By Barb Arland-Fye
Nine-year-old Sophia Garcia of Moline, Illinois, greeted Sister Norma Pimentel when she arrived at the airport the night before the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award ceremony with a colorful handmade sign of welcome. I could not make it to the airport to welcome Sister Norma, as I had hoped, because of another commitment.
Sister Norma leads Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, and received the award on April 21 in Davenport for her decades of dedication to ministering to people on the border. Sophia, a fourth-grader at All Saints Catholic School in Davenport, knew about Sister Norma’s service to others because Sophia’s mom, Esmeralda Guerrero, worked behind the scenes preparing for the award ceremony and ensuring that the event ran smoothly.
Esmeralda, the administrative assistant to diocesan Social Action Director Kent Ferris, wanted Sophia to meet Sister Norma, a champion for peace through love, a woman who centers her life in God.
I met up with Sophia, Esmeralda and Sister Norma and others at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport where we viewed a “Border Cantos/Sonic Borders” exhibit. The exhibition “explores the complexities of the southern border through photography, sculpture, and sound” and “humanizes the Mexican-American border, inviting visitors to engage with the complex — and often misunderstood — experiences of those seeking a better life in the United States” (figgeartmuseum.org).
Sister Norma is also an artist who in her limited free time paints vivid portraits of children and adults, the Blessed Mother, angels and other subjects. The museum visit, arranged by Pacem in Terris Coalition member Katie Kiley, complemented the day’s activities.
A mini “caravan” left the museum for an informal luncheon with some faculty, staff and students at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Sophia, Esmeralda and I enjoyed listening in on the conversation of the Augustana group and Sister Norma. During introductions, Sister Norma told the group, “Sophia welcomed me with a beautiful sign.”
Sister Norma shared a funny backstory about a TV broadcast featuring the Humanitarian Respite Center that Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley operates in McAllen, Texas. After learning that a special guest would make a virtual appearance during the broadcast, she insisted on knowing the identity for preparation purposes. “La papa,” was the answer, which puzzled Sister Norma. “La papa” means ‘potato’ in Spanish. “Do you mean ‘el papa’ (the word for “pope”),” she asked. Yes, the special guest would be Pope Francis!
She shared a powerful story about the origins of the respite center in response to an influx of families who crossed the border, were released for travel and dropped off at the bus station. They were in dire need of care before moving on.
Sister Norma and Catholic Charities responded by taking the stranded immigrants to a nearby parish hall where they set up an emergency shelter. Soon, people filled the hall, along with supplies and donations. The city manager arrived and asked Sister Norma, “What are you doing here?” She answered, “Restoring human dignity, that’s what we’re doing.” She said he responded, “Sister, how can I help?”
Sister Norma also spoke at St. Ambrose University after morning Mass at the Humility of Mary Center in Davenport and later in the day at the neighboring St. Vincent Center, which is diocesan headquarters. She encourages supporters and naysayers both to visit the border, to understand the lives of the people seeking refuge.
The next day, I asked Sophia about her impression of Sister Norma. “I think Sister Norma is good and kind with children. I liked the story about how she helps the kids.” Sophia was happy to hear Sister Norma’s story about helping to reunite a little boy and his mom separated after crossing the border. She was sad to hear about kids with mud dried to their bodies after crossing the river. “I liked the story about ‘La Papa,’ ‘The Pope.’”
(Contact Barb Arland-Fye at email@example.com)