Franciscan Sister right where she is needed in McAllen, Texas

By Jennie Zeitler, Correspondent

Many Central American refugees have made their way to McAllen, Texas in recent months. Sacred Heart Parish has given up the parking lot and parish hall for the refugees to use, while the city of McAllen has supplied tents and security. An outdoor shower truck is available.
Sister Anita Jennissen spends time with Central American refugees at the Sacred Heart parish hall in McAllen, Texas, listening to their stories and helping in whatever way she can.

Sister Anita Jennissen spends her days listening and helping any way she can in the midst of Central American refugees in McAllen, Texas. It is a situation that has touched her heart in big ways.

Jennissen grew up in Sauk Centre. Her roots extend back to Long Prairie and great-grandfather Joseph Bernet, whose farm was located where Dairy Queen and Minnesota National Bank now sit.

In her early years as a Franciscan sister, she served as a nurse in the United States. That was followed by many years serving in missions in Peru and Columbia. In between, she studied Spanish in Mexico. When she returned to the United States, she worked with Spanish-speaking people in New Mexico and Texas. She then joined a group of Franciscans in Senegal, where she learned French. After helping establish a mission in Tanzania, she went to Mexico again.

Along the way she received training as a hospital chaplain and as a spiritual director. At the age of 81, her journey has now taken her to Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, where she is the spiritual director. “We are 10 miles from the border,” she said. “Many refugees end up in Reynosa (Mexico) and cross over from there.”The number of refugees has drastically increased in recent months, with a high number of children. They have been coming mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, with some from Ecuador as well.

“People say they are threatened by gangs; they live in fear – especially those from Honduras,” Jennissen said. “The refugees from Guatemala are very poor and look very malnourished.”

Jennissen hears that people have come to better their lives, to have their children better educated than they are.

“They come with what is on their backs,” she said. “They all have a telephone number in their hands.”

Sister Anita Jennissen spends time with Central American refugees at the Sacred Heart parish hall in McAllen, Texas, listening to their stories and helping in whatever way she can.
Many Central American refugees have made their way to McAllen, Texas in recent months. Sacred Heart Parish has given up the parking lot and parish hall for the refugees to use, while the city of McAllen has supplied tents and security. An outdoor shower truck is available.

The parish is just two blocks from the McAllen bus terminal. After being apprehended by Border Patrol agents, refugees are taken to the bus terminal where a family member is contacted who will buy them a bus ticket. Until their bus leaves, they simply have to wait. They are usually detained for four days and nights, but the center where they are held is not meant to house people.

“They sleep on the floor. There is not much food and it’s very crowded,” Jennissen said. “Many community members were trying to help with the refugees, but it was just too much. The refugees needed a spot, so we gave up our parish hall and the parking lot. Now the Border Patrol brings them to us to wait.”

The city of McAllen has brought in tents for the refugees to spend the night, when necessary. An outdoor shower truck is available.

“Volunteers here help them pick out clothing which has been donated. Undergarments are new,” said Jennissen. “After they shower and put on the clean clothes, the old clothes are thrown away. They are given a hot meal. When they leave for the bus, they are given a bag of snacks and water for the journey.”

The city has also provided security on site. Volunteers launder the towels. The Salvation Army is doing the cooking.

“It’s very well-organized,” Jennissen said. “Everybody’s doing something – it’s great! A group from Save the Children set up a corner in the parish hall, where they play games with children. Donated toys are given to them.”

The people in McAllen see the refugees as their brothers and sisters, Jennissen said. When looking at people in need, they don’t look at borders.

In early June, an 11-year-old boy was found dead of exposure to the heat after he had crossed the border. His family in Chicago was traced with the phone number that was found in his pocket.

It’s easy to wonder why people would take such risks.

“I asked a Honduran woman who lives in McAllen in a not-very-nice place if she wouldn’t rather be back in Honduras,” Jennissen said. “She said that in Honduras the children were starving, that it’s much better here. It’s a matter of survival.”

Jennissen is hoping for immigration reform that will allow those people already here and working to be documented.

“They want a better life. When they come here they work and they want to study,” she said. “It’s concern for the lives of people.”

Jennissen said her job now is to listen.

“I ask them to tell about their story and why they left their home,” she said. “It’s a great blessing to be able to do that. It gives them courage and allows them to express their gratitude for what everyone is doing for them.”

  • LF Taxpayer

    I commend the selfless work done by the Sister. But they are not “Refugees” they are illegals sent on a death march by their parents and family to establish themselves as an anchor for future members to come here.

    • josh

      Amen. And now it has been found out that the Obama administration is pushing for illegals to cross over. It is a financial and social disaster for us. What sane country would let illegal immigrants flood across the border. Even Mexico enforces its immigration laws. The USA should do the same.

      • newpolitiq7

        Just curious, Josh, do you think children who might suffer death or some other sort of persecution upon re-entry to their home country (in Central America, not Mexico) should be granted at least the temporary benefit of the doubt?

        • josh

          We need to be able to take care of our own before we can even consider helping others. If we can’t keep our own home straight what makes you think that we have any business keeping theirs straight?

          • Anyone who votes republican and earns under 300k, votes against their own best interest and financial security. They vote for American corporations like General Electric and Verizon to make billions but pay no taxes. In 2010 not only did Bank of America pay no taxes but it got a billion dollar refund for losing money. America has everything it needs to “take care of its own” by demanding, among other things, that American corporations pay their fair share in taxes.. I would not sentence any human at any age to death or inhumane conditions just because men drew lines in the sand and called them “borders”, or because voters like you aren’t intelligent enough to act in your own best interest. At least the kids of Central America understands the difference, all while you’re tossing a lit match to your own future. Who’s really worth saving in the equation? You who burn your own life chances because you can’t distinguish rhetoric from reality or a kid with guts and the wherewithal to act in his own best interest? We should trade the kid with common sense for kamikaze’s like you

          • josh

            Jody do you realize it is the Obama administration that has supported companies like GE who get off scotch free?
            And Jody you clearly do not understand what I am saying. And would rather give an ad hominen attack then actually respond with an answer that discusses the situation and not against me.

          • The statistic I pulled predated his administration…which means his administration didn’t write the tax loophole…jeez.

          • josh

            Geez I didn’t see any statistics posted in your comment. You posted a few generalizations but no statistics. Am I supposed to read minds now Jody? Gee golly gosh

          • newpolitiq7

            I guess I’m looking at this as a “pro-life” Christian, first, and as an American, second. I understand part of the impulse to react with a scarcity mindset, Josh, but I’m not sure if that impulse should be indulged in the face of human need. These are children, and the cut of our American (never mind our Christian) jib will be assessed based on how we respond to this crisis. Just like many American homes “welcome the stranger” (a Christian admonition, by the way, never mind a fully consistent “pro-life” position” in the form of foster children, foreign exchange students, and so forth, maybe those of us who have a spare bedroom could offer a hand to one or two of these kids who are fleeing Central America out of fear. We have an extra room at our house. How do we sign up, Sister Jennissen?

          • LF Taxpayer

            The press shows you pictures of innocent looking children but what would really show up at your door would be an MS-13 gang member, have fun with that in your house.

    • newpolitiq7

      Hey L.F. and Josh, I think you might be confusing the U.S. immigration laws about children/teens from Mexico versus Central American countries. If some of the kids crossing the border are fleeing life-threatening circumstances, they are, in fact allowed a “hold” for determination of possible “refugee” status. It’s part of our current laws, period.