Childhood experience inspires sister’s work with immigrants, migrants

Sister Irene Munoz, CHM, talks to a migrant family in Muscatine in the late 1960s.

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.

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Stopping hate, showing love in Clinton

Barb Arland-Fye
Clinton High School Principal J.R. Kuch leads participants in the annual “Stop the Hate/Show the Love” event outside the school on Sept. 17.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

CLINTON — A peaceful protest this past summer against racism did not get much press because this community’s members have learned how to talk with one another. “That’s why we should make the news,” said Karl Wolf during the 22nd Annual “Stop the Hate/Show the Love” event on Sept. 17. The Clinton Peace Center, a ministry of the Clinton Franciscans, is among the event’s sponsors.

Wolf served as master of ceremony for the event that started inside Clinton High School with a welcome from Principal J.R. Kuch, who quoted Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Kuch encouraged the gathering of around 50 adults and children, all wearing face masks, to “focus on the things that bring us together rather than the things that divide us.” That will make the world a better place to live.
Clinton High School’s A’ Cappella Choir performed “Three Things” by Ryan Main and “Be the Change” by Marc Kaplan/Colin Britt. The young singers wore face masks as they sang softly but clearly. The “Three Things” referred to trust, love and care. “Be the Change” lyrics included “Be the change you want to see in the world and change will come to you.”

Clinton Police Department Captain Pat Cullen spoke about conflict resolution. “We have to sit down together, constantly, working on living by the golden rule,” he said. “We need to come to peaceful solutions (to problems). Political party affiliation, the color of one’s skin or social status does not matter. “We can work together; we’ve proven it,” he said.

Afterwards, Kuch picked up the slender, white peace pole and led everyone to a grassy area outdoors for the gathering at the peace pole and release of butterflies. Attendees wearing face masks sang “Let There be Peace on Earth” and young children released butterflies from a mesh basket to fly gracefully into the sky.

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Overcoming homelessness: a milestone 30 years in the making

Barb Arland-Fye
Connie Coopman lived with her baby daughter in this apartment complex 30 years ago thanks to what has become Humility Homes and Services, Inc. Beside her are CHM Sisters Johanna Rickl and Mary Ann Vogel.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DAVENPORT — Connie Coopman’s eyes begin to water as she stands in front of Apartment 2 on West Columbia Avenue, the place she and her infant daughter Carissa called home, allowing them to avoid homelessness 30 years ago.

“I knew I needed to find some degree of normalcy for myself and my daughter,” Coopman, 51, told The Catholic Messenger during a 30th anniversary celebration of Humility Homes and Services outside the apartment complex where it all began. The nonprofit agency provided mother and daughter with a home and supportive services so that Coopman, then a senior at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, could complete her bachelor’s degree. She and Carissa were the first participants of Humility of Mary Housing, Inc., which merged two years ago with Humility of Mary Shelter, Inc. to become Humility Homes and Services, Inc. (HHSI).

Related reading: HHSI serves up to 300 people daily

“This was more than a roof over my head. It was the foundation under my feet,” said Coopman, who went on to a successful career in business, married and raised a family. She has served on the agency’s board of directors, donates to HHSI and has assisted with fundraising projects. Her daughter Carissa is a teacher, wife and young mother in the Des Moines area. Humility of Mary Housing provided lessons on finance, nutrition, child development and other life skills, along with setting goals, and bonding with other families in similar situations. “It gave you a chance to change your situation,” Coopman said.

Responding to needs

In the 30 years, since the Congregation of the Humility of Mary (CHM) established Humility of Mary Housing, Inc., the agency “has assisted hundreds of families in finding safe, quality housing and has helped them re-establish their own loving homes.” Moreover, Hu­mility of Mary Housing “has led the Quad Cities in expanding housing options and related supportive services for families experiencing homelessness and near homelessness.” (Humility Homes and Services Guide to Giving 2019).
Sister Mary Ann Vogel, CHM, remembers meeting Coopman 30 years ago. “She came over with little Carissa … who could say no to something like that? A new mom with a 10-day-old baby girl who needed a place to live?”

Coopman’s commitment to building a life for herself and her daughter convinced the CHM sisters to accept their first participants into a program begun in response to unmet needs in the Quad Cities. The sisters started out small, Sister Vogel said, after having done their homework first. Through conversations with leaders in the Quad Cities, “we heard over and over the need for affordable housing.” That need looms even larger today, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has caused economic distress nationwide.

Thirty years ago, two populations were most in need of affordable housing, elderly persons and single-parent families. “We chose the latter group. We did not just want to be landlords; we wanted to effect change in people’s lives. We had long been educators and we wanted to help those experiencing homelessness to become self-sufficient,” Sister Vogel said. “It is very difficult to focus on such goals when one doesn’t have a place to call home and, even more so, when one has children to care for.”

Saving a shelter

“Our program grew and we had many success stories and the needs kept growing,” Sister Vogel said. Their record of accomplishment in assisting families to gain stable housing and stability in their lives led the greater community to turn to the sisters in 2008 when the only emergency shelter in the Quad Cities faced bankruptcy.

“There was great concern in the Quad Cities about what would happen to the 80 people who would be out on the streets if there was no entity to keep the doors open,” Sister Vogel said. “We stepped up, created another corporation (Humility of Mary Shelter, Inc.) and when the doors were closed, we opened them so no one ever had to leave their temporary home.”

Saying yes to that project meant accepting responsibility for federal grants of nearly $1 million and the various supportive housing programs and rent subsidies for people who would have been homeless otherwise. “Instead of staffing a shelter for 80 adult men and women, we were also responsible for the people in these other programs.”

In July 2018, the housing and shelter programs merged to become Humility Homes and Services, Inc., which commits to ending homelessness by offering housing opportunities and supportive services in the greater Quad-Cities area and striving toward a vision of a home for every person. Leaders of HHSI helped shape the Quad City Housing Cluster’s “Silos to Solutions” new initiative to address affordable housing needs of the Quad Cities.

The go-to agency

“Housing will become a more intense crisis as the pandemic exerts its influence on the economy and the health of our citizens. HHSI is the go-to agency in the Quad Cities to address these needs,” said Lloyd Kilmer, who chairs the HHSI board of directors. “The community has confidence that we will be welcoming and treat our participants with respect. We have been fortunate to gain the financial support and trust of many individuals and organizations.”

Kent Ferris, director of Social Action and Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Davenport, deeply appreciates the work of HHSI. “The novel housing programs that provide support to families is the model for many others in the area. A generation of families have now benefited. That is a beautiful and holy reality!”

As a legal aid attorney for 25 years, Linda Molyneaux of Davenport was “always happy when my clients had housing through Humility of Mary Housing. That meant I could count on my clients having support and stability as I helped them with their legal problems. And if their legal problems involved their housing with Humility of Mary, I could count on the disputes being resolved fairly, following the procedures the agency had established.”

Her experience with Humility of Mary Housing “was part of what drew me to the associate relationship” with the Congregation of the Humility of Mary 10 years ago. “After I became an associate I did not become directly involved in representing clients in disputes with this agency,” she noted.

“I’m really proud to be part of an organization that has maintained such integrity in the community over the last 30 years and continues to find innovative solutions to the housing crisis,” said Christie Adamson, assistant director of HHSI.

A national challenge

Sister Vogel expresses gratitude for staff, volunteers, donors, funders and grantors, all of whom make the work of HHSI possible. “We would not be where we are today without the tremendous staff that goes far above and beyond in what they do to help the people we serve,” she said. “It takes a ‘big village’ to support a program such as ours and to make a difference in the lives of those being served.”

“Our 30 years of experience have helped shape our understanding of the affordable housing issues,” Sister Vogel said. “An even bigger factor in that understanding is the collaborative efforts of many groups, public, private and governmental, in the Quad Cities. It is a community challenge that is part of a much bigger challenge facing our entire country. We simply have to be out advocating for the needs of those who come to us for service. So many changes have to take place in order for everyone to have a place to call home and to keep that home.”


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