By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Although it happened more than 70 years ago, Sister Irene Munoz, CHM, will never forget the day she was short-changed at her local general store. As a young Mexican-American girl living in small-town Iowa in the 1940s, she thought the prospect of going back and asking for the proper change was daunting. Her father encouraged her to return to the store and do just that. “I went, and I was so nervous. But the clerk gave me the right change, and it felt good!”
In the years since, Sister Irene has worked to bring about other kinds of “change” — particularly in the lives of immigrant and migrant women. Her mission is and always has been to show them that their voices and their lives are important and worth fighting for.
Sister Irene, who serves as the multicultural minister for the Ottumwa area, joined the Sisters of Humility in the late 1950s. Her sister, Molly, also became a Sister of Humility. Sister Irene recalls, “We had this crazy idea that we could change the world and love people and teach them to respect each other. Our strong faith engineered us to really get in there and think about these people who are suffering and ask, ‘How can we relate to them? What can we do?’”
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Munoz sisters worked with migrant farm workers in the Muscatine area. “I saw many injustices, especially for the women,” Sister Irene recalled. “The women worked long hours with the men, stooping over and picking tomatoes, and then they’d return home … sunburned and tired, having to make the meals and look after the children.” The women did not have the time or money to take care of health issues including pesticide poisoning, pregnancy and spider bites.
To empower the women, the Munoz sisters helped to establish an on-site clinic. Senior medical students from the University of Iowa School of Medicine in Iowa City provided the care. “Every Friday during migrant season we had a free clinic for them,” Sister Irene said. “They were able to get prenatal and postnatal care and get immunizations.” The sisters also advocated for better housing and education for the migrant workers and their families.
In Ottumwa, Sister Irene observes that immigrant and migrant women continue to face obstacles related to poverty, health care, an “inhumane” immigration system and racial discrimination. Culturally, it has been challenging for women to speak out, “but this is starting to change. I’m seeing it more in younger women. They’re getting more involved with politics, community issues and national issues in addition to caring for their families.”
In Ottumwa, she sees women get more involved in organizations such as League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “I’m really pleased with that,” Sister Irene said. “They have to be able to voice what they want; they are entitled to have a decent life and should not be mistreated or violated. We need to let them reach the fullness of their lives, whatever that is.”
Speaking out isn’t always easy and not every scenario will end positively, like the day Sister Irene requested and received proper change from the general store clerk. “When you speak out on issues, you can make friends and lose friends, and people are very cruel sometimes when you speak up for the rights of people who are hurting,” she said, adding, “It’s what we need to do.”
About Sister Irene Munoz
Sister Irene entered the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in 1957 and professed first vows in 1959. Sister Irene received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the St. Joseph School of Nursing in Ottumwa and a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from St. Thomas Theological Seminary in Denver. She is a graduate of the Catholic Biblical School of the Archdiocese of Denver and received her CPE in Clinical Pastoral Education from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
She was an appointed member of the Governor of Iowa to the Spanish-Speaking Commission of Iowa, was a member of the American-Health Delegation to “Red China” in 1973 and attended the International Women’s Year Conference in Nairobi, Africa, in 1989.
Sister Irene was featured in the 2018 book “Amazing Iowa Women,” an illustrated guide to some of Iowa’s most extraordinary women. In March, Sister Irene received the Barbara Boatwright Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emerge Iowa DAWN awards. In August, the USA TODAY Network recognized Sister Irene as one of 10 Women of the Century from the state of Iowa.