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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.
December 16, 2021, Adrian, Michigan – Hanging on the walls of the INAI Art Gallery adjacent to Weber Retreat and Conference Center is a variety of colorful textile works of art created by women from Peru. The women used embroidery and appliqued pieces of cotton and other materials, Cuadros, to tell the stories of their lives – fraught with hardship from economic turmoil, poverty, civil strife, and oppression – in Pamplona Alta, Peru. The exhibit of the women’s Cuadros is open to the public through Sunday, February 27, 2022.
But beneath the stories of the women’s struggles is yet another story: how Sister Barbara Cervenka, OP, visited Pamplona Alta, came to know the women, and shared their stories by exhibiting their Cuadros throughout the United States.
Sister Barbara – herself an artist – became acquainted with Cuadros when her friend, Sister Pam Millenbach, OP, began ministering in Peru in 1982 and brought home samples. “I thought they were OK,” Sister Barbara recalled. “I kind of liked them.”
Sister Barbara became more familiar with the Cuadros, the women who created them, and the situation in Peru when, in 1989, she finally accepted Sister Pam’s invitation to visit her and Sister Mary K. Duwelius, OP. “Pam and Mary K. were great,” she said. “Not only did I go around where they were working, but they took me to museums, so I learned about the history, which was fascinating.”
Sister Barbara left Peru with a suitcase full of Cuadros and held her first exhibit of them at the University of Michigan, where she was teaching art. She returned in 1991 to help close the Sisters’ house when illness forced Sister Mary K. to return to the United States. “I thought that was the last time I’d be able to go there,” she said.
But in the mid-1990s, Sister Barbara was invited to accompany Sister Helen Battle, CSJ, then President of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Kalamazoo, Michigan, during her trip to Peru. Sister Barbara went on to Pamplona Alta to buy Cuadros to take back to the United States and, through interviews and visits, came to know the women who created them.
“I got to know the women as people,” she said. “These are really smart, amazing women. Their stories have a kind of resonance and an ability to share their history and culture in a way that is instructive for us.” Many of the women have been part of an original group that have made Cuadros for 30 or 40 years to earn a living. Some have also left that group and formed family groups, teaching the art to their daughters.
Sister Barbara said the art of making textile pieces to tell stories came from Chile, where the people suffered under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who in 1973 overthrew President Salvador Allende. Living in shanty towns with no work, the women formed workshops to create handcrafts and earn money. Eventually some started to create Arpilleras out of cloth to tell the stories of their suffering.
When Arpilleras made their way to Peru, the women there began to make their own versions, the Cuadros, to tell their own stories and to earn a living. “All along, there have always been pieces that women made to sell,” Sister Barbara said. “That’s part of the heritage of women.”
Sister Barbara praised the skill of the women who continued for years practicing this art form – and the beauty of the Cuadros. “They are so precise,” she said. Through pieces of cloth or other materials, they depict animals, pieces of fruit, and other small replicas of daily life.
Connecting people in the United States to the art and lives of people in Latin America has been a major part of Sister Barbara’s ministry. In 2000, she and Dr. Marion “Mame” Jackson started Con/Vida, a non-profit organization that connects North Americans to the popular works of art of Brazil and Peru. Sister Barbara has traveled frequently to Brazil and Peru to bring back examples of folk art to be exhibited in the United States.
Prominent among these works of art are the Cuadros. In 10 years, Sister Barbara said, she has traveled to about 50 places to exhibit the Cuadros and, when possible, to sell them and send the money to the women in Peru.
Sister Barbara hopes that many people will come to the exhibit at INAI to experience the beauty of the Cuadros. “I’d like people to appreciate and understand the kind of amazing work of these women, who live in very simple circumstances. They’ve lived good lives and have used their skill to continue doing work that is beautiful … and creative. They’ve shown the kind of richness and creativity that can come from the simplest of circumstances.”
INAI (in-EYE) is a Japanese word meaning within. INAI, a place for quiet reflection and art, is open to the public. The INAI Gallery is adjacent to Weber Retreat and Conference Center, 1257 E. Siena Heights Drive, on the campus of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse. Enter the Eastern-most driveway of the complex and follow the signs to Weber Center.
Gallery hours are from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily or by appointment. Masks are required, and guests must be screened for COVID-19 at the Weber Center reception desk or Weber Center Shop. Please call 517-266-4090 or 313-608-9181 for an appointment to visit the gallery.