Texas town flooded by refugees copes through ministry at Sacred Heart Catholic Church

by Sara Woelfel

The Rev. Tom Luczak, O.F.M., ’73, and Sister Anita Jennissen, O.S.F., ’81, never met each other before crossing paths and ministries in recent years in McAllen, Texas, a community five miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite their common Franciscan roots, their mutual Midwestern origins and their shared Stritch connection, the two first met at Sacred Heart Catholic Church where Father Tom serves as pastor and Sister Anita volunteers as a spiritual director and in several ministries.

While the individual journeys that brought them to McAllen are quite distinctive, Father Tom and Sister Anita both speak of the importance of serving the people of this border town. Many residents are impoverished and the community as a whole is constantly challenged by the influx of wearied migrants crossing the Rio Grande to flee the violent threats, government unrest and deteriorating conditions in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and other troubled Central American countries.

“Our Franciscan documents are always calling us to identify more directly with the poor,” Father Tom said. “As Franciscans, we are called to stretch ourselves and go beyond our comfort zones, to go live among people and in cultures where we can experience what being a minority feels like. So we reach out and go places where there is a great need. The Diocese of Brownsville is probably one of the poorest dioceses in the United States and has the most number of Catholics with the least number of priests to serve them.”

When Father Tom arrived in McAllen in 2006, his religious order – the Franciscan Friars, Assumption BVM Province – assumed responsibility for Sacred Heart Catholic Church when the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate who originally founded the church no longer could support and staff it. The friars now manage two local parishes and minister to a growing region where the average age of residents is 25-30, local hospitals report 40-50 births a day, a new primary school is built each month, and one million Catholics reside. The oldest in the city, Sacred Heart is considered the mother parish of approximately 12 located within a seven-mile radius, six of which are in McAllen.

“We now have 30 different ministries at the parish, with many developed since we arrived here 10 years ago,” Father Tom said. “Once we came here, these things began to evolve as people responded.”

Of all the ministries offered to the community and its residents, the one that recently gained international attention began on June 10, 2014, when Father Tom received a phone call from Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J., executive director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, asking if her organization could stage a refugee help center at Sacred Heart.

“She said, ‘Can we use the parish hall for a few days? Immigration is dropping off lots of migrants at the bus station and they need a place where they can get food and clothing before taking buses to meet family in various parts of the country,’” Father Tom said.

The estimate of a “few days” grossly misjudged the magnitude of the crisis. A year and a half later, Sacred Heart continues to house this “temporary” humanitarian respite center, which has evolved into a well-oiled Catholic Charities and Salvation Army volunteer operation providing donated clothing, nourishment, medical care, showers, sleeping quarters and provisions for the next leg of the journey. Nearly 30,000 refugees have found solace, warm smiles and comfort at the center, with hundreds more continuing to arrive each week.

“The community and the parish are very generous,” said Father Tom, who takes time when he can to visit with the families at the center and hear their stories. “We’re doing exactly what Jesus said: ‘I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was naked, and you clothed me.’ We had no difficulty knowing what we needed to do. It’s the right place for us to be right now and it’s the right thing for us to be doing and it’s the right location because it borders a colonia within the boundaries of the parish.”

Sister Anita of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota, likewise spends time with refugees when her schedule allows and is especially attentive to the children who visit the center.

“They come in scared and dirty, and I like to give them a stuffed toy,” Sister Anita said. “They grab it and then can take it with them on the bus, possibly use it as a pillow. I also talk to their moms, hear their stories and just do what I can to help them on their journey.”

The work of the center garnered media attention from the outset, but reached a peak in August when Pope Francis chose Sacred Heart as one of three sites for a live telecast in advance of his September visit to the U.S. During the virtual audience, he spoke with Sister Norma and immigrants helped by the center.

Both Father Tom and Sister Anita expect to remain in McAllen, continuing their ministries until called to new work.

“You have to trust that God is going to lead you in the right way,” Sister Anita said. “And when you take time to discern and be aware, He does that every day. He leads all of us.”

Prior to coming to McAllen, they each followed their Franciscan vocation to live according to what the Gospel calls them to be.

Father Tom earned his master’s in special education from Stritch through summer courses and initially focused on religious education for developmentally disabled adults. He taught special education in Illinois, became an administrator at the school, and then went on to serve his province first as novice director, then as director of formation for all levels for the province and finally as provincial minister for a six-year term. When his term ended, he took a yearlong sabbatical to learn Spanish before choosing to minister to the people of McAllen.

Sister Anita’s ministry prior to McAllen took her to worldwide locations, where she brought her nursing skills, spiritual direction, chaplaincy training, and gift for mission work to people in need. Born in Minnesota in a family of 14 children, she ventured forth to minister in places like Peru, Columbia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal and Mexico. Details of her lifelong work is shared in a piece published by the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, and her McAllen ministry is well documented in piece published by the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota, in commemoration of her 60th Jubilee in 2012.

“I always say whenever we give, we receive so much more. I feel I’m the one who’s blessed,” Sister Anita said.   

Web links:

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas

“Immigrants offered medical care, showers, place to sleep as they wait to take buses north” (The Monitor, published June 18, 2014)

“Immigrant moms crossing Texas border at alarming rate” (USA Today, published July 5, 2014)

“With children in need, a Texas town sets politics aside” (MSNBC, broadcast July 8, 2014)

“Franciscan Sister working in the middle of child immigration crisis” (Dairyland Peach, published July 20, 2014)

“Immigrants discover the Heart of Texas,” including photos of Father Tom and Sister Anita at the center (St. Anthony Shrine, published July 14, 2015)

ABC News 20/20 broadcast, including coverage of live telecast with Pope Francis (broadcast Sept. 4, 2015)

“McAllen Catholic church continues to open its doors to Central American migrants” (Observer, published Sept. 11, 2015)