Sisters without borders

Posted by Joel Schorn
Wednesday 09, September 2009 | Categories:   Consecrated Life

Pat Murphy
Sister Pat Murphy prays with an immigration detainee
Setting up in the library of the McHenry County Jail outside Chicago, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas JoAnn Persch and Pat Murphy listen to, advise, pray with, and bring what comfort they can to immigrant detainees from around the world who are facing deportation. About 250 of the 650 inmates in the jail fall into this category.

"The immigrant detainees are different from the criminal detainees," said Persch. They most likely are never going to see their families [in the U.S.] again. . . . They're afraid. They're very sad for their family, very worried about their family. It's like in an emergency room when they bring a chaplain in. . . . your presence, your compassion, your prayer . . . that brings comfort to them."

In addition to their direct ministry, Persch and Murphy have fought for the right of detainees to pastoral care. They have also advocated in support of immigration reform and have become so well known in immigrant and Catholic circles, said a Chicago Tribune story by Margaret Ramirez, "that they are often just called 'The Sisters.' "

Murphy gets frustrated with Catholics who oppose her ministry with immigrants in this country illegally. "The church has lost it," she said. "Jesus didn't just say feed the people in your country, clothe the people in your city or whatever. It's open to every human being."

Two and a half years ago the sisters expanded their ministry when they started traveling to a federal detention center which is the last stop for detainees before deportation. There they prayed the rosary and boarded buses to bless the deportees. Since then they have been joined by almost two dozen clergy and activists.

The sisters have a long history of service to the vulnerable. Before their prison work they had run an outreach ministry for seniors at a Sisters of Mercy hospital; taught at an alternative school for high school dropouts; started Su Casa Catholic Worker House, a home for Central American survivors of torture; and worked at a shelter for African American women recovering from domestic violence and drug addiction. Later they started helping a mentally challenged single mother raise her daughter, becoming foster moms to the 13-year-old, picking her up from school, paying for singing and dance lessons, and helping with admission to high school.

"You see, I believe that the divine and the sacred are the ordinary things of life," Murphy said. "And I believe the moments in that jail are sacred moments with those people. We give them life, and they give us life. . . . It's a mutual thing. It's a human exchange, but I believe that God is present in that."

See more photos of the sisters at work.

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