When you enter Christo Rey cottage, you can’t help but notice the beautiful Steinway grand piano in the living room. Oh my … a generous benefactor, I thought to myself. It was my first time at Vespers and Vino at Santa Teresita. Managed by the Carmelite Sisters, Santa Teresita is an assisted living center nestled in the heart of San Gabriel Valley.
I played a few bars of a piece I remembered. The piano could use some tuning and regulating, but it still had the warm, rich, luscious sound of a Steinway. Later, I learned that it belonged to one of the residents of Santa Teresita, a graduate of Juilliard, one of the finest music conservatories in America.
Vespers and Vino, now a treasured tradition at the Order of Malta’s Los Angeles Location, was founded in 2015 by Ann Sanders, DM, who was a Provisional Member of the Order at the time. “The Little Sisters of the Poor in San Pedro had a monthly wine & cheese night,” recalled Ann, “In thinking of our charism, specifically defense of the faith, I credit the Holy Spirit for the inspiration. I thought we could adopt the idea of an evening of wine & cheese and fellowship, but also include prayer. We brainstormed with the Carmelite Sisters and Vespers and Vino came to be.”
The evening began with H.E. Michael Grace, KM, presiding over the Liturgy of the Hours. As the sunlight faded, residents, Sisters, Knights, Dames, and volunteers prayed side by side, shoulder to shoulder. A peace settled and encircled the little cottage.
After the final Amens, the party began. Provisional Rommel Valarao appointed himself bartender and began uncorking the bottles of wine contributed by the Order’s members and volunteers. Rose Marie “Rosie” Erickson, DM and charity coordinator, along with Ann Sanders, Katy Calderon, DM, and her mother brought out French macarons, chocolates, brownies, and cookies. This was the last Vespers and Vino before the summer, Rosie explained, so she wanted to make it a little more special.
I later learned there were other special evenings at Santa Teresita: St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day (resident Father Finbarr gave an impromptu lecture on Irish culture and history, and residents sang Irish ballads), and a “Malta” Gras celebration that included King Cake. There was also a special final luncheon with a Caribbean theme featuring Cubano sandwiches. I smiled to myself -- it seems every month is “special” at Santa Teresita.
Rosie, who has been managing Vino and Vespers for three years with Sister Gianna, recalled the challenges after COVID. “We started slowly, holding events outside. There were some fits and starts but we pressed on. Loneliness had set in with some of the residents because of the isolation from the pandemic. We wanted to bring back joy, renew friendships, rebuild the sense of community we had at Santa Teresita.” Not long after, the Sisters told Rosie they noticed a real difference in the residents – as their spirits were lifted, they became more hopeful.
Going forward, Rosie has other ideas to engage residents. Joining forces with Ann Farley, DM, and Keith Farley, KM, charity coordinators for the Hygiene Kits, the residents assembled 30 kits for the homeless. Stepping up to the challenge, they set a goal of more than 100 Hygiene Kits this fall. Santa Teresita residents, many now homebound, are coming together to help the homeless. “It’s truly heartwarming,” said Vince Farhat, Hospitaller of the LA Location.
Surveying the room, you can’t help by admire the Sisters and their work here at Santa Teresita. “I tell everyone who is looking for an assisted care center to come here,” said Rommel. I saw first-hand the profound love and care the residents received from the Sisters. I visited with Hortencia, who was beautifully dressed, with a flower behind her ear. She told me that it was the Sisters who placed the flower there.
“While Vespers and Vino benefits Santa Teresita residents,” said Rosie, “I’m the one who is blessed.” She recounts the time when she discovered that a close friend of her 99-year-old father was a resident of Santa Teresita. Rosie brought the two of them, both widowed, for a reunion that brought tears of joy as they recalled old times. “There have been so many moments that have touched my heart these last years,” she said.
I asked about the Steinway pianist. At many Vespers and Vino evenings, I was told that she still plays with the sublime virtuosity as only a Juilliard graduate can. This fall, I plan to come back for a performance.
Rose Marie Erickson, Ann Sanders, and Rowena Itchon contributed to this article.