The gifts and challenges of immigrant religious communities

The gifts and challenges of immigrant religious communities

By Sr. Rebecca Burke O.S.F., c

Most religious communities in the U.S. today were established in other countries and arrived here as immigrants. That process continues. Here are insights for vocation ministers about who today’s immigrant communities are, why they’ve come and how they fit into church and religious life networks. We present this article in preparation for the global theme of the November 2010 convocation of the National Religious Vocation Conference: “Casting the Net: Vocation Ministry in a Global Church and World.” (See for details about the convocation.)

Seven years ago when I became the delegate for consecrated life for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the first challenges I faced had to do with immigrant religious communities. As the new liaison between the bishop and approximately 1,600 women and men religious, nearly all of whom were in active ministry, plus a dozen or so members of secular institutes, I faced a steep learning curve. The Office of Consecrated Life had been unoccupied for more than six months, and a file folder labeled “Issues for Immediate Follow-Up” lay on the desk. The first three issues concerned visas for sisters invited to the archdiocese to serve in various capacities—a phenomenon with which I had no experience.

To help newly arrived religious integrate into the larger church community, the Archdiocese of Washington has hosted annual picnics. Religious from Korea, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and Spain share a table indoors one year, thanks to inclement weather.

A quick calculation indicated that roughly 18 percent of the 800-plus sisters in the archdiocese were from countries other than the U.S. (We do not have any immigrant religious communities of men.) This high proportion of immigrant religious is not surprising given the tremendous ethnic and racial diversity of the area. The Archdiocese of Washington is home to 580,000 Catholics, with liturgies celebrated in four rites other than the Latin Rite and Sunday Masses celebrated in more than 20 languages. Nearly half the Catholics are of Hispanic ancestry, a mix of over a dozen ethnic and cultural backgrounds sharing a common language. Thirty parishes have at least one Sunday Mass in Spanish, and one parish has all the Masses and parish activities in Spanish. In addition Mass is celebrated in several other languages, including Tagalog [Filipino], Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, German, Italian and Portuguese. Beyond that the Croatian, Maronite, Syriac and Ge’ez rites are celebrated in their accompanying languages.

Upon beginning my ministry as delegate, I knew immediately that I needed help to find resources and to learn immigration regulations regarding visas, green cards, and much more. I would soon learn that U.S. immigration regulations evolved slowly prior to September 11, 2001, but have since become a moving target, changing sometimes with a few months’ lead time, and at other times seeming to change overnight. Religious worker (R-1) visas have come under particular scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security because of the high level of fraud among applicants. Coming into a diocese on an R-1 visa is a lengthy and complicated process, and maintaining R-1 status once here requires vigilance, adding layers of stress for those trying to adjust to life, language and customs in a new country.

Challenges: from visas to culture shock

With all these complications on the legal side of immigration, I didn’t realize when I began this ministry that in the long run, this aspect would be the easy part of working with immigrant religious. Without immigrant sisters, the Archdiocese of Washington would be much the poorer and its ministry inadequate to meet the needs of its diverse Catholic population. These immigrant communities bring with them, however, a unique set of challenges—personal and community issues which are far more complex than visa and immigration-status issues. My thoughts in this article represent the experience of just one archdiocese with immigrant religious communities. I don’t presume to speak for the whole country, but I do hope that our experience here in the Archdiocese of Washington sheds light on immigrant communities in other parts of the country.

Most of the religious communities that entered the Archdiocese of Washington in the last decade came at the invitation of Cardinals James Hickey and Theodore McCarrick, who served all or part of their tenure before the major changes in U.S. immigration regulations. Some sisters were invited for a specific ministry, while others were given an open invitation when one of the cardinals encountered them in the course of his travels.

Overall most immigrant sisters came to minister to immigrants with whom they share a common home country or a common language. Others entered the archdiocese as students and remained for ministry. At least three communities came to serve in ways that few American sisters still do, for instance cooking and performing domestic work at religious order seminaries and serving as sacristans at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Two communities came to do ministry in the U.S., while also studying for degrees or certifications that will help them advance in ministries much needed here, nursing in particular. In one of these communities the sisters were burdened with a very strong expectation that they send their earnings home to their community in India.

More preparation needed

Community by community and person by person, each of these immigrant sisters brings her community charism and personal gifts to the archdiocese. In addition they bring youth, energy and a desire to serve. Many also have come with ingenuity to meet situations for which they were completely unprepared. But some, unfortunately, lack resilience and have found their situation too difficult for their coping skills. Without a doubt, lack of preparation, personal or ministerial, has been a key factor in limiting the effectiveness of these sisters in the ministry that brought them to the U.S.

The Guidelines of Receiving Pastoral Ministers in the United States, published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), suggest that a “pre-departure orientation program of several days” take place in the person’s country of origin1. It should present basic information on the multicultural nature of American society, along with specifics of the area where the person will minister on arrival, emphasizing some of the similarities and differences to expect here. No immigrant sister who has come to the Archdiocese of Washington on an R-1 visa—whether at the archbishop’s invitation to serve or at a community or employer’s request—has received this type of orientation in her home country.

The guidelines further call for a two- to three-month transition and adjustment period on arrival in the diocese, during which individuals can build a personal support network and enroll in English classes. Typically, however, the immigrant sisters here have begun work almost immediately, learning on the job, taking English courses on the side, and generally undergoing trial by fire. Most do not even have the opportunity to meet other immigrant sisters with whom they share so much.

Good early socialization helps

The immigrant sisters who have fared the best in the Archdiocese of Washington are those who came to work with immigrants with whom they share a home country, language and culture. In what is a foreign environment for both the sisters and those they serve, the two groups offer each other a reminder of home. In addition the sisters who have come to serve their own people tend to come to the U.S. trained for the ministries in which they engage. Furthermore there is an element in the community formation of these sisters which has prepared them for mission work away from home. Very likely missionary service was a part of their vocational call from the start.

These sisters make friends in their parish community and maintain friendships in their religious community at home. In the case of Hispanic sisters, over time they meet other Hispanic sisters also serving in the archdiocese and often form friendships with them as well.

Sisters who have come to serve in ways that American sisters no longer do also have the rewarding experience of meeting an unmet need. They enjoy clearly articulated appreciation by the sponsoring community or employer. They can begin work very soon after their arrival in the U.S. and cope fairly well on the job because what they do is related primarily to skills rather than relationships. At least one sponsoring community that has brought sisters to the U.S. makes a concerted effort to assure that the sisters’ needs are met, e.g., that they learn English, have access to spiritual direction and are encouraged to participate in meetings where they are likely to meet other sisters.

In contrast, sisters who have come to work as nurses in U.S. hospitals or as teachers in diocesan schools have not adjusted as quickly or as well. The majority of them require additional training before being hired or must accept a lower level position than they held in their home country. If they do not live in a convent that puts them, geographically at least, at the center of their parish, they miss out on an important source for meeting potential friends. In addition if the parish where they attend Mass does not have other parishioners from their country of origin, they might not have an immediate sense of home and may, in fact, feel marginalized.

In two such communities that have come to Washington —one from India and one from Nigeria—members became isolated in their own houses within two or three years after their arrival. In both communities, the sisters came to the U.S. already speaking English and did not take classes in American English. All but one sister experienced difficulty communicating at work because they did not sufficiently understand the language and terminology associated with their positions. This difficulty transferred into a lack of confidence communicating with co-workers.

When the Indian sisters were at home, they watched TV news from India. Not one of them ever walked to the park next to their house to see Fort Stevens or walked around the block in the neighborhood. Lacking an informative orientation to Washington, DC, the sisters fully internalized the one thing they knew from TV news about the city—it’s a dangerous place to be. Their isolation at work was compounded at home.

The Nigerian sisters worked in an assisted living facility and attended class in their off-hours so they could become certified in the State of Maryland. They worked; they studied; they went to class. And they were homesick. The sisters weren’t aware that they lived quite close to the archdiocese’s Nigerian parish. American teaching and testing styles were different enough that all had difficulty in school, and two failed their class. They were too ashamed to tell their U.S. superior.

Not surprisingly depression became a factor for a sister in the Nigerian community, as well as for a sister in the Indian congregation. Their depression affected their entire household. A pastoral minister from the hospital where one of the Indian sisters worked called my office one day wondering which to do first—hospitalize the sister or call her major superior in another state.

Neither community had ever heard of depression, could recognize its signs and symptoms or knew help was available. The two major superiors in the U.S. worked hard to support their sisters in Washington and the local communities of which they were a part. Each superior paid a visit to her sisters and followed through on concrete suggestions. For example, they encouraged their sisters to enroll in classes to learn American English, to participate actively in parish life, to take driver’s education courses, to get library cards, and, with an occasional exception, to watch American national and local news.

The Indian sister who had been suffering from depression returned to India two years later. Both Nigerian sisters are now certified in nursing, and another is certified to teach computer skills.

Helping the process of socialization

Faced with the need to do something to better meet the needs of immigrant sisters, my colleagues and I sought help for some concerns and improvised for others. With the help of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), visa problems became easily manageable. The overwhelming scale of personal and a few ministerial concerns seemed more intractable. Early in my second year, following a suggestion from the USCCB guidelines to gather newly arrived immigrants for a social event,2 our Office of Consecrated Life hosted a picnic to which all the international sisters were invited. It proved surprisingly effective and became an annual event until the immigrant sisters were no longer new to the Archdiocese of Washington, to each other, or to the larger group of religious in ministry here.

Eighteen sisters came the first year, 88 the second. After the first one, word got around from sisters who attended that “it’s OK if your English isn’t good. Everyone there sounds just like us.” The program was simple—an opening prayer, a picnic with plenty of food, and time for people to meet each other and begin telling their stories. We had one rule—the sisters could not sit with members of their own community. At the end we distributed CLINIC’s new publication, Frequently Asked Questions on R-1 Visas3 and indicated new or significant information.

A few archdiocesan staff members also attended the picnic. To this day our chancellor vividly recalls how she felt when, during prayer, each of the sisters said the “Our Father” in her native language. At that moment the immigration issue became imbued with life, with flesh-and-blood people.

The picnics now over, today we can count on the sisters who participated to be at other archdiocesan events where they can interact with more confidence with other religious and take advantage of opportunities for ongoing formation or enhanced community prayer. The archdiocese re-learned an old lesson—that religion has long been a facilitator in the adaptation process for those new to the U.S., including new religious. Finding a home somewhere can be the bridge to inclusion, particularly when complemented by other orientation activities.

Members of every immigrant community in the Archdiocese of Washington have begun to apply for and receive green cards. They are here for the long haul, just as the communities entering the U.S. from the 17th through the mid-20th centuries have been here for the long haul. With members now permanent residents, the new communities are filing for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, so as not to be dependent on the archdiocese for validation or community identity. One community has begun the process of requesting its own four-digit identification number in the Official Catholic Directory.

Implications for vocation ministry

What, then, do these experiences with immigrant communities mean for vocation ministry? If, as Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “… what’s past is prologue… and what’s to come is yours and mine…,” then U.S. religious have an opportunity to play an active role in helping new communities find their way in vocation ministry in their new country.

One by one, and very slowly because of limited finances and Washington’s high cost of living, our immigrant religious communities are beginning to look for houses large enough to invite women interested in religious life to visit for a few days at a time. Too small to have an assigned vocation director, they are in the enviable position of having every sister see herself in vocation ministry, particularly those working with populations from home. They attend diocesan and parish vocation events in proportionally high numbers and enter into conversation with many young women. Generally, though, these communities are not members of national organizations (such as NRVC, Leadership Conference for Women Religious and so on) which give access to education, publicity for communities and ready access to supportive peers from other communities. It’s not simply that the immigrant communities never heard of our organizations. It’s more a case of not having money to become members or to travel to meetings.

New as they may be to the U.S., the communities entering the Archdiocese of Washington in the last few decades, with one exception, have histories as religious institutes ranging from 90 to more than 300 years. Their numbers here, though, are too small for a U.S. province or novitiate. Some come from countries where they administer and staff national novitiates for communities with too few novices to have their own. Unlike U.S. common novitiates theirs include novices from a large number of small communities with different charisms and different tribal languages but a common national language.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s experience indicates that immigrant communities consistently respond to invitations to be included, educated and made to feel welcome. The opportunities for American religious orders to extend invitations to immigrant communities are limited only by our imagination. Possibilities include:

• Partnering with an immigrant community and sharing the story of our community’s immigration and early growth in the U.S.

• Sharing the fruits of some of our hard-learned lessons, such as preventing burnout.

• Inviting immigrant religious to regional vocation meetings.

• Teaching the skill of networking.

• Beginning to consider, for when the time comes, opening our common novitiates to smaller immigrant communities with whom we share a common charism.

Some of these suggestions involve concerted time and effort, but some are simple, and all begin with awareness. These are our sisters and brothers in religious life who have come here from other countries to serve the church. They come with both gifts and burdens to be shared by all.


1. Guidelines of Receiving Pastoral Ministers in the United States, Revised Edition, Publication #5-530, USCCB Publishing, Washington, DC, 2003, p. 23.

2. Ibid., p. 27.

3. Frequently Asked Questions: Visas for Non-immigrant Religious Workers, Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), Division of Religious Immigration Services, Published by CLINIC, 2005.


Sister Rebecca Burke, OSF is the delegate for consecrated life for the Archdiocese of Washington. She is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assissi. Before beginning her current ministry in 2003, she worked in special education in St. Coletta Schools in the Midwest and Massachusetts for 15 years and as an education specialist in a medical school.


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