Sisters at the Border 

By Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor

Sisters at the Border

Meet Catholic Charities’ national network of religious sisters bringing boots-on-the-ground relief to asylum seekers facing dire circumstances in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Almost instantly after the memo from Sister Donna Markham (CEO of CCUSA) went out, the responses poured in. Sisters across the U.S. packed their bags for the border, where a crisis is spiraling.

They took planes from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and elsewhere. They drove hours from Northern California. Some of them connected in El Paso. Others carpooled from Los Angeles. One recently returned from administration in Rome.

Meanwhile, asylum seekers come to California from regions in deep conflict—Central America, Mexico, South America, Haiti, Africa, and the Middle East…

They are all converging at the U.S.-Mexico border in Imperial County, a remote desert backdrop for migrants who are met with dangerous and devastating conditions as U.S. border agents struggle to manage a record influx under restrictive policies and pandemic protocols.

Epicenter, El Centro

The border crisis has been ongoing—and worsening—since 2014. In 2021, it is reaching inexplicable levels. March 2021 saw more than 172,000 border encounters, including nearly 19,000 children traveling alone, according to The Associated Press.

Welcome to El Centro, California, where many of the migrants cross into the U.S., only to be detained and often separated from family members for days or weeks in overcrowded facilities with no personal supplies. These aren’t “illegals,” drug smugglers, or criminals; they are fearful people and families fleeing persecution, violence, poverty, and other threats in their home countries. They are asylum seekers who must be documented and routed to a final destination.

“The people I saw had been in detention for eight to 10 days, sleeping on concrete with no access to showers and no way to change their clothes,” said Sister Donna Markham, OP, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, after a recent visit. “There’s no way you can look at that degree of human suffering and not be affected by it.”

In El Centro, Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego is assuaging both the crisis and the trauma it inflicts on asylum seekers. We gave the Daily Mail an inside look into two hotels where we are temporarily housing migrants. It is a major operation with many moving parts and high humanitarian stakes, leading Sister Donna to call on all Sisters nationally to assist in person if at all possible, whether in El Centro or two hours west in San Diego. Nearly 200 Sisters responded to the call.


“It’s what I feel called to do,” said Sister Deborah Lockwood of Redwood City, California. “We are sisters to everybody, especially the asylum seekers at the border who are vulnerable and voiceless.”

Sister Deborah spent 25 years at a parish in Las Vegas, followed by 15 years in Rome. The situation in the border reminds her of when the Pope called on Sisters to help asylum seekers from Africa arriving at the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Sister Jane Rudolph, from East Los Angeles, had long been wanting to travel to the border, but was unable to do so during the height of the COVID outbreak in the U.S. As soon as she was fully vaccinated, she put her faith into action. She got a ride from Sister Mary Teresa Parker of Oakland, over eight hours north of the border, and the two headed to San Diego to assist Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego in its response to asylum-seekers in San Diego.

These are just a few of the many Sisters at the border as we speak.

Serving Selflessly

The purpose of Catholic Charities’ aid at the border is to provide asylum seekers with a warm, welcoming, trauma-informed care shelter and meet their basic needs while helping them reunite with family members living elsewhere in the U.S. Our goal with each asylum seeker is to see them to a safe destination and reunite with their families.

The Sisters volunteer as airport guides, food packers, donation center attendants, delivery associates, and in other critical roles. The pandemic makes it difficult to interact with the migrants beyond small snippets.

“We love serving the people,” Sister Jane said. “We just wish we could see them more, but it’s not so easy due to COVID.”

Still, the Sisters find a way to create simple moments of human connection and understanding. Sister Kathy of Philadelphia recalled a newly arrived woman with her family who after a long journey made it safely across the border and were being led to their hotel room. “We see people that come from the border, so many times they haven’t had a shower or brushed their teeth for 5, 6 or 7 days,” Sister Kathy said. “When we opened the door and she saw the bed and the room she let out the deepest sigh of relief.”

 Sister Patrice Coolick, from San Jose, said she likes to knock on the door when delivering meals, in hopes of being able to hand food and supplies to recipients. “I brought cookies for your little girl,” she said to one. Before she could finish the sentence, a five-year-old girl dashed to the door and said, “I’ll take all the cookies!”

These interactions make the giving feel all the more meaningful, but for the Sisters, the inspiration is much bigger than that. “It’s not about us,” Sister Patrice said. “It’s about them. It’s about being good, kind, and compassionate.”

Sister Mary Elaine of Scranton, Pennsylvania added, “We don’t need to be the face of it. We can sort clothes, bag food, drive people to the airport…It doesn’t matter the task. Any tiny piece is good enough for me.” Sister Mary Elaine is stationed for three months in El Centro as the lead Sister on site.

Mobilized, Organized, Humanized

The Sisters bring a world of love and genuine care where it is needed most. They share stories of previous service from around the world and throughout the country—Ecuador, Peru, Thailand, Arizona, Texas, and in each of their respective congregations, organizations, and communities. The Community Engagement Specialist in Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego Immigrant Services Department, the single point of contact for the Sisters gives them the information and resources they need daily to make a difference.

“We feel like a family here,” Sister Mary Teresa said. “Everything is so organized and welcoming.”  Amid chaos and controversy at the border, that’s the same feeling the Sisters are giving to asylum seekers.

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