For U.S., Missionaries Are No Longer Just for Sending

BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—Mention “missionary,” and the common image is of priests and nuns leaving the United States for work in far off lands. While at one time this idea was the norm, in recent years roles have reversed somewhat. Now, orders from foreign countries are carrying on missionary work in the United States. They come from as near as Mexico and as far away as Korea and Africa.

One order of recent arrivals, the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Mercy, traveled from their native Nigeria in 1994. To date, they have brought more than 80 nuns to several dioceses in eight states, from New York and New Jersey to Louisiana and California.

Sister Mary Joachim, newly appointed regional superior, explains that the order accepted an invitation to come “as missionaries” with their charism of working with schools, hospitals, orphans, and old people. In her two years in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, she has received her nurse's license and joined the spiritual care office at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, Calif.

In addition, she and the other four nuns in her convent perform out-reach with the 100 Nigerian families in the area, such as teaching the Catechism and being active with the biweekly Nigerian Mass and periodic cultural festivals.

The Daughters of Mary, Mother of Mercy are but one of the many missionary orders in the Los Angeles area that Sister Faith Clarke SMJM, vicar for women religious in the archdiocese, calls “a wonderful presence.” The Lovers of the Holy Cross Sisters from Vietnam are another. Sister Clarke lists several orders of nuns from Korea who often emphasize Bible study and religious education among the Korean population; the sisters from Guadalupe in the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, who staff schools with a heavy Latino enrollment; and orders from Mexico, such as the Eucharistic Evangelizers of the Poor, who have arrived only within the year. They speak no English yet, “but go right into the homes” and help “with whatever the need is,” according to Sister Clarke.

Because many of these missionary orders in Los Angeles don't have to hurdle the language barrier to reach the immigrants, they're readily welcome. The same holds true of priests and sisters in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. Many of the 75 adjunct priests from Central and South America and countries such as Portugal, Poland, and Korea, have been invited to minister in their native language to vast numbers of immigrants there, according to Father William Fadrowski, the executive director of clergy personnel.

Certainly, there's no lack of mission. When the Lovers of the Holy Cross Sisters reached Los Angeles, they began working with homeless women at the Good Shepherd Center, and now help the poor, teach catechism to Vietnamese children, and do nursing at the St. Francis Medical Center.

They arrived by a circuitous route. When Vietnam fell, “we followed the crowd and got in the boats,” says Sister Iwaniac Phi Tarn LHC, the order's superior. They eventually arrived in Philadelphia, and then went to Allentown, Pa., before the invitation came to move to Los Angeles. They gained official status in the archdiocese in 1992. Today, with three convents in the city, one in Orange, Calif., and another in New Orleans, the order remains “missionary” and, among other services, says Sister Monica, does “the same kind of catechetical work with children as when we were founded.”

Working with children is also a priority of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, who visit and pray with the elderly. Since arriving from Korea in 1990, the five sisters have established St. Mary pre-school, the first such Catholic Korean program in Los Angeles.

In Dallas, the six Missionary Catechists to the Poor also work with the very young. According to Sister Beatrice Martinez MCP, these nuns came from Mexico to work with the largely Latin community, which, in addition to a large Mexican community, also includes immigrants from Peru, Honduras, and El Salvador. They catechize, visit families in homes to find the needs, work with young adults, and run several Bible reflection groups in various neighborhoods.

They're instrumental in helping celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with its three-hour pilgrimage around Dallas to the cathedral “as an expression of our Spanish faith and … to try to conserve our roots,” Sister Beatrice says. “We try to support our Spanish people spiritually, and help them get jobs, study English, and prepare themselves to live in the United States.”

In Chicago, the five Missionary Sisters of St. Pius X also arrived from Mexico to work with the growing Hispanic population. They are the only nuns in the three parishes they serve, providing the presence and help that would otherwise be lacking among the immigrants they serve. They are but one of several missionary congregations that have come to the archdiocese from foreign shores.

According to Father Aniedi Okure OP, coordinator of ethnic ministries at the U.S. Catholic Conferences's Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, there are close to 400 African priests in the United States (half as students) and 210 sisters working with African Americans. The sisters, who are mostly from Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, “are a relatively new phenomenon here,” says Father Okure. Most have arrived within the last six years.

The priests have been here longer. For example, the Missionary Society of St. Paul has staffed African-American parishes since 1986. Father Paul Ofoha MSP, superior of the society, says 17 are currently active, primarily in Texas (dioceses of Galveston, Houston, Beaumont) and Louisiana, with a presence also in Baltimore and New Orleans.

The order sees these Nigerian priests as a gift of the African Church to the United States and, even if short of clergy in their native land, a way to take part in the universal mission of a Church that must be missionary in purpose.

Sister Roseanne Rustemeyer SSND, executive director of the U.S. Catholic Mission Association in Washington, explains: “The bishops' pastoral letter in 1986, To the Ends of the Earth, says we are both a mission-sending and a mission-receiving Church. It's quite simple and straightforward.”

With that definition, Sister Roseanne, who served in Sierra Leone, stresses that we “have to be a mission-receiving” Church everywhere. In a sense, ethnic lines stretch to include Americans too, as the Bethlemites, Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, illustrate.

They came to Dallas from Guatemala in 1955 at the bishop's request to operate St. Joseph's Residence, a home for ambulatory seniors. This is the order's only presence in the States.

“To work with the elderly you need a special vocation,” says Sister Adelaide Bocanegra BTHL, the superior, adding that her order has thrown themselves into the work.

The Missionaries of Charity, on the other hand, have many houses. Nonetheless, they try to maintain a low profile and shy away from recognition as they go about helping the poorest of the poor, from Brooklyn's poverty stricken Bedford-Stuyvesant section, to places such as Charlotte, N.C., where the Catholics number only 5% of the population.

Inviting missionaries to this country isn't such a new idea, but in earlier decades the purpose of their work was often a bit different. In the 1970s, with Florida's population beginning to burgeon, bishops actively recruited in the seminaries of Ireland. At the same time, the Biafra Nigeria civil war displaced upwards of 400 Holy Ghost fathers and brothers who were forced to close their mission there. Many of these Irish missionaries soon became a mainstay in Florida parishes and many are still active staffing parishes.

For these priests, the assimilation in America was much easier than for some of the newly arrived orders. “When they come, the change is so drastic,” says Sister Faith, continuing that Los Angeles is “a vast diocese and they might come from a small village.” Walking everywhere has to be replaced by bus or car transportation. Social mores, too, mean learning taken-for-granted things like when and how to shake hands.

Language and diet are challenges. A few new orders speak no English or struggle to learn it. While Sister Monica learned English in six months, she relates that the elderly Vietnamese nuns in her order had a problem with the language and diet. Some solved the difficulty in community by retaining, as much as possible, their native diet, as do the Nigerian sisters of the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Mercy, who work in hospitals.

On the other hand, some missionaries find similarities that help to ease the transition. “It really reminds me of India here,” observes Sister Theresa Dennis Punchekunnel MSJ, one of the Medical Sisters of St. Joseph, who works at St. Mary's Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif. The missionary community has established itself officially in this location in just the past few months, although Sister Dennis has been in the country for some years.

“It's like home,” she says, citing the needy Cambodians, Americans, and Hispanics she serves as a pediatric nurse. “You realize here or in India, the needs are the same. There are the same kinds of problems, but the abuse is a little more here.” In the future she'd like to open a home for abused children, she adds.

Meanwhile, beyond the hospital's pediatric unit, the children in the public school are tuned into her presence. They see her full flowing white habit and, as they tell her, they “know I'm something with God.”

That, in fact, is an apt description for all the missionaries coming from other countries to serve in the States.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.

------- EXCERPT: More foreign orders send members stateside to minister to immigrant populations
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