Migrant advocate Sister Norma Pimentel honored by Paulist Center

BRAINTREE -- Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus and executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, discovered her calling when she visited a detention center for migrant children on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The children had only just crossed, and the faces, clothes, and hair of the children were gray with mud from the Rio Grande. Tears were coming down their faces. Sister Norma led the children in prayer. They looked up at her with their watery eyes, tugged at her dress and said: "Get me out of here."

"I started to cry with them," Sister Norma recalled as she accepted the Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice from the Paulist Center of Boston on Oct. 21. "I started to ask, 'How can we have them here?' It's something that doesn't make sense to me. They are the face of Christ."

The award is named after Issac Hecker, who founded the Paulist Fathers in 1858. Hecker fought for the rights of German and Irish immigrants living in the slums of 19th-century New York City. Sister Norma has spent the last 40 years serving and assisting asylum-seekers from Central and South America.

"If Isaac Hecker were alive today, I suspect he and Norma would be good friends," said Susan Rutkowski, the Paulist Center's pastoral minister of family religious education and social justice.

Sister Norma , the daughter of Mexican immigrants, grew up on the border. She received national notoriety for her opposition to former President Donald Trump's immigration policies. Pope Francis has publicly praised her work for migrants, causing her to be known as "the pope's favorite nun." In 2020, she was named one of TIME Magazine's Most Influential People.

"She has lived the American Dream of coming from a family of simple means," Rutkowski said, "and living a life of service that has given her more celebrity than she ever imagined, or probably wants."

Rutkowski called Sister Norma "a charismatic icon" and an inspiration to those assisting immigrants. As Massachusetts's religious and secular institutions struggle to assist a historic influx of migrants, Rutkowski asked those at the award ceremony to remember the millions of people fleeing violence and persecution worldwide.

Ed Marakovitz, coordinator of the Paulist Center Immigration Advocacy Group, and Christine Tardiff, the Paulist Center's liturgical dance coordinator, nominated Sister Norma for the award. Tardiff recently visited the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, which Sister Norma founded in 2014 to provide basic needs to migrants.

"This is truly an honor for me to be here and to follow in the footsteps of the amazing person who started the Paulist Fathers," Sister Norma said in her acceptance speech.

She said that her work is inspired by Pope Francis's call to reach out to those "on the peripheries" of society, including migrants.

"When we're leaving somebody out, we leave God out," she said. "So, we must always remember this when we find ourselves among others who might make us uncomfortable, as immigrants might make us uncomfortable."

Sister Norma calls her mission "restoring human dignity." She described how "radiant" migrants became when she provided them with showers after their long, exhausting journeys to the U.S.

"A simple thing we sometimes take for granted is water," she said.

When she comforted and prayed with migrant children, a detention center guard told her: "Thank you. You made us realize they're human beings."

"Sometimes we forget our own humanity when we get caught up in all those laws and regulations and jobs and things that we must do," she said, "and we forget that the face of God is in the heart of every single one of us."

She said that the U.S. doesn't have a crisis of immigrants, but a crisis of hate and an unwillingness among people of faith to do what the Gospel calls them to do.

She added that all people have a responsibility to "stand up and defend life. All life."