Federation novices reflect on weeklong ‘Border Experience’

April 8, 2016 by


By Debbie Timmis, CSJ, communications director for the CSSJ Federation


The CSSJ Federation novices spent March 28-April 4 in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Novice director Betty Suther, CSJ, described the educational, immersion experience as “a time of listening to the needs of the dear neighbor.”

The trip came on the heels of a visit to Concordia and presentation by Carol Zinn, SSJ, who represented the Sisters of St. Joseph throughout the world at the United Nations from 2002 to 2009.

“Carol told us this, ‘ How do you change the world?’ You change the world where your feet are – one relationship at a time, one conversation at a time, one phone call at a time and one email at a time,” shared Christine Carbotte, a Federation novice from London, Ontario, Canada.

Christine said the issue of immigration is one not only for the United States but all of North America. “We need to consider more than the bottom line when making decisions about who makes our clothes or grows and picks our food,” she explained. “We need to study the far reaching effects of a decision on the people whose labor we depend upon and the impact of the decision on the environment.”

Sister Patricia Urbinelli

Sister Patricia Urbinelli

Novice Patty Urbinelli, from Watertown N.Y., said she was surprised that the people she encountered during this experience were not focused on a handout but on sharing their lives and experiences. She was very moved by a man greeting them at the Farmworkers Center in El Paso who spent time showing them pictures of his mother who is sick in the hospital.

“His main concern was to share his mother with us and ask us for prayers,” said Patty.

The schedule of the trip was designed to give the novices the best picture of the immigration issue, the plight of the immigrant and the services provided by various agencies.


Highlights of the Border Experience

Sister Betty and the novices were asked to share some of the highlights and lasting memories of this experience.

For all those interviewed, Centro Santa Catalina, in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, will remain in their memories and prayers for years to come.  This sewing cooperative and extended day center for children offers opportunities to both women and their children. The sewing of prayer flags and the tutoring offered to their children during the hours when they are not in school are invaluable. Centro Santa Catalina is described as a faith-based community founded in 1996 by Dominican Sisters for the spiritual, educational and economic empowerment of economically poor women and for the welfare of their families.

The Center offers many programs to help the women and their families. Among these are:

  • Values, Faith and Life spirituality program
  • Sewing cooperative
  • Gardening cooperative
  • Pre-kinder and kindergarten
  • Home work help for primary school children
  • Youth group for secondary school children
  • Scholarship program for children in elementary and secondary school

Betty said the school and sewing coop were not in session during the Easter break but the women came in to show the novices, sisters and agregees their work and also prepared lunch.

Patty shared that during lunch the seating separated the English-speaking visitors from the Spanish-speaking women. One woman, Irena, stood up and moved her chair in the midst of the visitors and started asking questions. “It was a brave move and took a lot of courage on her part,” Patty said. “It spoke to me of our charism and the desire we have to bridge borders of all kinds.”

Christine was impressed by the resourcefulness of the women: “Even the scraps of material that fell on the ground were not wasted but used as filling for packaging the projects the women sew.”

For more on the center, go to its website, centrosantacatalina.org

On Friday night, all the women religious serving the needs of those in both Juarez and El Paso met for a social. There were 35 women in all representing many congregations. Patty remarked that, “The differences among the congregations seem quite small because we are all concerned about the needs of the people before us.” Betty said that many of the women who came to the social had served in various missions in Latin America and wanted to continue to serve closer to home.

Another highlight mentioned by all three interviewed was the Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos or Farmworkers’ Center in El Paso. Here the men who pick chilies and other crops are given food and a place to sleep.

Christine was horrified to learn that men are paid 68 cents for a large bucket of chilies, and buckets are routinely rejected for payment if there is the least trace of debris found in the bucket. At this rate of payment a person would need to pick 100 buckets per day to earn minimum wage. In reality only a very strong man can pick 60 to 70 buckets.

Read More at Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos at farmworkers.org/centreng.html


Some Final Reflections

The novices were asked, “What surprised you? What were some highlights for you personally?” Here are their responses:

Christine Carbotte: “I was surprised at the discrepancies between the touristy area of Juarez and the poverty of the people only a few miles from the city. I was saddened by the violence brought to Juarez because of the drug trade. Sister Betty, a sister of Mercy whom we met, showed us the names of those who have died because of violence in Juarez and those who have disappeared —including women, priests and children — because of the drug cartels. Also, homeowners outside the city purposely leave their homes in disrepair as to not display any sign of wealth or not stand out in the neighborhood. This is seen as a way to stay safe and avoid any attacks on their families.”

Patty Urbinelli: “For me, this experience was a highlight of the Federation Novitiate. At Centro Santa Catalina it was wonderful to be able to look into the faces of the women and see in their eyes their faith, hope, love and caring. These immigrants want what every person wants – a safe place for their family, a home and education. Their future is in their children. I also learned that we need to ask people what their needs are and not assume that we know this ahead of time. This is something that I can bring into ministry in Watertown along with the awareness of the plight of farmworkers everywhere. In Watertown we have farmworkers who have originated from Mexico. I now understand their journey and all they had to go through to have a chance at life. Being with people who have had these experiences made the immigrant experience tangible for me. I would hope that such an immersion experience be part of the Federation Novitiate no matter where the Federation Novitiate is located in the future.”

The group in Juarez, from left, Sister Betty Suther, Sister Ann Ashwood, Sister Mary Ann Larocque, Cecilia Thrash, Sister Missy Crawford, Sister Christine Carbotte, Sister Patricia Urbinelli, the director of the sewing coop and another sister who serves in El Paso.

The group in Juarez, from left, Sister Betty Suther, Sister Ann Ashwood, Sister Mary Ann Larocque, Cecilia Thrash, Sister Missy Crawford, Sister Christine Carbotte, Sister Patricia Urbinelli, the director of the sewing coop and another sister who serves in El Paso.



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