Seeing the ‘face of Christ’ at the border

Categories: Around the Diocese

Franciscan sister from Little Falls ministers to migrants at Texas parish 

By Pat Norby
For The Visitor

Sister Anita Jennissen brought a message from Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, Texas, to share with the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls as she prepares to celebrate her 60th jubilee Aug. 11 with the community.

“The whole message of what McAllen is doing [to help the Central American refugees] could be a model for all of us — to realize that when there is a situation such as that, to be grateful that you can do something,” she said.


Sister Anita Jennissen

Sister Anita, 81, has been serving for the past seven years as a spiritual director at the Texas parish, which is just two blocks from the busy bus depot where the U.S. Border Patrol has dropped off thousands of people from the violence-torn northern triangle of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

“When the refugees come over, they are in such a terrible state,” she said. Many of them are mothers and children who have traveled for a month or more to reach the United States.

“Our parish gave our parish hall and our parking lot for them to use. It’s become a refugee center,” she said.

Some people are only there a few hours. Others sleep there, so the city has put up tents. The parish — with help from private donations, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Save the Children and numerous volunteers — provides showers, clean clothing, food, small toys and a bit of dignity.

“It’s just amazing the generosity of the local people and the volunteers,” Sister Anita said. In turn, serving the refugees has been a gift to the community, she added.


Franciscan Sister Anita Jennissen sits during a meal with children at Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, Texas. Photo courtesy of Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls

Sister Anita’s role is to encourage the volunteers and be there to listen to the mothers and the fathers who fled their homes because their countries have become a center for drug cartels. That is why they are refugees, according to United Nations law, Sister Anita said.

“Some of them cried in telling their stories of how difficult it was to say goodbye to their families,” she said. Some of them left older children and parents and paid $4,000 per person to stay in cheap hotels on the way to the U.S. border. Then they had to walk across the river or take a boat, often for an additional fee.

“Those are the kind of things we have to look at with immigration,” she said. “It’s a big question, but in the meantime we just look at the people that are coming over and care for them. We’re not the government, we are Christians and we are there.”

Sister Anita said the refugee situation is a blessing for those seeking to help. “They gave us an opportunity to practice kindness and charity and we saw the response of love from the people we ministered to.”

The people Sacred Heart serves are children accompanied by a parent. (Unaccompanied children are taken to a center and processed.) When they are picked up by the Border Patrol and immigration authorities, they’re put in a holding center where they sleep on the floor and are given food and water, she said. Once the Border Patrol lets them go to a family member living in the United States, parish volunteers help them at the bus depot.

“We help them understand the bus ticket because from McAllen they’re going to be changing buses two or three times before they get to Los Angeles or New York or wherever they’re going,” she said.

“I remember the little lady from Guatemala who could not speak Spanish,” Sister Anita said. She spoke an Indian dialect and, when they found a man at the California consulate who spoke her language, “her smile said everything.”

All about trust 

A Guatemalan man was heading to Minnesota where his brother worked on a turkey farm and all he could say was, “I’m going to Minneapolis,” Sister Anita said. “He didn’t know the name of the town, but that is the way they all came and they just trusted. . . . They had to trust.”

Many of the people at Sacred Heart are of Mexican descent, and are some from Guatemala and El Salvador and they feel a need to “pay back,” Sister Anita said. “People from all over have come to reach out and be the face of Christ to them,” she said. Other volunteer groups came from a lay community in Germany, Mexico City, Protestants from a nearby town and from the St. Cloud Diocese.

Sister Anita’s grand-niece, Alexis Nelson, who will be a senior this fall at Sauk Centre High School, will join the nun for a couple of weeks when she returns to McAllen in August, she said.

“We are all of us descendants of immigrants,” Sister Anita said. “They were looking for a better life and these people are looking for safety for their families.”

One thing parishioners everywhere can do is pray that their leaders do the right thing.

“Instead of militarizing everything, we need to help develop countries,” Sister Anita said. “That’s simplistic, but we spend a lot of money on war. Maybe we need to spend more on peace.”

When Sister Anita thinks of the trillions the U.S. has spent on war, she thinks of how much could have been built. “We could have built a lot of schools and factories, hospitals and other things so people wouldn’t have to leave their country,” she said.