Sunday gathering commemorates Sanctuary anniversary

April 24, 2013 by

Thirty years ago this week, Sister Anna Marie Broxterman and the other women who lived at Manna House of Prayer were struggling with an anxiety that is not common among Sisters of St. Joseph.

In the midst of horrific bloodshed in El Salvador and Guatemala, they had publicly joined the Sanctuary movement and offered to shelter refugees fleeing from those war-wracked Central American nations.

In the wake of that declaration — the only such made by any church or religious organization in Kansas — the media arrived first.

Reporters from newspapers across the state wrote articles that were picked up by Universal Press International and The Associated Press, and the story was covered by TV network news, with in-depth reporting by Jessica Savitch on PBS’ Frontline news magazine. Catholic newspapers nationwide reported on the Sanctuary movement and Manna House’s declaration.

Sister Carm Thibault, then a staff member at Manna House of Prayer in Concordia, holds 10-month-old Veronica Aguirre in late April 1983. Veronica was 2 days old when her parents and grandparents fled their village in northwest Guatemala.

Then came the refugees — a family of six who had fled their village in northwest Guatemala after military forces swept through and killed many of their neighbors before dousing homes in gasoline and torching it all.

The family arrived at Manna House on April 26, 1983.

This Sunday (April 28) the Sisters of St. Joseph will commemorate that anniversary with a special gathering from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Nazareth Motherhouse. The public is invited.

The gathering will feature a short program by Broxterman, who was director of Manna House at the time, and Sister Judy Stephens. It will be in the Motherhouse Auditorium, and will be followed by refreshments and coffee.

Many of the sisters who were part of the Sanctuary declaration will be on hand, as will several members of the Guatemalan family and other special invited guests who were crucial to their success in 1983 and beyond.

One group that did not arrive 30 years ago was the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The sisters’ anxiety over their public declaration came from the knowledge that their action was illegal in the eyes of the INS and the Reagan administration.

As political repression and civil war ravaged Guatemala and El Salvador from 1980 to 1991, nearly 1 million Central American refugees crossed the U.S. border seeking asylum, according to the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America. But the Reagan administration argued that these refugees were “economic migrants” fleeing poverty rather than political repression, so they were not eligible for asylum in the U.S.

At its peak, the Sanctuary movement included more than 500 congregations and organizations — including Manna House — across the country.

The focus for the sisters and laywomen at Manna House quickly shifted from anxiety over legal repercussions and media attention to concern for the six Guatemalans in their midst.

They had arrived via an “underground railroad” operated by the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America. The family included father Armando and mother Rosario and their 13-year-old son Roberto, as well as their daughter Juana and her husband Miguel. Juana and Miguel’s daughter Veronica was 9 months old when they arrived in Concordia; she had been born two days before they fled their village.

Their native language was Mam, one of 22 Indian dialects spoken in Guatemala, and they also spoke Spanish. None of the family members spoke English.

They spent only a couple of weeks at Manna House, and then moved to a very small house owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph about five blocks away. There they began the process of building a new life — finding jobs, planting a garden, sewing blouses like they had in their village.

Months later, more members of Armando’s extended family arrived and stayed for a short time. Then Rosario’s parents arrived. Her mother died here in the summer of 1985 and is buried in the sisters’ Nazareth Cemetery. Her father later returned to Guatemala and recently died there.

In the mid-1980s the family members gained legal status that allowed them to stay in the United States and they later became naturalized citizens.

Most of the family — including children born after their arrival in the United States — live in the Salina area today and maintain contact with the Sisters of St. Joseph.


2 Responses to “Sunday gathering commemorates Sanctuary anniversary”

  1. Anne M. Reinert on April 28th, 2013 7:28 pm

    Often anniversary celebrations, honor a wedding, a retirement, a birthday etc. This celebration was much more, it brought us in touch with our own vulnerability , and in union with those fleeing their homeland, a life or death choice. The joy of the day, their story and ours, which now allows them to return to their native land or to flourish in theses United States. This day was special. S.Anne

  2. Missy Ljungdahl on April 26th, 2013 8:17 pm

    What a gift this moment was for us. God is so present in relationships. Let us stay courageous to God’s invitations.
    Sarah, this is a great article.

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