Dubuque: Paula Schwendinger in Virtual Ministry to Immigrants

18 Feb, 2021

Pictured above: From a distance, Sister Paula Schwendinger works closely with others in planning the weekly Spanish Mass in Dyersville, Iowa. 

Jesus asks us to be present to those in need of help, regardless of whether or not they belong to our social group … he challenges us to put aside all differences and, in the face of suffering, to draw near to others with no questions asked.

~Pope Francis

In 2015, Sister Paula Schwendinger initiated HOME ministry, Hispanic Outreach Ministry of Evangelization. She began with small groups of Bible sharing in various towns to allow the people to get to know and trust her. Once the immigration raids began, the people were afraid to leave their homes, so she stopped the Bible sharing and journeyed with the people in their struggles with the immigration system. This article explains her ministry with immigrants during these trying times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in all walks of life, of all ages and cultural backgrounds. For the past five years, I have closely worked with Hispanics in the rural areas of Dyersville, Petersburg, Cascade and Farley, Iowa. This experience has given me a new and clearer perspective on Hispanics’ way of life and the unique problems they face each day as immigrants who are undocumented, not because they wish to be, but because there is no way for them to even begin a process to become part of our country.

Since March, I have been quarantined in our motherhouse in Dubuque, and have been unable to physically be among the people. I am often asking my Hispanic families these questions: “How are you? How is your family? What effects has COVID-19 had on all of you?”

It has been interesting to learn that especially for Hispanic women who do not work outside of the home, their life is not much different. In fact, staying away from others, being at home and hoping that the immigration services don’t come looking for them or a family member to deport, is a reality not unlike how all of us are now living because of the pandemic. We are asked to social distance, stay away from crowds and stay home as much as possible. The women tell me that is not difficult for them, since they have been living that reality for years. The difficult part is trying to convince their children to play at home, to stay away from friends and to wear their masks. This brings sadness, stress and emotional pain for them as they watch their children withdraw from them. Several of the women have had the virus which has been challenging in keeping the rest of the family safe as there are often multiple families living in the same house with one bathroom.

In trying to anticipate the needs of the immigrants during this time, I learned that when school began, parents needed to take their children’s temperatures each morning before they left home. Thermometers were as difficult to find as toilet paper was at the beginning of the pandemic. I located a pharmacy that would send no-touch thermometers directly to the Catholic school in Dyersville. The school nurse gave them to the parents while a bilingual parent explained the nurses’ directives. Thanks to donors I am grateful to have funds in the HOME account to purchase the thermometers.

As I learned how important the flu vaccine is this year, my next objective was to help the uninsured Hispanics get access to the vaccine. A Dubuque pharmacy goes to neighboring towns and administers the vaccines at a reasonable cost so I arranged for them to go to Dyersville. I found volunteers to sign people up and collect a small fee while a couple of high school students interpreted for the pharmacist. We had 19 receive the flu vaccine. The HOME fund subsidized the rest of the cost of the vaccine.

The Spanish Mass at the Basilica in Dyersville continues each Sunday. Each week I am on the phone with the guitar player and together we choose familiar songs that can be sung without books. Since she does not read music, I teach her the melody and chords to the responsorial psalm. I miss celebrating with the Hispanic community, but I know the music brings life to the liturgy. I am appreciative that from the beginning of my ministry, there have been leaders who take charge of lectors and other needs that may arise.

Several families did not have internet services so when school went online in the spring, they were at a disadvantage. The school staff did what they could to give them hard copies of the homework, and allowed them to bring laptops home. However, the only way they could connect online was to go and sit in the Dyersville school parking lot.

I recently learned that there is money set aside to help Hispanics who work for farmers, and are impacted by the virus. I applied for funds for families so that they could connect to Wi-Fi and pay for internet service for a couple months. Having Wi-Fi at home would certainly be helpful and necessary for these families especially if schools go all online this winter.

Last week parent teacher conferences were online. For Hispanics who still have no Wi-Fi and needed an interpreter, I went on Zoom with the teacher, and then on the phone with the parents. I am impressed and amazed at how the school staff adjusts to the needs of the students.

Almost every household has extra expenses due to COVID-19. Since most of the Hispanics live paycheck to paycheck, I was glad to anticipate their needs and help with thermometers, flu shots and Wi-Fi. It may not change the lives of many, but at least a few will be able to breathe easier and keep one step ahead.

As I continue my work with the immigrants, I remember the words of Sister Raphael Consedine’s poem: “Go out! For need calls loudly in the winding lane, and you will find Christ there.” Even though I may not be going out, I trust that I am listening to the voices of the people in need and am a virtual presence among them. This ministry continues to bless me in ways I never imagined.