To hear this and other profiles, subscribe to The Spiritual Edge podcast in your favorite podcasting app, including Apple podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts. Find out more on The Spiritual Edge website.
When the phone rang, I heard an elderly woman’s voice on the other end: “We’re going to Washington DC to be arrested. Want to join us?”
The call came from Sister Joann Persch and Sister Pat Murphy, two elderly Catholic nuns age 85 and 90, who are famously engaged with the country’s immigration debate, and who famously never take no for an answer.
This is how the day unfolded.
The Sisters are singing hymns and praying the rosary under a beautiful marble rotunda with sunlight streaming through its windows. It’s the Senate Office building in Washington DC, a place where all kinds of political deals are made, but today it feels more like a church. There are over 200 Catholics of all ages, activists, and protestors who have gathered from around the world, and together their chorus of voices sing in unison: “Who will speak if we don’t.”
Joann and Pat shed their nuns’ habits years ago, and today they wear sensible running shoes and sweatshirts, touting the logos of the non-profits they’ve started. Each of the protestors holds a photo of a child who has died in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE.
As a Jesuit priest prays a blessing over the Sisters, a bullhorn suddenly blares, announcing the police officers’ arrival. It’s a peaceful protest, but it’s illegal. As the priest continues with his blessings, the officers handcuff the Sisters, pulling their arms behind their backs. Sister Pat, age 90, pleads, could he please cuff her in the front, as it would help with her balance. But the officer refuses. They’re taken away in an unmarked white van to the local jail with their belongings in a plastic bag.
Pat recalls: “It was not exactly the most comfortable thing. Of course, it’s not meant to be comfortable. You’re not supposed to be doing what we were doing.”
Once in jail, the nuns reach for the bail money they’ve been carrying, like lunch money in their pockets, provided for them by the ArchDiocese. They know the drill, because between the two of them they have been arrested half a dozen times. In fact, the officer who hauled them away last year remarked that now he would need to attend confession for arresting an elderly nun.
Joann replied, “Oh no you don’t. I have the power to forgive. I’ll forgive you.”
She says it felt like they had nothing to fear: “If they put me in jail overnight, that would have been okay if I stayed in jail for a while.” She continues, “I told you we’d just start a new ministry. We’d know that’s where we were supposed to be right then.”
A few days later I head to Chicago, where I meet the Sisters for breakfast in their apartment. We’re up at 5:30am eating a gluten-free meal of yogurt with flax and chia seeds, along with hard-boiled eggs, which they pre-boil at the start of each week to be efficient. The Sisters love sharing meals with others, they say, but they hate cooking, as it takes too much time.
They have shared breakfasts together like this for decades, since meeting as young nuns, while working at an alternative school for kids who had dropped out of high school in Wisconsin. Both went on to work at hospitals on the South Side of Chicago, before Pat moved to Peru where she directed a school near Cuzco. After returning to the US, she teamed up with Joann again, to begin their work in immigration advocacy, and now they’ve known each other for over 50 years.
Joann hates being late, so we rush out the door. But Pat’s misplaced her keys, and as she looks for them, she patiently answers my questions about what it’s like to be a nun.
We drive long distances in their sporty sedans, which are provided for them by the Sisters of Mercy, along with a stipend and a budget for their work. Many of their friends, who are sisters well into old age, have lost their licenses and forfeited their cars, but not these two.
For years they’ve been visiting federal immigrant detention centers throughout Illinois and Wisconsin. Each week the Sisters ask those on the inside: Is there someone in your family we can call for you? They sit and they listen for hours, and they fill the commissary accounts for the detainees they’ve met. They give $10 to anyone whose accounts are running low because, as Joann shares: “If you have ten dollars to spend, you can make a choice. You know, I’ll make phone call. No, I think I’ll buy ramen noodles. No, I really need soap. That helps them keep their humanity.”
Officials have invited even invited them inside the facilities during snowstorms and lock downs, because as Joann shares: “We would bring a peaceful presence into that agitated pod.”
Though the relationship with immigration authorities hasn’t always looked like this. Nearly ten years ago, when the Sisters first attempted to visit with those inside of detention centers, the authorities wouldn’t allow it. But since these women don’t ever take no for an answer, they hired an attorney instead, and proposed new legislation — a new law which would give religious workers permission inside. At first, they faced opposition from the Illinois Sheriff’s department and the Minute Menu, but the bill eventually passed in the committee unanimously. The Sisters effectively changed Illinois State Law. Now they visit federal detention centers in Illinois and Wisconsin each week with the dozens of volunteer they have recruited.
The Sisters introduce me to a woman named Anita, who they befriended when her husband was inside one of these detention centers. Note, Anita is not her real name, but she’s asked us to use this name here, to maintain her family’s privacy.
Anita tells me about the day her husband, who was undocumented, didn’t come home. He had come to the US from Mexico, as a teenager in the 90s. Now he’s a homeowner near Chicago and a dad. He was heading to a job interview, after dropping his son off at school, when an officer stopped and detained him on the spot.
Anita says it was days before she even heard from him.
Eventually, immigration authorities placed him in a detention center a few hours drive away. Anita heads there with their five year old son, but once they arrive, the front desk won’t allow them to see his dad. Instead, they’re sent to a room with a row of video monitors, and this is the only way they’re allowed to talk.
“I think it gives you like a one minute notice,” Anita recalls, “Like a beep that it’s going to turn off. And at that point then you leave. It’s like watching TV.”
Her 5 year old sat on the floor, anxious because he couldn’t see his dad. She recalls, “He would just rip chunks and chunks of his nails off and um, to the point that they would, they would bleed.”
Anita began to despair, wondering if her husband would ever come home again. When one day she gets a call from a woman she’s never met.
“We just saw your husband,” the voice says.
That’s how Anita meets Sisters Pat and JoAnn, and when they first crossed paths, Anita had just one request. Could they please give her husband a hug?
Any kind of physical touch, even holding hands during prayer, wasn’t allowed inside the detention center, but Sister Joann and Pat said they would do their best.
Then at their next visit, Sister Joann is praying with Anita’s husband, when for just a moment the guard has turned away. Sister Joann quickly reaches across the table and gives Anita’s husband a hug. It’s from your wife, she says.
“That was the best feeling that he was able to get a hug,” Anita recalls, “I’ll forget that ever.”
A lot of families give up, they stop visiting, Anita says. But keeping connected to her husband, through Pat and Joann as her proxy, she says it kept her hope alive.
Eventually Sister JoAnn and Pat help Anita find an immigration attorney, and with their help, her husband is released from the detention center and he comes home to his family. Still, most of the other men who her husband was detained with, they’ve never seen them again. They didn’t have access to lawyers, and Anita believes that most of them were deported.
The next day Pat and Joann take me to Su Casa, which is a monastery they’ve converted into a safe house in South west Chicago. It’s one of several homes they’ve built for those seeking asylum, overseeing construction projects, fought local zoning boards, and met with neighbors who didn’t want refugees in their neighborhood, and convinced the ArchDiocese to back them in all of their work.
Warm light shines through the stained glass windows. It casts patterns on the thick carpet in the hallways. There’s an elevator but Pat insists on taking the carved wooden stairs.
Pat and Joann lived here at Su Casa during the 1990s, during their younger years. They provided shelter for Central Americans fleeing violence and coming to the US. Over the years, nearly 160 people have called Su Casa their home. It’s another reminder of how long these Sisters have been doing this work. Pat points out a room that belonged to Annie, a woman who had immigrated from El Salvador. Often she would run screaming out of her room at night, sometimes tumbling down the stairs, Pat says. Her whole arm had been burned from napalm and she had been impregnated by soldiers in the military, and one of the Sisters they knew traveled to El Salvador to help find her child.
There are too many stories like this one that are hard to hear. But JoAnn and Pat manage to smile as they talk about the kids who lived here, and ran up and down the halls. Celebrating each birthday with the pinatas and the cake, it brought some sense of normalcy and life to the home. For those whose parents couldn’t always be parents, Sisters Pat and JoAnn filled those shoes.
Pat shares, “You had to do that for the kids while the adults were bleeding inside and you had to deal with that pain. But the kids were joy.”
We continue down the hall, past a room full of warm winter coats and boots and car seats donated for residents who’d come from warmer places by foot. We come to a nearly empty wooden booth. It’s a confessional, which is now being used to store the vacuum cleaner. But when Pat and Joann lived here, it was a locked medicine cabinet, she tells me, which held the psychiatric medications for all the residents.
After dinner the residents would line up, like it was a dispensary. Though they’d escaped their traumas, they were still learning to live with their memories and triggers were ever present.
Pat remembers the story of one young man: “(He) just went berserk whenever he heard a Christmas Carol. He was hung by thumbs, all during Christmas season where they played Christmas music.”
It felt like their cars were on auto-pilot, Pat said, headed to the emergency room repeatedly in the middle of the night.
The sisters have done this work with immigrants, day after day, for more than 50 years, and they say that keeping busy is precisely what has kept them alive. It helps them to press through the doubts that inevitably arise.
Pat shares, “Oh, a lot of times, you know, I pray to God and ask God, you know, where are you in this? And I still believe that in some way some good will come out of this. It’s hard to believe, but I guess deep down. I’ve got to believe that.”
Pat has survived cancer and chemotherapy, while Joann manages fibromyalgia and lupus with chronic pain daily, as evidence of a lifetime of work that has caught up to her.
Joann remarks, “And I could sit at home and say, oh, I have a lot of pain. Or I could work with my pain, make it my friend, and work together and just do it.”
Sometimes it’s unbearable, even on her way to work, she says. But once she’s at the detention center, giving someone a hug, she forgets.
This is why they drive, sometimes for hours, through blustery Chicago winters to visit emergency rooms and detention centers. They call politicians and speak at rallies and candidate forums, and do all sorts of things it’s hard to imagine your grandmother doing. To them, their work feels like a calling.
Plus they don’t go it alone. They have an uncanny way of getting people on board with them, as witnessed by their network of supporters. Joann carries a cell phone with hundreds of contacts. Pat prefers a paper address book, a few inches thick, filled with the names of friends, and always in her puse.
“We need each other,” Pat insists. “When we’re down or low, we can draw the God out of the other people who surround us. I believe that. To draw God and God’s help out of each person, each bite of food, each cup of tea, the person we meet on the street. Because we’re meeting God in those times. And they lift our spirits. They can make us laugh.”
As Joann scrolls through the contacts on her phone, she also finds the head of Midwestern ICE and Dick Durban of Illinois, who is more than just their senator. He’s the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee. The sisters regularly pray for both men and Senator Durbin, a lifelong Catholic, says he appreciates that.
“As far as I’m concerned, they really embody the values, that those of us call ourselves Christians believe in.” Senator Dick Durbin says. “And so many other religions too. They’re proving it with every day of their lives.”
The ICE officers like Sister Pat and Joann so much they’ve invited the two to ICE staff parties, and one recent Christmas, the officers even asked the nuns to bake cookies for the detainees.
“It was a major moment in jail history,” Joann shares, “And it may never happen again. They were thrilled. They don’t ever get anything like that, like home baked cookies or candies.”
They were sugar cookies, they tell me. They both like sweets, especially bundt cakes. They prefer chocolate but won’t tell me this straight up, because despite all they do, they don’t like to talk about themselves.
On Fridays, Pat and JoAnn drive to the Broadview Processing Center for their weekly prayer vigil. A few dozen others join them, gathering under a dark fence with barbed wire coils and a flapping American flag.
This was where you would come, to board the white vans that would take you to the airport for your deportation flight, when ICE has determined that you aren’t allowed to stay. Many, are returning to places where there’s violence or war and leaving family in America behind.
Each week JoAnn and Pat and other volunteers would board the buses, just before they would leave. From the front seat, the Sisters and the other volunteers, they turn around, look each person in the eye, and offer a prayer. Craig Moussin, a friend of the Sisters and a clergy volunteer describes it like this: “There’s a metal cage that’s locked and everyone’s shackled.” He says that he can feel at a loss for words and so: “You let God give you the words.”
Each week they huddle outside, no matter how cold of a Chicago winter morning. There are days that it feels too early, too cold, and too dark to come out to pray. Sister Joann and Pat are the ones who convince the others to show up.
They pray, sometimes its the rosary, sometimes it’s a Muslim prayer or a Jewish blessing. They always end with same old protest song “We shall overcome.”
Instead of ending with the refrain we all know — we shall overcome someday — they sing a different refrain with dogged determination: “We shall overcome this year.”
I ask Pat and Joann if they have any plans to retire?
Joann laughs and shares, “Well we don’t know what that means. If someone says when are you going to retire, I want to know, what do they want me to do?
Pat suggests with a smile that they could eat bon bons and gain weight.
Joann concludes: “I will know when God is telling me you’ve done what I asked you to do. And right now I don’t hear that voice. I have strength. My mind is okay. I still feel called. When I know it’s time to retire, whatever that means, I’ll know it and I’ll do it. But it’s not yet. It might be tomorrow, but it’s not today.”
Listen to the radio documentary on spiritualedge.org.
Heidi Shin is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.