Sister Nancy Wellmeier
Sister Nancy Wellmeider helps a child select an outfit for the next leg of his family's journey.
A Labor of Love: Ministering to the Most Vulnerable Children & Families
"This is just an extension of what we came to this country for," says Sister Nancy Wellmeier.
"Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur focus on the most vunerable, the people who need the most help. And that's usually the new-comers."
Sister Nancy says this from Mesa, Arizona, where she and Sister Maria Olivia Pacheco minister to immigrants arriving from Mexico and Central America.
It's labor of love.
Sister Nancy, a Dayton, Ohio native, first came to the American Southwest and to Mexico in the summer of 1966, when she was missioned to Mexico to prepare children for first communion. Then in 1971 she was missioned to parish ministry in another part of Mexico.
The two experiences cemented her passion for the area and for the people. "It's where my heart was," she says, and there was no need to leave. Except for a six-year term on the Congregational Leadership Team in Rome, she seldom has.
Today, at 77, her schedule remains full. Technically, she has two days a week off. Technically because on one of those days she's often in Sonoyta, Mexico, helping individuals and famiies seeking asylum in the United States with basic supplies including food and winter clothing. Last year, she would have seen many of these same people on this side of the border, but because of the new policy of holding asylum seekers in Mexico, she goes where the need is.
"We were called to this country by the bishop of Cincinnati to work with immigrants," she says, "among whom were my great-great grandparents." And although that was 180 years ago, Sister Nancy doesn't see how the year much matters.
Sisters Jo Ann Depweg, Maria Olivia Pacheco and LIane Delsuc fill backpacks with essentials like food and toiletries for immigrant families to take on the road.
"With what's happening, I feel drwarn to help the poeple here," she says.
This help includes teaching citizenship classes (Mondays), working with area churches to provide supplies to immigrants with provisional passage on their way to family members and sponsors (Tuesdays), teaching English classes (Wednesdays), volunteering at a free medical clinic to proide translation services (Thursdays), and visiting a shelter for unaccompanied (Sundays).
But the intense work, the work of our times, is spent with people in desperate situation of having no home to safely return to, no home on the horizon in which to rest, and only a day-to-day eistence filled with cold, danger and worry.
As is the case of the people in the Casa San Pedro shelter in Sonoyta, in the cartel territory of Sonota State, Mexico, where several years ago, in a week-long period, 28 people were murdered, and where the police chief was executed - and to which Sister Nancy and Sister Maria Olivia drive at every opportunity to deliver clothing, rice and beans.
A Common Cause
They are not alone. Also in Sonoyta are School Sisters of Notre Dame from Douglas, Arizona, likewise bringing supplies to Casa San Pedro, and where volunteers have poured a concrete floor, built bunk bed and installed a washer and dryer. The Jesuits, the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, the American Diocese of Tucson and the Mexican Diocese of Nogales have also together established the Kino Border Initiative, which among many services is providing emergency shelter, food and first aid to migrants seeking asylum in the United States, as well as to those deported.
Sisters Nancy Wellmeier and Maria Pacheco give a warm welcome to a young family.
Churches of all denominations are teaming up not only along the border but also in cities hours distant, as far away as Mesa and Phoenix, where Sister Nancy and Maria Olivia live, and wehre Notre Dame Sisters Margaret Campbell and Meg Walsh live as well. Catholic churches, mainline Protestant churches and Pentecostal churches are opening up their buildings to provide meals, clothing, medical services and importantly, logistical support to move immigrants to the homes of friends and family members spread across the country. Nurses are helping. Doctors are helping. A Lutheran church is each week clearing its sanctuary of pews to accommodate immigrants, then bringing the pews back for Sunday services. The Soeiety of St. Vincent de Paul is offering its facilities. St. Matthew Parish in Phoenix has opened an old convent.
"It's been so rewarding to work with sisters and brothers of other faiths," says Sister Nancy. "And they do it out of such faith. They say, "We do this because this is what Christians do. It's what the Gospels say to do."
"These are people," Sister Nancy says, "who really believe in a moral, ethical world,"
When Sister Nancy meets immigrants, whe often tells them she hopes she neer sees them again. Because if she doesn't, perhaps the outcome will have been a good one, and their journey will have come to an end.
She tells this to children in one of the many shelters for unaccompanied minors, where she is allowed a single hour to meet with as many children as possible, and to bring Communion, to provide catechesis, and always to offer a pep talk. "When I come back," she says to them, "I hope you'll be gone."
And to adults on the journey, those granted provisional passage, she offers the hope and the solace of the Church, but she gets practical, too. She shows them how to recharge ankle monitors, and tell them how, with the monitors on, to take a shower. And she says to everyone: "The police are here to help you, not to hurt you. You have to send your children to school. The police don't take bribes in this country. You can't work because you don't have a work permit."
Then she bids them farewell, turns around, and with volunteers from all over the country and from so many religious traditions plows into the week ahead.
"I've been drawn to this type of migrant, this type of refugee," she says, "the ones who are vulnerable, who don't know how things work. It's why I'm here."
And then she says, referring to the hundreds who have joined in the work, "Seeing all these volunteers, it's a glimmer of hope. This is the real spirit of the United States."
Published in 2020 Winter Cross Current Magazine.