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January 18, 2023, El Paso, Texas – From late November to mid-December – during the time that many people consider to be the “holiday season” – three Adrian Dominican Sisters were among other Catholic Sisters and lay volunteers who served in ministry to asylum seekers crossing into the U.S. at the Texas-Mexico border.
The Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Catherine of Siena Mission Chapter, encompassing Sisters and Associates predominantly outside of Adrian, Michigan, invited Sisters to serve for at least a week at the border. Three Sisters served at St. Ignatius Parish in El Paso, Texas, which had set up its parish hall and school – now closed – as a clearing house for immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. The immigrants are bused to the center by Border Patrol personnel.
Sister Mary Soher, OP, explained that St. Ignatius began receiving refugees about eight months ago, originally only on Mondays – until the number of refugees coming to El Paso increased in June and July. “They went from once a week to three times a week,” she said. The parish’s philosophy is to turn no one away.
Typically, the parish accepts immigrants coming from detention on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays; offers them clothing, food, and whatever else they might need; helps them to make travel arrangements – usually by plane or bus – to the home of their sponsors; and provides transportation to the airport or bus station.
“The object of St. Ignatius and the immigrants they [welcome] is to turn them over as quickly as possible and get them to their destination” where they can stay until their court date for seeking asylum, explained Sister Janet Stankowski, OP. While the court date is originally set in El Paso, where they were received, most asylum seekers can arrange to go to a court that’s near where they will be staying.
Sister Janet served at St. Ignatius during Thanksgiving week – a unique experience because of the holiday. “We had a huge load of people – 180 on Monday and 150 on Tuesday – and by Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, maybe there were 25 to 30 who weren’t able to move on,” she said. Many stayed for two or three days waiting for transportation.
Sister Janet recalled giving the remaining immigrants a special experience of U.S. Thanksgiving: Mass in Spanish and then a walk to nearby Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso, which offered Thanksgiving meals to about 750 people who are homeless and immigrants. She spent Friday working with an immigrant family to wash 10 loads of sheets and towels and transporting people to the airport or bus stations.
Sister Nancy Jurecki, OP, served at St. Ignatius December 4-10, 2022, finding it to be a “really positive experience.” She was particularly surprised by the many places that the immigrants came from: Central America, South America, Turkey, and Russia.
“The center itself is like a day center and a couple of buses come in, and it’s a matter of feeding the people and connecting them to wherever it is that they’re going,” Sister Nancy explained. “The dignity that they give people is heart-warming. It’s a welcome center in the truest sense of the word.”
She spent the mornings of the immigrants’ arrival in food preparation, offering them a hot meal, and afternoons transporting them to the airport or bus station. On days when the immigrants don’t arrive, she said, volunteers sorted donations of clothing.
Sister Nancy noted the fast pace of volunteer work at St. Ignatius. “You don’t get to know a lot of people on a really personal level because it’s so fast, but there are opportunities.” Volunteers who know Spanish have multiple opportunities to get to know the people, however. “They can listen to the stories and understand them.”
Sister Mary, who served December 11-20, 2022, was especially surprised at the state of the immigrants who arrived at St. Ignatius. They would get off the bus wearing shoes with no shoelaces, sweatpants, and T-shirts. “That was every person, regardless of their age,” she explained. “You knew automatically that they were refugees if that’s all the clothing they had.”
St. Ignatius offered them clothing – including heavier shirts and jackets to people going to colder states and sweaters for those staying in warmer climates, Sister Mary explained. Immigrants who had money were encouraged to go to one of the hotels working with St. Ignatius, where they could take a shower.
Sister Mary noted a particular challenge for immigrants seeking transportation during the Christmas season: the cost. “The price of tickets kept going up, up, up,” she said. “Somebody wanted a plane to New Jersey. One ticket was $500.” She added that planes and buses were both full during the Christmas season. But, she added, the immigrants “made it this far and the amazing thing was people’s ability to get where they were going.”
All three Sisters were impressed and inspired by the parishioners of St. Ignatius and the other volunteers – and moved by the plight of the immigrants and their strength, courage, and resiliency.
“What I learned is that people came with nothing,” Sister Janet said. “They got off those buses with a little Ziploc bag with their passport, money, and paperwork – that’s it.” Still, she said, they did bring their families and their faith, as well as a “determination that they could survive and maybe even thrive.”
Sister Mary saw predominantly young immigrants – often young families with small children. She was amazed at the ability of the parents to come to the United States with their young children and navigate the system. “I didn’t ask a lot of questions,” she said. “You just want to make them feel welcome and safe for whatever they want to go to next.”
Sister Janet added: “I admired tremendously the priest at St. Ignatius, who lived the Gospel, lived the words of Pope Francis. He exemplified what Pope Francis said about welcoming the immigrants. He was welcoming the stranger and trying to integrate them into new life. He set the pace, but the volunteers who worked tirelessly, they put me to shame.”
St. Ignatius is located in the poorest diocese of the whole state of Texas, Sister Nancy said, adding that parishioners have taken on the projects themselves. “It costs about $5,000 a month to feed the people.” But, she added, the program is also supported by Bishop Mark J. Seitz. “He said we need to open people’s eyes to the fact that this is not a criminal activity,” she said. “This is very legal and it’s the kind thing to do – it’s really Gospel driven.”
Sister Nancy encouraged others who have the opportunity to get involved in this ministry. But, she added, “there’s no way to prepare for it. It’s just a matter of an open mind and an open heart. It’s clearly a broadening experience. You’re not the same [afterwards].”
Feature photo: Immigrants leave a Border Patrol bus and line up for services at St. Ignatius Church in El Paso, Texas.
October25, 2022, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico – When Sister Donna Kustusch, OP, first came to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico in the late 1990s to work with Siena Heights University students at a soup kitchen, she became involved in the lives of the local women – first in a prayer community and then to address the needs of the people. Together, Sister Donna, Sister Eleanor Stech, OP, and the local women started Centro Santa Catalina with the people of Juárez.
About 26 years later, Sisters Maureen Gallagher, OP, Jean Keeley, OP, and Nancy Murray, OP, traveled to El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez to celebrate Centro Santa Catalina’s anniversary, reconnect with the people, and observe the improvements in the city and in the lives of the people.
The anniversary program involved a special presentation, Catherine of Siena: A Woman of our Times by Sister Nancy, who portrays St. Catherine of Siena – 14th Century Dominican mystic and reformer and the Patron Saint of Centro Santa Catalina – to parishes, schools, and other organizations around the world. Held at Loretto Academy Little Theater in El Paso, the event also included refreshments, a silent auction, and the opportunity to buy products made by women in the sewing co-op at Centro Santa Catalina.
The Sisters’ three-day visit included lunch in El Paso with members of the Centro Santa Catalin’s board and other Sisters that Sister Maureen had come to know; a meeting with Bishop José Guadalupe Torres Campos of the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez; the fundraising program; and a visit to the Centro Santa Catalina and the community.
“It was wonderful to see the warmth and the welcome for [Sisters] Maureen and Nancy and to see how much the Center has grown – and how much bigger their influence,” Sister Jean said. “I was privileged to be Maureen’s companion.”
In an interview, Sister Maureen recounted the history of Centro Santa Catalina, which began as a women’s prayer group in a chapel near the city’s garbage dump. Eventually, learning from the women that they needed money to buy food and send their children to school, Sister Donna helped the women to start a sewing co-op to earn their money.
Since then, the Center has become a faith-based community for women who are economically poor, offering a Homework Help program for children, a daily lunch program, computer and sports programs, and monthly prayer gatherings. Sister Maureen describes the Center as a community. “Every single woman lost an immediate family member or other relative to the [drug] cartel,” she said. “They supported one another” through these tragedies.
Sister Maureen said that Sister Donna invited her in 2006 to serve as marketing director for the products made by the women in the sewing co-op.
Based in El Paso, Texas, Sister Maureen focused on selling the women’s products in the United States. While her predecessor had sold the women’s products at five parishes in El Paso, Sister Maureen expanded the outreach. By the time she left the ministry in 2019, she said, “almost every parish in El Paso would sell some of the products before Christmas.” She also sold the products at conferences and asked other Adrian Dominican Sisters to help in the sales when they attended conferences.
Thanks in part to Sister Maureen’s marketing, the women in the co-op earned enough money to make a living. “When I was there, there were 30 co-op workers,” she recalled. “They take care of their own budget. They pay the bills first and then buy the material. If anything is broken, they fix it and then they get their share. So, they really know how to run the co-op.”
But the co-op did more than help the women earn money. “They grew really confident,” Sister Maureen recalled. “When I first got there, they would look to the ground with their heads down and wouldn’t speak. Now they stand up straight and look you in the eye.”
Sister Fran Hickey, OSF, teaches tutors for the Homework Help program.
Sisters Maureen and Jean saw other improvements in the lives of the women and in the Center during their recent visit. The Center is now directed by Rosa Villele Hernandez, a Mexican woman who had been in religious life in a Mexican community. “With her religious background, she kept the spirituality program going,” as well as the programs for children in grades 1 to 5, Sister Maureen said. “She encouraged the women – tutors especially – to go to school, and we paid their tuition.” Some returned to work professionally at the Center, she added, while others found jobs elsewhere.
Because she is a native of Mexico, Rosa obtained grants from the Mexican government and from foundations. Such funding enabled the Center to install solar panels and to provide purified water, Sister Maureen said.
Sister Jean noted that a grant from a Mexican foundation has provided funding for the Center to add two nutritionists, a psychologist, a nurse, and drama teachers to its staff. “It’s greatly expanded the resources for people coming to the Center,” she said. In addition, the Center draws help from healthcare students of the local university.
Rosa “has connections we never had,” Sister Maureen pointed out. She especially wants Adrian Dominican Sisters to know that, in the tradition of missionary work, a ministry begun in part by Adrian Dominican Sisters from outside of Mexico has now been turned over to the people from Mexico.
Feature photo at top: Rosa Villele Hernandez, left, Director of Centro Santa Catalina, and Sister Maureen Gallagher, OP, sell products made by the women at the sewing co-op.