Service with a smile
Sister Alicia Torres wowed audiences on the Food Network, but a simple life of serving the community is the young nun’s true recipe for happiness
By Scott Alessi
One afternoon last November, Sister Alicia Torres (BA ’07) set out for a routine walk through her neighborhood to hand out sandwiches alongside members of a visiting youth group from Indiana. Providing food to her neighbors in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park community is a regular activity for the 31-year-old nun, but on this day, something was different. Each person who saw Torres was buzzing with excitement, and not just because of the free sandwiches.
“Oh my gosh, we saw you on TV!” someone shouted. “Sister Alicia, you’ve made us all celebrities!” called another.
One by one, local residents beaming with pride came to greet Torres. For the past six years, she’s been an integral part of the community along with six other sisters and one priest—members of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago—at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels on Chicago’s West Side. But days earlier, her friends and neighbors watched along with viewers around the country as Torres competed on a Thanksgiving-themed episode of the Food Network series Chopped.
By outlasting three other cooks whose culinary skills are also normally reserved for soup kitchens and shelters, Torres was crowned the winner and earned a $10,000 prize to aid her ministry. But the monetary reward was almost secondary. The feel-good story of the “cooking nun” garnered widespread media attention, shining a positive light on a community that is often plagued by poverty, gang violence, and drug trafficking. And Torres, the cheerful Catholic sister whose youthful face is framed by the traditional Franciscan veil, found herself suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
Though her poise and confidence shine through on screen, Torres humbly blushes when talking about all the attention she’s received since her television appearance. “I’m a lot more introverted than I look,” she says. But still, she welcomed the opportunity to highlight the struggles she sees in her community on a daily basis. “It wasn’t about me becoming famous,” Torres says. “It was about how I can use that platform to raise awareness about the epic crisis of hunger in our country and how each of us can respond to that.”
An unexpected calling
The seeds were planted early on for Torres to lead a life of service, though she never expected it would come in the form of a religious vocation. Raised in a military family, she had dreamed of serving her country as a naval officer. But faith was also a big part of her upbringing, from saying prayers before meals to reading the Bible with her mother. Even then, she recalls, something about religious life piqued her curiosity. “When I was little there was kind of this mystique about sisters,” Torres says. “I didn’t even know if they went to the bathroom!”
Some of the mystique faded when Torres attended a Catholic high school in Massachusetts, where she got to know several religious sisters and brothers. Looking back, she says they were an inspiration. At the time, however, Torres had no intention of following in their footsteps.
After plans to pursue a naval career didn’t work out, Torres decided to major in English when at Loyola. She also sought out opportunities to practice her faith on campus, from joining a pro-life club to participating in small faith-sharing groups. Many of the Catholic friends she met through campus ministry were theology majors, and seeing how much they enjoyed their studies inspired Torres to pursue a theology degree.
It wasn’t until her junior year that Torres started to feel God was calling her to be a sister. At first she resisted, not convinced that religious life was right for her.
“I fought with it for a while,” she says. “But eventually I realized the peace and joy that I was looking for came when I was moving in the direction of saying yes to God and saying yes to being a sister.”
Following that path led Torres to Father Bob Lombardo, a Franciscan priest who told her about a small group of men and women discerning religious life at the mission where he served. They were the beginnings of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago, and Torres found their simple life of prayer and service suited her well. Last October the journey came full circle, as Torres professed her final vows with the religious order.
The Franciscans have become a part of daily life in West Humboldt Park. They host block parties and share in community meals, where Torres uses her now-famous culinary skills to cook for crowds large and small. Every Tuesday morning, neighbors can find her at the Mission’s food pantry handing out groceries. And she’s willing to lend an ear whenever someone just needs to talk.
“We’re here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Torres says. “Anything that affects our neighbors, it affects us too, so there’s a real solidarity there with the people we live with.”
Two summers ago, a fatal shooting took place on a corner near the church. Torres was quickly on the scene, navigating her way around the police tape to see how she could help. The next morning she noticed that children in her Bible camp weren’t their usual rambunctious selves, and a parent told Torres that the children had witnessed the shooting firsthand.
Knowing the families had no resources to deal with such trauma, Torres reached out to Catholic Charities to arrange for grief counselors to meet with the children. It is because of the bonds she’s formed in the community that Torres is able to identify such needs and find ways to address them. “If those relationships weren’t there,” she says, “then I wouldn’t be able to connect people to the resources they need to live a healthy life.”
She’s also able to look more deeply at the root causes of problems in the community—why young people get involved in gangs, why people turn to drugs. The solutions aren’t easy, but the Franciscans are in it for the long haul. “You have to be at peace with the fact that this is going to be inch by inch, step by step,” Torres says.
Still, she prefers to focus on the positives of life in West Humboldt Park. The neighborhood is filled with wonderful people, and she’s proud to call them friends. The feeling, it seems, is mutual.
As Torres walks down the front steps of the church on a weekday afternoon, children on the sidewalk smile and wave. Her face lights up with a smile as she makes her way to greet them. Months removed from her brief TV fame, she’s still the same sister who has been their neighbor for six years. And beneath the habit, she says she’s still just a regular person, not much different from the people she’s devoted her life to serving.
“If I thought I was super great and totally sinless, I’d be a terrible sister,” she says. “I realize I can make a mistake just like everyone else. That helps me stay grounded, and it helps me share the love I’ve been given.”