100 East Eighth Street
Cincinnati, Ohio 45202
Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
MISSION AT THE BORDERS – Sister Rebeca Spires and her work to stop trafficking.
Sister Rebeca Spires has lived 48 years in Brazil, 40 based in the frontier town of Oiapoque. She has lived there so long that sometimes her speech drifts from English to Portuguese to English again without her even noticing.
For most of her time in Oiapoque, she has worked with the indigenous peoples living in the surrounding rainforest. She’s helped create alphabets and written forms of languages that before had only been oral. She’s trained teachers, developed religious formation programs, translated instructional materials, fought for subsistence farmers and advocated for territorial rights.
Though her home was Oiapoque, her focus was in the rainforest.
Until a few years ago, when this focus began to change.
Because Oiapoque began to change.
Oiapoque, six degrees off the equator, on the northern rim of the Amazon jungle, is almost 400 miles from the nearest city. It’s a river town — on the broad Oyapock River — and a border town. Across the river is French Guiana, or simply France as the people of Oiapoque call it.
And it’s due to this border status, and an illegal gold rush on the French side begun during the financial meltdown in the developed world, that Oiapoque has become a through-point for migrants, many of them garimpeiros, or gold miners. With the garimpeiros are the laborers to dig the pits for the mines, the people-smuggling ‘coyotes,’ the suppliers and conveyors of fuel and equipment, the young women dreaming of a husband and a better life — in short — the whole camp-following apparatus that follows a mass movement of human beings. Even indigenous peoples, now that the migration pipeline has opened, go if not to the mines then to the plantations in neighboring Guyana and Suriname.
Commensurate with the influx of people is the physical change to the town, grown from 7,000 people a few years ago to over 20,000 now. On the streets, compras de ouro — gold buying shops — come one after the other, some legal some not, as do the vendors of pumps and hoses and the deadly mercury used to bind gold. Then down from the shops, on the mud beaches, are the barracuda-shaped skiffs — the pirogues— that wait for nightfall when they’ll make the lantern-less crossing over the Oyapock ferrying people and contraband.
“But all those we’re seeing,” says Sister Rebeca, “they dream of having a job, that’s all. They dream of seeing their children grow up, and dream of having enough to eat, and dream of having a roof. We have to be there for these among us. How will they know God’s goodness if we don’t show it to them?”
This showing to them God’s goodness is a primary reason Sister Rebeca has redirected much of her time from the indigenous people in the rainforest to the migrating
people in the town.
Responding to what she herself has seen, and responding to the call of Pope Francis to ‘go to the borders,’ Sister Rebeca along with two Brazilian Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Sister of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, and three lay women volunteers initiated Missão nas Fronteiras, Mission at the Borders, in 2015.
Missão nas Fronteiras first ministered from quarters leased from the local parish. Then, on land donated by a townsman, and with the help of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a way station was constructed. There, Sister Rebeca, the other Sisters and the lay volunteers offer meals, showers, a hammock for a night or two, and a Christian presence to migrants on the move. They also provide education, especially to women and young girls (both migrants and those residing in the town), as to the danger signs of trafficking and/or sexual exploitation. They help connect those in need with existing social service supports. And they collaborate with law enforcement in identifying the corrupt and illegal activities related to trafficking and exploitation.
By doing so, says Sister Rebeca, they are addressing human needs of the suffering on an individual basis while at the same time working for more systemic change.
“Our mission is for those people who aren’t seen or heard by anyone else,” she says. “It’s this Jesus thing. No one can be invisible, everyone has to be seen and heard and cared for.”
Counted too in her in ministry are not only those migrants going north, but those returning, usually in much worse condition. Some have been arrested by the Frenchgendarme who as a matter of practice burn migrants’ clothes and all their possessions (even their boots) before dumping them unceremoniously over the river into Oiapoque.
Some, too, have managed to trek back on their own through the jungle despite the dangers of jaguars, 500-pound anacondas and an array of poisonous insects and spiders. Some, sticking to the roads, have been accosted and beaten by robbers. And still others, never again seen in Oiapoque — or anywhere — step onto a truck or a bus thinking they are heading toward the border, only for the bus to halt in some desolate spot there to be boarded by sicários, or hitmen.
Of those who do make it back to Oiapoque, on their own or forcibly, almost all are penniless, hollow-eyed, and embarrassed over their plight.
“They thought they were improving their lives,” Sister Rebeca says. “But they fell into traps of illusion.”
These people, the returnees, you see down by the ‘seaside’ — so called because of the river’s breadth — living along the seawall or beneath the docks, stranded and half-starved. Often, as Sister Rebeca says, “they are just there forever.”
The Sisters and lay volunteers visit them. They share some of their own food bought with their stipends. They try to get messages home to their loved ones. They offer showers and clothing. Just as with those crossing north, still with hope, they offer a Christian presence to those returning, who often have little. If the Sisters could, they would buy the bus tickets necessary to send everyone home. But they are too few and the stranded too many. It’s such a hard call, says Sister Rebeca. “Jesus never overlooked anyone,” she says. “Never!”
For three years, the work of Missão nas Fronteiras has been made possible because four religious Sisters and three lay women have labored for stipend wages. “Volunteers make it happen,” Sister Rebeca says, “and we need them to stay.” Among her highest priorities is to keep her team together.
“Those we’re encountering,” she says, “they’re not trying to be wealthy. They just want a decent life.”
On any given day, you’ll see Sister Rebeca and the other Sisters and lay volunteers, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone, coming and going from the way station for migrants arriving, or down on the seaside among those who have returned. You’ll see them by their umbrellas they hold against the equatorial sun.
In the meantime, the gold mining in French Guiana continues, as does the migration across the Oyapock. If anything the migration is increasing. The two countries — Brazil and France — talk occasionally of cooperation but little happens. The price of gold goes up then down on international markets, investors sell and buy, and thousands of miles away the Wild West atmosphere continues in remote Oiapoque.
“I came to the realization this was happening under my nose,” says Sister Rebeca. “And I had to respond.”
Spotlight on: Sister Marie Smith, SNDdeN
By Meg Glendon
Sister Marie Smith stood outside her door checking the flowers, which had just been delivered to her office where she has served as the Director of the Spirituality Center in Cincinnati since 2015. Looking up with a characteristic warm smile, she welcomed me to the Center.
The flowers would decorate the tables of those attending a session on Forgiveness presented by Sister Linda Soucek, the first program of the new season. “ We like to have something of beauty at each of our sessions,” Sister Marie explains. “ It helps create the ambience for reflection and it is a vibrant reminder of the beauty of creation.” Her passion for her ministry is obvious as she shares a brochure, which captures a full range of offerings, which will be presented over the coming year.
A key component of the Spirituality Center is the Saturday morning program. Over the years, the Spirituality Center has built up a following in the Cincinnati area. Through advertising and word of mouth new people are added to the audience and many newcomers become regular participants.
Sister Marie grew up in Dayton and entered the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur after graduating from Julienne High School. She was an elementary school teacher before serving for many years as the principal at Corryville Catholic, an elementary school in downtown Cincinnati.
“I loved Corryville,” she said. “The students and faculty were wonderful. All of us worked hard to create a learning environment that reflected the values of our Catholic tradition and provided the academic and support systems the students needed to succeed. “
Corryville will always be dear to Sister Marie’s heart.
She visits the school for special events during the year. “I am overwhelmed by the warm welcome I receive from the students, faculty and principal when I return. I love seeing them all and I find it gratifying to know that the school is doing so well.”
In discussing the transition from principal in an urban school to director of a spirituality center at Mount Notre Dame, Sister Marie said “ I feel blessed to be involved in a learning process which helps others grow spiritually. It draws on the administrative skills I gained over the years and stretches me in new ways.
It gives me the opportunity to meet wonderful people — our Spirituality Center Board, our presenters and the people who participate in our programs.
I appreciate living with seven other sisters here at Mount Notre Dame in the Kateri Community. We all share a passion for mission and their support means a lot to me.
Sister Marie participates in Adopt a Sister, a popular program sponsored by Mount Notre Dame High School. “ A group of six students and I get together about once a month,” she said. “ We discuss anything from getting into college to upcoming events in their lives. I serve as an active listener, facilitator and supporter. Sometimes we have a more specific agenda. For example, this month we are reading a book about Sister Dorothy Stang, which we will discuss as a group. It is always an enjoyable and fulfilling experience to be with the students.”
For more information about the Notre Dame Spirituality Center, please check the following link: http://www.sndohio.org
A Ministy of Comfort and Joy
Sisters Diane Reed and Carol DeFiore
After a combined 70 years in the classroom and another 40 or so in pastoral work at a local parish, the two Sisters have moved on to another ministry. They call it “Glad Tidings,” because the work has only one goal: To bring comfort and joy to people.
It’s a deeply personal ministry that flows from a single image of life. “What if we were all kind to one another, the way Jesus went about life,” is how Sister Carol explained it. So the two Sisters deliberately head out every day with the same thought in mind. Being kind to the people around them.
They start by smiling. That leads to exchanging names and stories. Before you know it, the special intentions of these once complete strangers are folded into a “prayer pot” that the two Sisters visit every day.
There’s the woman at the checkout counter in Kroger, the lady in the drug store photo department and the man behind the counter at the hardware store. Pictures of their growing list of new friends are tacked on a bulletin board in the Sisters’ kitchen, which is something of a world headquarters for “Glad Tidings.”
It’s where Sister Diane works on her handcrafted greeting cards and Sister Carol bakes bread, muffins and her world-class chocolate chip cookies — all ingredients of individual care packages they make for their new friends.
“We learned about the husband of a woman who works at the shopping center.” Sister Carol said.
“He has cancer, and there is very little he is able to eat. But he loves chocolate chip cookies, so we make sure to take him a bag whenever we are near his wife’s store.” Sister Diane said their work is often carried out over the phone. “One friend has a brother who was just taken to a federal prison in Kentucky. She calls simply to talk. To sort things out. Another is feeling overwhelmed by having to unexpectedly care for two grandchildren. Talking helps.”
The lessons of this ministry are everywhere. Sisters Diane and Carol say the work is helping them to better understand who they are, who they are becoming and what their gifts are in these later years of life. It has also affirmed for them how hungry all people are for comfort and joy — and to hear that they are not alone.
Straight From the Heart
Sister Judi Clemens
Thinking about the connection between hearts and ministries brings Sister Judi Clemens to mind. After serving on the Ohio Province leadership team for five years, she might well have retired. Instead, she is working as an independent interpreter, returning to a ministry that once again brings her closer to the people so dear to her heart − the Brazilian community.
Sister Judi receives invitations from religious communities around the world, asking her to serve as a Portuguese translator. In the first few months of her new ministry, she’s traveled to Boston, Tampa and Chicago to provide simultaneous and written translations. One assignment took her back to a Brazilian worship community she founded 25 years ago in Stoughton, Massachusetts, when she served with the Brazilian Pastoral Programs for the Archdiocese of Boston. Sister’s fluency is in Portuguese. It was formed through 23 years of ministry in Brazil, and another 15 years of pastoral work in Brazilian communities in this country. “I am DNA-wired to Brazilians, and that is a pure gift of God and the Sisters of Notre Dame.”
Education, but not in a Classroom
On the drive home from the official swearing-in ceremony admitting her to the Ohio Bar, Sister Rose Ann Fleming, SNDdeN, decided how to use her new authority to practice the law. She would represent those who couldn’t afford an attorney — especially women. “While I was in Law School I was drawn to the work of Legal Aid. I knew there was a need, and this just made sense to me,” Sister Rose Ann remembered. That was 20 years and hundreds of cases ago.
“This is an educational ministry,” Sister explained. “I teach my clients to expect justice, and work to help them receive it through the legal process. Quite often I have cases where a woman has been involved in an abusive relationship. When this happens, it’s catastrophic for the woman because she believed the marriage would last forever. I use every opportunity the law offers to make sure she is protected, her children are safe, and that she has food, clothing and a roof over her head.”
But that’s not where it ends for Sister Rose Ann.
“Once the law finishes, there is so much more to do. For example, many of the women I represent have no skills, no high school diploma or no income. Once this woman is free from the only relationship she’s ever known, how will she support her children? How will she survive? We try to find her a safe place to live and to connect her with someone who will help her take the next step. It might be to enroll in a GED program, or to get a job. No matter the case, we encourage her to keep moving forward” Sister said.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to help others,” Sister continued. “I am thankful because it is unlikely that I would run into these women in my ordinary life. They have bad situations at home. Many have been put out on the street. They find themselves homeless, with nothing, after years of marriage. I would never find them if it weren’t for the law.”
As she teaches women and families what they need for life under such difficult circumstances, Sister Rose Ann remembers each in her prayers. “I pray that they find God and peace in their lives. And I ask God to give them the courage and self confidence to survive the storm, to make their way trusting in themselves and others. Then they can be a help to others.”
Hope in a Pizza Parlor
The educational mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame fits the needs of the time. That often means teaching good women and men in the most unusual classrooms. Sister Judy Tensing’s ministry is a perfect example.
Sister Judy cofounded Power Inspires Progress about 25 years ago. She had come to know the women in the area who were struggling to hold together their families. They needed jobs, but few knew where to start. Sister Judy understood that any meaningful employment started with strong job skills. So she set up a catering service and then a pizza parlor where disadvantaged adults could learn to be valuable employees.
The pizza parlor is called Venice on Vine. It’s located on the corner of 13th and Vine in Cincinnati’s struggling Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, and it looks like any other pizza place from the outside. But it’s really an inner-city classroom that provides positive, meaningful pre-employment training for adults who have been unable to get and keep a job.
Sister Judy and her group of volunteers teach trainees how to be a valuable employee in the service sector. They teach job skills like workplace ethics and personal responsibility. Trainees are required to attend four classes a week – to help them get a GED, a commercial driver’s license or a license to drive a car. Sister Judy does this because, these days, it is virtually impossible to get a job without a high school education, or a driver’s license. The odds get even worse if a trainee has a criminal record.
Over the course of a year, 20 people at a time work in the catering businesses of Power Inspires Progress and Venice on Vine. The trainees are paid minimum wage for working four hours a day, five days a week. They are also required to attend classes and receive tutoring, because a major key to employment success is being able to read, understand math and computers. The trainees are taught basic education, life skills, work ethics, and personal responsibility. Tutoring compliments the teamwork, problem solving, attendance, cooking, cleaning and cash management skills taught on the job.
Many of Sister Judy’s trainees are mothers and grandmothers who have not been able to get or keep a job. Others have been referred by Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or agencies serving ex-convicts. “It’s very difficult to change your track in life when you want to do it,” says Sister Judy. “You’re going to AA, but you can’t get a job. You can’t get a job, so you can’t afford housing. You don’t have housing, so your kids get taken away. Here, people can get pieces of their life back together.”
Hundreds of Cincinnatians have found good jobs with benefits through Sister Judy’s ministry. They also gain the knowledge, experience and self-confidence to become successful in the workplace.
According to Sister Judy, “We don’t take just anyone here at Venice on Vine. Trainees have to want to work. To prove it, they have to come to three interviews, on time and dressed appropriately. Each also has to open a checking account, where we automatically deposit their pay. Once trainees are hired, they have to work hard – on the job and in our classes. Not everybody makes it. It’s a long climb up. But hundreds have succeeded. All over our city you will find women and men who have graduated from our program who now hold jobs. Good jobs that come with a salary, benefits – and hope.”
In recognition of Sister Judy’s work, she was named one of the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Women of the Year for 2013.