When it comes to helping immigrants, Catholic sisters are one of the few constants in a tempestuous American landscape often shaped by hostility and division.
“They are invested in the marginalized and dispossessed,” said Dr. Margaret McGuinness, a religious professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia and author of Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America. “It’s something rooted in their mission.” She noted that many sisters were
immigrants themselves. [Editor’s note: Dr. McGuinness is a former faculty member at Cabrini University.] Sisters have been active from coast to coast as national leaders have come and gone and as antiimmigrant sentiment has ebbed and flowed.
Congressional legislation addressing the status and rights of immigrants has passed and, in an increasingly polarized political environment, failed to
The Trump administration was hotly criticized for its draconian policies. But the months-old Biden team has recently struggled to handle the surge, particularly among unaccompanied minors at the southern border.
The work of the sisters continues across geographical boundaries, noted McGuinness. In Texas, Missionary of Jesus Sr. Norma Pimentel works with new migrants in the Rio Grande Valley.
On another side of the country, in New York City’s Lower East
Side, Cabrini Immigrant Services, founded by the
Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, provides legal
and social services to the city’s immigrant community.
A charism spanning centuries
Nineteenth-and early 20thcentury nuns, often immigrants themselves, had to counter anti-Catholic prejudice but were embraced in the end by a country that welcomed the hospitals, orphanages and schools sisters created, often in places where none had previously existed.
A religion professor at LaSalle University, Philadelphia, Dr. Margaret McGuinness says American sisters have always had the same
mission: to work with those on the margins.
Now many sisters offer direct services or human rights advocacy for migrants and refugees who have become targets of suspicion and disdain.
Persistent hostility to other cultures
Many sisters seem acutely aware of the hostility migrants can encounter, particularly those who are undocumented.
More than 30 years ago, Mercy Sisters JoAnn Persch and Patricia
Murphy helped found Su Casa Catholic Worker Community in
Chicago for Central American immigrants who had faced
violence and oppression in their own countries.
“It was probably the hardest time of our lives, but we wouldn’t trade
it for anything,” Persch said. Veterans of years of vigils outside Broadview, an ICE detention facility in Chicago, Persch and Murphy have made trips to Washington, D.C., to engage in nonviolent protest for immigrant rights in the Capitol Rotunda — and have been arrested in the process.
Murphy and Persch, who fought for years to gain access to migrants in detention centers, have a motto: “We do it peacefully and respectfully. But we never take no for an answer.”
An evolution of partnerships
Now, sisters like Persch often collaborate, not only with other Christian groups, but with Jewish and Muslim organizations, as well. “We are all gathered around our belief that whatever faiths we have, we are challenged to welcome the stranger, to treat everyone like a child of God, with dignity and respect,” Persch said.
Instead of seeing each other as threats, Sr. Marie Lucey, of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, said, 21st century people of faith collaborate to help immigrants. “It’s a world of difference. We highly value our interfaith community. For those of us who work in the area of justice, we don’t get
into our differences in theology. That’s not the focus.”
Whether they are lobbying Congress on behalf of DACA “Dreamers,” teaching English as a second language, or finding housing for immigrants released from ICE detention, sisters say that they are part of a bigger picture, one drawn by the women who arrived on these shores more than a century ago with the same dream.
by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans, Global Sisters Report, Part 2 of the “At America’s Door” series