Serving with compassion on the border: Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, will receive peace award

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CNS/David Agren
Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, speaks with a young resident of a tent camp in Matamoros, Mexico.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Recognized by Pope Francis, Time magazine, Catholic Charities and others, Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, will travel to Davenport next month to receive another accolade, the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. Bishop Thomas Zinkula will present the award to the 68-year-old Missionary of Jesus on April 21 at 7 p.m. in Christ the King Chapel on the St. Ambrose University campus in Davenport. The free event is open to the public.

The Quad City Pacem in Terris Coalition selected Sister Norma for her dedication to serving asylum seekers as executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Brownsville Diocese in Texas. Bishop Zinkula endorsed the nomination, which the Diocese of Davenport administers. The award honors Pope John XXIII and commemorates his 1963 encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), which called on all people to secure peace among all nations.

“Last May, Pope Francis sent a video message to Sister Norma thanking her and the team at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley for taking in and helping immigrants in need,” Bishop Zinkula said. “What impresses me the most about Sister Norma is that she responds to pressing human needs with such visible joy and humility. She is truly a model of Christian love.”

Sister Norma said, “It is an honor for someone who is, like me, a child of God, a servant of God to be recognized for the work I’m doing, which is actually for the people I’m reaching out to and helping. It gives me a sense of affirmation that we’re in this together. The true focus is the actual humanity of the people who are suffering at the border.”

The early years

Her parents were immigrants from Matamoros, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas on the south bank of the Rio Grande, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. The family moved back and forth between the two countries until her mother convinced her father to choose a permanent residence. He chose the United States. “He was a family man. He thought maybe in the United States he might have a better chance to raise his family,” Sister Norma said.

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She grew up with dreams of becoming an artist because of her gift for art, but her father wanted her to return home after college to settle down and get married. “I had to re-figure my life,” she said, “so my dad wouldn’t get upset.”

God had plans for Norma, which began when friends invited her to join them in their prayer group before going out to eat at Pizza Hut. “I love pizza,” she said. “God used that to get me.” The prayer group experience inspired a sudden interest in God, so she continued to participate in the prayer group. One of the participants was a Sister of the Missionaries of Jesus, who invited her to a retreat at the convent in Brownsville, where Norma met the oldest sister in the community.

“I felt her really listening to me. I continued to talk with her. I think that was the key in my moving forward (in choosing to enter religious life). She honored my person and who I was … she understood where I was coming from and what I was struggling with. She was present to me, not controlling me.”

Responding to God’s plan

Norma, then 24, entered the Missionaries of Jesus in 1978, a time when many women were leaving religious life, not entering it. She said God drew her to religious life. Her community wanted her to focus on formation and advanced studies, so she left Brownsville to earn a Master of Theology degree. When she returned to her community, the bishop of the Brownsville Diocese asked her to join the diocesan catechetical team. She did that for a year.

Civil war erupted in El Salvador, causing many people to flee and seek refuge in the United States. The bishop asked her community to oversee a shelter for refugees named Casa Oscar Romero in honor of the slain archbishop of El Salvador. Sister Norma developed a deep passion for ministering to the refugees and told her bishop that she wanted to work there 100% of the time. For 10 years, the Missionaries of Jesus operated the shelter, which drew refugees from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

Political controversies and waning numbers of refugees led to the shelter’s closure. Sister Norma sought to further her education. “I realized I was limited in my knowledge of how to help people. All I could do was accompany them. I needed to learn better the dynamics of the human person and to help address the problems they have,” she said.

Loyola University in Chicago accepted her as one of 12 students from around the world to study for a Master’s degree in Pastoral Counseling, which combined her interests in psychology and theology. “I wanted to help kids to have the tools in life to do good,” she said. After completing the two-year program, she returned to the Brownsville Diocese and began working for Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

She counseled children and performed administrative duties for the agency. In 2004, Sister Norma became executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, the leadership position she continues to hold. Now she balances her administrator responsibilities with counseling for the diocesan tribunal and being present to immigrants and refugees on both sides of the U.S. border in the Rio Grande Valley.

A steady focus on people in need

The agency oversees the Humanitarian Respite Center in a former department store in McAllen, Texas. Sister also visits with people in refugee camps in Reynosa, Mexico. The center in McAllen now has the capacity to welcome 1,200 guests overnight, Sister Norma said. Some days, around 50 people seek shelter. Lately, the center has been seeing about 100 to 150 people per day. “Last summer we had 1,500 daily or more. We never turn people away. We find other parish halls where people can go,” she said. “We never say no to nobody.”

Children give her the greatest joy in her ministry. “They give me the life I need to believe that I’m doing the right thing for them. They deserve a better world. On the day of her interview with The Catholic Messenger (March 8), she visited the respite center where kids were running around, playing and having fun. “I enjoyed seeing them and seeing how they are doing. They are the most amazing blessing to us.”

The thing that breaks her heart is “seeing people suffer, and the condition they are in when they arrive. I see a mother, children and a father crying. It breaks my heart. It saddens me to see people who are against helping them. People denying that what we are doing is good and making it look bad.”

Sister Norma does not focus on the naysayers, the ones who see no room for welcoming the suffering asylum seekers in Central America fleeing from difficult situations and seeking a better life in the United States. “I stay focused on the people I need to focus on,” she said. “My energy needs to be focused on doing good for the people who need me to focus on them.”

Pacem in Terris Coalition

The Davenport Catholic Interracial Council created the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 1964. Since 1978, the Quad City Pacem in Terris Coalition has presented the award, which honors Pope John XXIII and commemorates his 1963 encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).

The 2022 Pacem in Terris Planning Committee and contributors are: the Diocese of Davenport; St. Ambrose University, Davenport; Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois; Islamic Center of the Quad Cities; The Catholic Messenger; Muslim Community of the Quad Cities; Temple Emanuel and Con­gregation Beth Israel, Davenport; Congregation of the Humility of Mary, Davenport; Sisters of St. Benedict, Rock Island; Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton; Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa.


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