Franciscan Sister working in the middle of child immigration crisis

Sister Anita Jennissen, right, who grew up in Sauk Centre, spends time with Central American refugees at the Sacred Heart parish hall in McAllen, Texas, helping in whatever way she can.
Sister Anita Jennissen, right, who grew up in Sauk Centre, spends time with Central American refugees at the Sacred Heart parish hall in McAllen, Texas, helping in whatever way she can.

By Jennie Zeitler

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.”

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 says 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.”