Sisters of St. Joseph Work with Migrants at U.S.-Mexico Border

Setting an Example of Solidarity with Workers and the Poor

By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Beaver County Times

Aug 10, 2019 – A group of nuns and volunteers from the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden is working with migrant families and children at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.

They called him a liar.

For months, the Venezuelan man waited patiently with his wife and three children for permission to leave their home country, riddled with political unrest and economic free fall in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Once granted, the family waited for months in Mexico for consent to enter the United States as asylum seekers.

It was a long and difficult journey.

Just hours after finally crossing the border into the United States, he sat last week with Sister Janice Vanderneck, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden, at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.

“What a privilege it is to be able to be among the first people to welcome this family to our country,” Vanderneck said. “I was glad to be the person empathetic to their story because he told me that immigration officials called him a liar, thinking that he didn’t understand English.”

For one week, three members of St. Joseph — Sister Jeanette Bussen, Sister Patti Rossi and Vanderneck — are working at the respite center in McAllen to meet and serve migrant families seeking asylum. They are accompanied by Maureen Haggarty, former sister and benefactor, and Carol McCracken, who was inspired by the service and mission work of Rossi.

The respite center is the first stop for those released from a nearby U.S. Customs and Border Patrol holding center. Each day, the respite center serves between 500 and 900 families, providing migrants in crisis with a warm meal, clean clothes and a chance to recover from the first part of their long journeys.

How to help

The Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden has donated more than $10,000 to help replenish supplies at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. Items include toiletries, baby bottles, diapers, sealed snack foods and phone cards.

To donate, visit https://stjoseph-baden.salsalabs.org/bordercrisis/index.html.

The center’s volunteers work to educate parents about their rights and responsibilities as asylum seekers and help prepare them to navigate the legal process to determine whether they can remain in the United States.

Volunteers pack plastic bags with toiletries, deodorant and personal hygiene items, prepare sandwiches, measure out formula, and spend time caring for migrant children by playing games, doing crafts or giving English lessons.

“Serving God and every dear neighbor without distinction is at the heart of our mission as Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden,” said the congregational moderator, Sister Sharon Costello. “The conditions at the border, that the migrants seeking asylum are subjected to, cry to heaven for justice.”

The conditions at the border have been well-documented. There are numerous reports of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and outbreaks of disease inside the processing and detention facilities where migrants, including children as young as 2, are being held as their families attempt to enter the United States.

The sisters are thankful for the opportunity and privilege to serve and make a difference in the lives of those entering the country, Costello said. Many are exhausted and haven’t slept or eaten well in days. Some have been unable to shower or change into clean clothing, or are confused and separated from loved ones.

“We have a spiritual and moral imperative to love these neighbors in this way (as we love ourselves) and to treat them in humane ways, with the dignity and respect that they deserve,” Costello said. “The presence of our sisters at the border represents the commitment of our entire congregation to stand with our migrant brothers and sisters with care and compassion now and into the future.”

Rossi has spent decades working with children and communities in poverty. She has conducted missionary work in Brazil and Haiti, building playgrounds for orphaned children and constructing mosquito nets to protect pregnant women. Fluent in Portuguese, Rossi was sensitive to the stark difference between the conditions she’s experienced as a missionary and the turbulence that families migrating to the United States experience.

She said she was inspired by the hope she feels in the respite center as the families are beginning their new lives.

“Despite the desperate conditions, I find there was such a sense of radiant hope among these families,” Rossi said. “Hope that they will reach their families here in the United States and hope for change in their lives.”

Much of the work by the sisters and volunteers since they arrived Aug. 7 has been with the children. They’ve made puppets with the children that they can take with them on their journey, a bright memory they can carry as they begin a new life. The experience of working with little ones was particularly touching for Haggarty, of Mount Lebanon.

“A little girl in the dining room was talking away, but I wasn’t understanding her,” Haggarty said. “She finally took me by the hand and led me to her table. How significant to be led by a child.”

Unlike Rossi, who speaks Portuguese, and Vanderneck, who speaks Spanish, Bussen has a language barrier with some of the migrants. She uses play to communicate with the children, teaching them basic English words — a humbling experience for her.

“It was an absolute joy to teach some of the children English words and phrases and humbling when I couldn’t speak their Spanish,” Bussen said. “I realized how bright they are and how much the world loses by not giving them opportunity.”

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