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November 28, 2022, Washington, D.C. – Sister Donna Markham, OP, PhD, addressed members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) during its annual assembly on November 15, 2022, for a final time as President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA). The first female to head CCUSA, Sister Donna announced recently that she will retire next year.
CCUSA is a network of agencies through the United States that address the needs of vulnerable people. Sister Donna told the U.S. Bishops that her goal was to "help this ministry become more financially stable and nimble as the entire Catholic Charities network responds to increasing demands to care for growing numbers of disaster victims, migrants, homeless folks, hungry people, mentally ill, addicted people, and families and children in precarious socio-economic situations."
Sister Donna, Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Congregation from 2004 to 2010, spoke not only of the needs of people throughout the United States and in territories such as Puerto Rico, but of the generosity of individuals, corporations, and foundations in helping CCUSA agencies meet those needs.
"It’s important for you to tell the story of the Catholic Church’s response in this country to people who reside along the margins of our society, the very most fragile, the most vulnerable – to be able to say this is where our Church puts the Gospel into action," Sister Donna said. "It’s where Matthew 25 comes alive palpably every day across the entire country."
Watch the video of Sister Donna’s address.
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.