, filling in the gap between words.

We rejoiced for our vocation in life. She affirmed her lifelong faithfulness to Jesus Forsaken, which I had witnessed personally. It was about love, life, death, paradise, mainly paradise, because of Jesus present among us.

“Whatsoever you do to the least you do it to me.…” (Mt 25:40) Ile had loved the presence of Christ in many people, and he seemed to be loving her back now through many others.

Then the moment came to bring her home to die. Ile could no longer speak or open her eyes, but we knew she could hear us.

Home meant the focolare household where she had lived for years. We prepared her room well, with flowers and pictures. It opened out onto the living and dining room, and we left the door open. Familiar sounds of life around her reached her. We took turns being her eyes, describing everything that happened: who had come in after the doorbell rang, who had brought flowers, what meal was being prepared for everyone. We read all the mail she received and let her know who called for her. Day and night she shared our life, and we shared her preparation for departure. We said the morning and evening prayers with her and joined together for Mass celebrated daily in her room.

We learned to recognize her assents or denials through the slightest movement of an eyebrow or the expression on her face. A few days passed — it seemed an eternity — and then she stopped breathing. We could hardly believe it.

It was an exceptional experience of unity, of being community, in which, because of Jesus present among those who love one another, one can see how extraordinarily normal it is to suffer, rejoice, live and die together.

Ile gave us the gift of this experience, and we are forever grateful to her.

Sharry Silvi, former editor of Living City (1967–2002), presently heads the international headquarters of women focolarine in Rome. In 1961 she was part of the first small Focolare group that reached North America, where she lived and held a number of positions until 2002.

Believing in Unity First 

The decade-long collaboration of Ile Pereira and Antonio Vallejo, both in the Dominican Republic and Los Angeles

Traffic slowed on the 405 freeway that morning, providing Antonio precious time to choose his words. He would speak with Ile for perhaps the last time.

“What do I want to tell her?”

Ile Pereira and Antonio Vallejo shared paths as far back as 14 years ago, directing communities in the Dominican Republic and then in Los Angeles for the last 5 years.

The role of regional director, of which there are two for every Focolare community across the globe, can be demanding. The spiritual and working relationship between each of these women and men revolves around keeping the presence of Jesus, as promised in the Gospel, vibrant, generating life for the families, religious and young people around them.

Yet now she was already very weak, and after a period of surgery and chemotherapy, she would move forward with just pain medication.

Antonio initially thought of saying the profound and heartfelt Focolare expression, “Let’s keep Jesus in our midst.”

“Thinking back on the years,” says Antonio, “there were surely moments when we had different opinions, but I could not think of any time when this unity was broken.” Nothing seemed pending or unresolved.

Reaching her bedside, he felt free to say: “Let’s keep Jesus in the midst … as we always have.”

“Yes, let’s keep Jesus in the midst,” Ile replied.

The Pragmatist

“Life to her was about everyday things,” says Antonio, “things where you can really make a difference.” In conversation, she did not expound on world politics or American society. Her way was pragmatic, grounded, and she was someone who appreciated efficiency.

Ile is deeply loved by Focolare members in the Dominican Republic. As the country became her home, she learned to appreciate the generosity, joy and hospitality of the Dominican people. In turn, they felt loved, understood and appreciated by her 15-year presence there.

As a result of adverse social and economic conditions, blackouts frequently left entire sections of cities stranded without electricity. During gatherings and events, this meant that programs had to be changed, canceled or postponed.

“Ile learned how to depend less and less on video presentations, or even on the microphones,” remembers Antonio. “I saw in her this growth and realization that at the core of the charism of unity there is love. Everything else is secondary.”

Ile and Antonio were then asked to be regional directors in Los Angeles within the space of a year. They continued to draw on their experience as circumstances and locations changed, with more activities to think of in ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and gatherings for media professionals. “Faced with this, Ile and I both experienced, in different moments, a certain sense of inadequacy, and that’s understandable I think,” Antonio says. “But Ile knew how to turn this around. She would return to the fact that, no matter what, we could always love the neighbor next to us in the present moment. Ile helped me see the timeless truth in this.”

Antonio speaks with admiration of the way Ile lived during her final months. “She made a choice to live this experience of illness and dying not in a personal, individual way, but in a collective and communitarian way.”

In one of Antonio’s final hospital visits to Ile, together with others from his home focolare, she affirmed that she felt very much at peace and in God’s presence. Then she said to them: “I feel we are living this together, aren’t we? The whole community.”                                       —T. M. H.

The Spiritual Bouquet

The San Francisco Bay area community—together with many others—walked side by side with Ile Pereira through her final weeks.

What changes a single phone call can bring. For Chiara Luce Catipon, the energetic schoolteacher who heads the focolare house in Sunnyvale, in Northern California, that call began early one morning as she dialed Ile Pereira, her close friend and regional director in Los Angeles. She had heard that Ile had been hospitalized, and was not expecting her to pick up the phone.

What she found on the other end of the phone line she remembers as total peace, tranquility, love. “I have something to tell you,” Ile told her with her typical way of asking for something.

It turned out to be much more of a request than Chiara Luce had imagined, for after surgery and chemotherapy sessions, Ile’s tumor had reemerged, with little chance of her surviving.

“We are in God’s hands,” Ile said. “He has a plan for me and for all of you.”

After a few moments, Ile asked her if she was crying. “Even in this suffering we have to be strong for the others,” she told her.

“She was saying this with so much peace,” says Chiara Luce, “it gave me the strength to say yes.” Then Ile, almost as if not let her lose hope, told her that they could still pray for a miracle.

When Chiara Luce told the community, she saw two separate reactions. On one hand, there was the “she’s going to get better” despite all odds; on the other, the question, “what’s the point of going ahead with our plans for the upcoming Mariapolis?”

“Ile is living her present moment in the will of God,” she responded, “and we can’t say we’re one with her unless we do the same.” The group returned to preparing the Focolare summer gathering with new vigor, whether it was booking buses for people or cutting out decorations for children. “It was hard,” recalls Chiara Luce. “It’s that experience, if you just step out of it … nothing makes sense.”

They searched for ways to send Ile their love, considering sending flowers once a week.

Instead they came upon the idea of a “spiritual bouquet,” e-mailing their experiences of living the Focolare spirituality each day. They were read at Ile’s bedside.

Chiara Luce was eventually able to bring a similar “bouquet” in person, a written collection of sufferings embraced and adversities overcome. She would stay at Ile’s side through her departure, an unforgettable learning experience.

For in the way she died, Ile taught many how to live.               —T. M. H.

Reprinted with permission from Living City Magazine – Nov 2006.