By: Kristen Whitney Daniels

In October 2018, the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph released a corporate voice statement calling for the welcome and humane treatment of arriving migrants. The statement, in response to what the media was calling the "refugee caravan," called for women religious to "reject the rhetoric of fear and policy of division that poisons our politics today" and "stand with Pope Francis who calls us to, ‘promote the dignity of all our brothers and sisters, particularly the poor and the excluded of society, those who are abandoned, immigrants, and those who suffer violence and human trafficking.'"

Since the release of the statement to the end of February, "Border Patrol agents have picked up more than 260,000 people" seeking asylum at the southern border, according to NPR. As the humanitarian crisis continues, so does the Sisters of St. Joseph — and their partners — response to the refugees' needs.

You can read Part I of this series here.

Opening Hearts and Doors

One of the families the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange are hosting at their motherhouse. This mother and daughter came from Guatemala to the U.S. to seek asylum. (Photo Courtesy of Maria Elena Perales/Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange)

One congregation decided to take a different approach to the humanitarian crisis at the southern border. This past winter, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange opened their motherhouse doors to two refugee families who are seeking asylum in the U.S. The congregation is acting as a sponsor for the families, assisting them as they move through the asylum process.

Though the two families are relatively recent additions to the congregation, the path to sponsorship started long ago. According to Sr. Sue Dunning, general councilor for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, the congregation has taken a personal interest in immigration issues, especially in the last three years. This interest resulted in weekly prayer services, public witnesses in front of their congregation, and stations of the cross with the focus on immigration and refugees.

Then came LCWR's call for volunteers to assist Annunciation House. At the time the congregation could only send a donation but knew they wanted to do more. They were then directed to Catholic Charities in San Diego who discussed ways they could get involved. As these discussions were occurring, another desire was stirring within the congregation.

Part of the congregation's motherhouse remained empty for the last couple of years. These empty rooms had spurred "comments and desires" around using those rooms for immigrants or refugees, Sr. Sue said. She said it was the "openness of our sisters and our focus on immigration" that eventually lead the congregation to conclude that they would use these rooms to host families seeking asylum in the U.S.

The congregation is now hosting one family of five (soon to be six, as the mother is six months pregnant) from Guinea, a French-speaking country in west Africa. The family has three children, ranging in ages from 5-13. The other family is a mother and her 15-year-old daughter who are originally from Guatemala.

Sr. Sue explained that "both of the families have different stories as to why they left their countries and are seeking asylum," which comes with a host of different needs.

To meet these needs the congregation assembled a team of 10 — half sisters, half partners in mission — who are responsible for coordinating everything from doctor's appointments to school registration to legal meetings to ESL classes.

One of the families the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange are hosting at their motherhouse. This family of five came from Guinea to the U.S. to seek asylum. (Photo Courtesy of Maria Elena Perales/Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange)

"It is taking every waking moment of all 10 of us on the team to do everything we can to be supportive," said Sr. Sue.

Maria Elena Perales, director of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange's justice center, explained that in order to meet the families' needs requires equal parts collaboration and coordination. In any given week, they are often coordinating ten different appointments that all require translators, drivers, and support.

This also includes a pro-bono lawyer who is helping the team and families navigate the complicated immigration system. Both families currently await a court date to formally declare asylum. The hope is that their asylum cases will be accepted, which will allow the families to apply for a temporary work permit.

Though "there's a lot involved" in ensuring the needs of the families are met, Sr. Sue said it is "wonderful to have them be part of the community here." For the senior sisters who reside in the motherhouse, it has been an opportunity for relationship and companionship. Sr. Sue explained that the families visit the senior sisters regularly for breakfast, dinner, Sunday brunch, and even join in on activities.

Maria Elena agreed that although sponsoring has taken more effort than even originally imagined, "we realize the tremendous impact they've had and it's helping us more than it is them, in a way."

"[We are] more aware and more grateful for what we have and the opportunities we have as being citizens and residents of this country… and why not share what we have with others who do not have the same opportunities and better ways of raising their family," Maria Elena said.

Supporting Our International Congregations

Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon-Mexico Juana Montecillo, Dolores Palencia, and Maria Elizabeth Rangel staff the hostel in Tierra Blanca, Veracruz. (Photo courtesy of Sr. Judy Donovan)The U.S. Federation would like to thank all the congregations, sisters, and partners in mission who have supported our international sisters who continue to minister on the margins and borders across the world. Below are reports from the congregations who have been impacted by the donations raised in 2018: the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambéry-Brazil, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet-Los Angeles, Peru, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon-Mexico.

In recent years, Venezuela has faced significant political, economic, and social crisis. These crises have resulted in a shortage of basic and necessary items such as food, medicine, and hygiene products. As a result, an increasing number of people are fleeing the country and settling in surrounding countries, especially in the neighboring state of Roraima, Brazil. According to National Geographic, Brazil has received more than 58,000 Venezuelan refugees since 2017. In August 2018, the Brazilian government reported that for the last year an average of 500 migrants cross the border every day.

Answering the call to serve our "dear neighbors," the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambéry-Brazil province committed to assisting the Venezuelan refugees settling within Brazil. Their sisters are currently acting as "feminine presence to help humanize the reception in the shelters and in the streets," according to the province. This presence includes spending time listening, making referrals, and serving as an important link between the migrants and crucial resources.

Part of the "migrant caravan" passing through Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Sr. Judy Donovan)As part of #GivingTuesday — which occurs the Tuesday after Thanksgiving to shift the season's focus to collaboration and giving back — the U.S. Federation asked our members to consider donating to the province to assist with their ministry to the Venezuelan refugees continuing to pour into Roraima, Brazil for asylum.

As an update to #GivingTuesday, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambéry-Brazil province report that the money raised through the Federation is being used to provide short-term rent to get families off the street. Donations have been used to serve approximately 3000 refugees and counting; provide food, clothes, blankets, and tickets for transportation to cities where there are more alternatives for employment and services. Already the sisters have purchased bus tickets for over 780 people with a preference for families with children, the elderly, and the sick.

Brazil is not the only South American country receiving refugees from Venezuela. Sr. Anne Davis (Carondelet- Los Angeles, Peru) reports that Peru has welcomed approximately 400,000 Venezuelan immigrants. The Carondelet congregation has collaborated with CONFER (Conference of Religious) to donate mattresses and other material goods.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon report that over $18,000 were raised to support their sisters in Mexico. The funds went to two major projects: the Albergue Decanal Guadalupano (Guadalupe Canal Hostel) in Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, Mexico, a one-stop center and shelter for migrants and asylum seekers run by Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon and their lay collaborators; and the other portion went to CAFEMIN - Casa de Acogida, Formacion y Empoderamiento para Mujeres y Familias Migrantes y Refugiadas (House of Welcome, Formation and Empowerment for Migrant and Refugee Women and Families), a collaborative effort of several religious congregations — including the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon — who working with migrants and asylum seekers streaming into Mexico City.

Refugees are welcomed into the Guadalupe Channel Hostel in Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Sr. Judy Donovan)Sr. Judy Donovan, leader of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon-Maine, reports that the money was "given to providing food, clothing, health care, and basic shelter. As much as possible, other services were also provided such as workshops, resources, and consultations on basic human rights, the conditions and requirements for asylum and refuge and legal aid."

Though the contributions have helped tremendously, Sr. Judy said, she believes it is crucial that women religious continue to work for structural changes that address the "causes of migration, of the rights of the human being to migrate and to seek life and dignity, [and] of the solidarity that makes us more human."

"We are so grateful for all the support, prayers and donations and wish to continue in this service and collaboration, even though the lack of volunteers and financial means to sustain our presence makes this difficult," said Sr. Judy.

Both the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambéry-Brazil and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon-Mexico are continuing to accept donations for these ministries. If you would like to donate to either project please click here to support our sisters in Brazil and click here to support our sisters in Mexico.

Humanitarian Crisis Continues

LCWR continues to ask for assistance both physically and fiscally at the U.S.-Mexico border. In a March 2019 message from Dominican Sister Donna Markham, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, Sr. Donna reported that the organization "is deploying as many staff as possible from other Catholic Charities agencies around the country, but that is still not adequate to the need."

"Our border Catholic Charities agencies need help to assist these individuals and families coming across the border… Additionally, some families do not have a willing sponsor. Therefore, there may be a need for persons or congregations to sponsor an individual or family until their cases have been adjudicated," wrote Sr. Donna.

LCWR and Catholic Charities is encouraging interested communities and sisters to contact Kristan Schlichte at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 703-236-6240 who can assist potential volunteers.

[Kristen Whitney Daniels is assistant director of the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph]