By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
OTTUMWA — Sister Irene Munoz, or “Madre Irene,” as she is known fondly in the Hispanic community, leaves more than her heart in Ottumwa after retiring July 31 as multicultural minister. For the many people whose lives she touched, Madre Irene leaves the gifts of inspiration, motivation, perseverance and the Catholic faith to carry on her work of service to and empowerment of others for generations to come.
People like Ana De La Torre, director of Religious Education for St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa, where Madre Irene served for the past 23 years of her 65-year ministry with the Congregation of the Humility of Mary. Ana was 14, newly arrived from Mexico with her mother and siblings, when she met Madre Irene in 2003. Ana’s father had arrived earlier and appreciated Madre Irene for her compassion and encouragement toward him.
“The first time we came to Mass, she asked us to stand up as she welcomed all the new families.” The congregation applauded when Ana’s family stood up. “Finding a new family within the church was nice,” she said. Her family became close with Madre Irene, who through the years encouraged Ana and many other immigrants to get involved in the church and the community.
Ana became a catechist because of Madre Irene’s influence and the Humility sister convinced Ana to apply for the Religious Education director position. “She was the one who pushed me to do it, many times.” The first time, “Sister said, ‘Ana, you need to apply. We need someone who is bilingual.’” Anna applied but the parish hired someone more experienced. When the position opened a few years later, Ana said Madre Irene told her, “You need to apply. This is your time.” Ana applied, knowing that Madre Irene “wanted to have someone speak for the Hispanic families in the church” and assuring Ana that “You know the needs of the community.”
St. Mary parishioner Sandra Trejo-Wirfs, who helped coordinate a community potluck on July 31 to honor Madre Irene, said the nun encouraged people’s participation in the church by suggesting they would be good in a particular ministry. “She would talk to the kids and ask, ‘Do you want to be a priest?’ ‘Do you want to read (lector)?’ ‘Do you want to teach Sunday school?’” Sandra said she previously served as a catechist at Madre Irene’s request.
Now Sandra is involved with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which organized the potluck in the parish hall followed by a ceremony in Central Park, across the street from the church. “She’s our hero in Ottumwa,” Sandra said. “She opened the way for Latinos to follow her path. She’s outspoken, fighting for human rights and being present in the community.”
“She fights for all the immigrants. She’s a fighter,” said Jose Rivera, of St. Mary Parish in Ottumwa, who has known Madre Irene for 22 years, and gave her a big bear hug during the potluck in the church hall. “She brings people together.”
Human rights advocate
LULAC released a statement announcing the potluck and detailing Madre Irene’s groundbreaking influence and advocacy for immigrants, calling her an “Iowa Civil Rights Icon.” LULAC said most people know Madre Irene as a community leader “welcoming immigrants to Ottumwa and helping to address their basic and faith needs.”
However, as a native Iowan of Hispanic descent, a nurse, nun and outspoken advocate for human rights, Madre Irene “started her social justice service in Muscatine advocating for the rights of the farm workers and their families,” LULAC said. “She fought to establish basic standards for migrant housing when she saw farmers converting chicken coops or hog sheds to migrant camps.”
Madre Irene lobbied for “reform of the Iowa child labor law, which until the 1960s excluded the children of migrant workers from its provisions. She fought for the children to be in school during the summer and not working in the fields.”
“I have a restless spirit. When I see injustice, I want to act on it. When I see injustice, I feel it keenly,” said Madre Irene, who recalls her ministry in Muscatine with vivid memories. She and one of her siblings, Sister Molly Munoz, worked together for a time, ministering to seasonal farm workers. They offered a health clinic on Friday nights and advocated for justice for the migrant workers through a group they helped organize, Muscatine Migrant Committee.
“We settled a lot of people in Muscatine. We worked hard for that,” Madre Irene said. Seasonal farm work “is a hard life. They had all these conditions that affected them — pesticides flying over, work injuries, a lot of insect bites, dehydration, and they worked long hours … you had the whole family working out there.”
She remembers plenty of positive experiences, too. In their limited spare time, the farm workers enjoyed celebrations and dances. “That’s where Sister Molly and I learned to dance. They all came in with their sombreros and their Texas pointed shoes.”
A deepening commitment
“Sister Irene’s early years working with others in the Muscatine-area migrant ministry were ground-breaking for us since the CHM community was just opening to ministry opportunities outside of classrooms and hospitals,” said Sister Johanna Rickl, the community’s president. “That ministry opened a window for us to learn more about the life of some people on the margins of society. Real world interaction can be a first step in deepening one’s commitment to the struggle for justice in places where that is needed. Personal sharing of experiences is powerful and the community has learned a lot through Sister Irene’s ministry.”
After her ministry in Muscatine, Madre Irene earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry, with an emphasis on Hispanic ministry. Afterwards, she ministered to immigrants in the Archdiocese of Denver, focusing on the Western Slope where immigrants worked in ski resorts. “We saw the need for the people to get the sacraments.” Mass was offered in English but not in Spanish until Madre Irene persisted in making it happen. “All of those churches now have Spanish Mass. It was like we were planting seeds,” she said. The seed planting included leadership development of immigrant workers.
In 1999, Madre Irene moved to Ottumwa to serve the Hispanic community. “In the very beginning in Ottumwa (the influx of immigrants) was overwhelming for the city.” She collaborated with an Episcopalian priest and others to start English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. They recruited retired teachers to help teach classes. She convinced immigrants already living in houses or apartments to make space for newly arriving immigrants. A health clinic began. She successfully worked to establish the Spanish Mass at St. Mary of the Visitation and was active in the greater community, serving on the Ottumwa Human Rights Commission.
She “helped to assimilate the immigrants into the community,” recalls Ottumwa Mayor Rick Johnson. He worked with Madre Irene when he served as area administrator with the Iowa Department of Human Services. “For 23 years, she has been a huge advocate for the Latino community,” he said.
Mother Teresa of Iowa
During the July 31 ceremony honoring Madre Irene, Mayor Johnson called her “the Mother Teresa of Iowa” and applauded her inspiration and engagement that has helped Ottumwa become a welcoming community to all residents — long-time and newcomers. Two days after the celebration, the City Council approved a community request to the honorary naming of a portion of Church Street (the 300 to 900 blocks) after Madre Irene.
Her total immersion in the lives of the Hispanic community at St. Mary of the Visitation Parish and in the greater community played out in a visual way at the July 31 celebration. She danced in the church hall to the Mariachi Amatlan band, hugged the many well-wishers who interrupted her meal as she dined with Sister Molly and their brother, Tomas.
“You came from many countries. I’m so glad you landed in Ottumwa,” she said with emotion at the ceremony in Central Park after the potluck. “My heart will always be full of the love and spirit of Ottumwa. I will miss Ottumwa.”
With Madre Irene’s retirement, Ottumwa will be without a Sister of Humility for the first time in 145 years. In closing remarks at a July 27 celebration, Sister Johanna said: “With Sister Irene leaving, CHMs may not be physically present in Ottumwa anymore, but their spirit remains in the community and the Ottumwa Community will always remain in the hearts of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. Thank you for these wonderful 145 years of traveling side by side into a hopeful future. May we continue to be united as we share God’s love wherever we are!”