Month: April 2022

Border Mission: Sister Kathy’s Tale

Sister Kathy delivers supplies

Sister Kathy Benham, of the IHM Literacy Center, was among the first to volunteer for the IHM Border Mission last year – a combined operation of the three separate Monroe, Scranton, and Philadelphia branches of IHM sisters, offering humanitarian assistance during the refugee surge at the U.S. southern border after President Biden’s inauguration. That she was among those first IHMs to go for three weeks starting in April 2021, was due to chance or the Holy Spirit: when Catholic Relief Services asked for women religious volunteers, many of her Literacy Center pupils were observing the month-long Muslim season of Ramadan — a time when class attendance tends to be erratic — so it seemed a reasonable time to be away!

Sister Kathy was actually on the committee that chose the relatively remote site of El Centro CA, diocese of San Diego, for the mission. She went down with Sister Mary Elaine Anderson of the Scranton IHM Sisters – a nice reunion, since they had met years before – to set up. There, the two sisters employed their special skills as religious – with a heritage of hospitality and a talent for organization — to build an efficient operation. Sister Mary Elaine, who was able to stay for the full three months of the mission, even found use for her art therapy training to help anxious children!

Sister Kathy reports that immigrants to El Centro did not stream in, steadily, in long processions, as in some other areas. Instead, they crept across the border quietly, one family at a time. Many were desperately poor. Most, at the time, were Brasilians, fleeing the repressive Bolsonaro regime, hoping to find humble jobs to feed their families.  They went west to California because they hoped it would be easier to get in. Picked up there by the U.S. Border Patrol, they had no idea what to expect, and, since the Brasilians often spoke only Portuguese – no Spanish or English – language was an extra challenge.

Immigrant families were split up just inside the U.S. border, with men sent to one facility, and women and children to another, for covid testing and paperwork. Those with covid were then moved into quarantine in a large motel at Holtzville. Those who tested negative were taken to El Centro. Boys over 18 years old were considered independent adults and generally sent back across the border to Mexico, which was an incomprehensible and unexpected tragedy to those accustomed to living together in big multigenerational families; most had no phones and no way to keep in touch. The rest had no idea what would happen next, so they were surprised, and sometimes moved to tears, when they were reunited on a bus, enroute to a motel room in El Centro, to be met with the relief of a welcoming smile, clean beds and a bathroom, and meals. Once there, they had 48 hours to contact relatives in the United States who could pay for their plane tickets, and to get to the airport. Sister Kathy and her fellow volunteers organized a clothing room to provide clothing (since shoelaces had been confiscated at the border, these were especially prized!); distributed meals; and, muddling along in a mixture of Spanish and google translate, helped their charges to work through the English-language airport bureaucracy. The airport was an hour away from El Centro, so the nuns and volunteers drove families there in vans supplied by Catholic Charities. A knowledgeable former border patrol officer wisely advised them to explain to the families that the long bumpy ride would take them to the faraway airport, since they were in unfamiliar remote territory, with people they didn’t know, who spoke a different language, and the families were stressed, terrified, and confused about everything happening outside their control.

Sister Kathy highlights the amazing efforts of Catholic Relief Services to make a real difference, and feels humbled by her experience.  Now, the IHMs hope to return to the border! They are in the planning stages for a combined mission of all three IHM groups and the related Sisters of Providence. The hope is to set up a permanent “unretreat” center – a place where volunteers can come, not for solitary soulful meditation, but to offer their time and energy to help others. They have also received funding from SOAR – the funding for retired IHM religious – which hopes to involve retired sisters who still want to contribute.

Illumination

Have you ever noticed how your experience of our church changes, depending where you sit? Areas with more light are more sociable, friendlier, and it’s easier to read the missalette. The darker corners are more meditative: the light shimmering on the Byzantine-style glass mosaics makes them come alive, promoting a sense of awe and timeless connection to a greater presence.

Lighting effects have been important in our church since the beginning.  A newspaper description of the 1911 Dedication Mass, when the building officially opened, reported a careful mix of ancient and new lighting styles, signaling that our church was “top-of-the-line”: “The interior of the edifice had been transformed into a bower of beauty and light. Hundreds of candles and electric bulbs shed their rays through the auditorium and sanctuary, while the best skill of the florist and decorator was in evidence with the mass of multicolored autumn flowers….

Electricity was a “hot topic” when our church was built: a history of PECO notes that “Of Philadelphia’s 850 churches, five hundred were customers of Philadelphia Electric in 1912.” The technology was promoted as a way to enhance sacred spaces: a 1913 issue of The Lighting Journal observed that “it is the aim of the engineer to bring out the sublimity of the altar and cause the emotion of the worshipper to feel those lofty conceptions and reverence for this holy place...” At the same time, a colloquium at Dumbarton Oaks a few years ago observed that “Nineteenth century scholarship right at the advent of photography and electricity was keenly aware how the…presence of Byzantine art could be drained by these new technologies,” muting the sense of mystery.

Did we always keep the delicate balance between too little and too much light? A 1922 interior photo of the church shows it dazzling with rows of “vanity” light bulbs lining the arches, topping columns, around windows, and above the confessionals; and two electroliers, or round metal “wedding cake” stands of electric candles, in the sanctuary. The effect is startling – until you realize that the photographer probably enhanced the lighting for this photo, which, rather than showing off the church, was intended to capture the faces of the many members of the Holy Name Society filling its pews.  The 1911 newspaper photo of the church Dedication – too blurry to reproduce – shows a similar lighting setup, but the bulbs seem to highlight, rather than overwhelm the space, while flickering candles build atmosphere.

Church lighting was adjusted a few times over the years for different emphasis. A 1954 photo shows elegant sconces on the side walls, instead of bare bulbs, and plain lights hanging from the ceiling. Joe Ruane recalls his electrician father installing the two long rectangular hanging lamps at the front of the church under Bishop McShea – who also replaced a massive cross-shaped candle lamp in the middle of the sanctuary with the two smaller sanctuary lamps, one on each side. Those big round metal chandeliers, now suspended unevenly from the ceiling in the main body of the church, were installed by Monsignor Sefton in 1965, when the wall sconces were removed and the side walls of the church covered with blue “bathroom tiles.” Then came the famous Venturi renovation of the Sanctuary, under Monsignor Mitchell, with the short-lived “neon halo” shining boldly above the new front-facing altar of Vatican II – its brash intensity thrusting everything behind it into shadows, “erasing the past” in its glare, and causing sensory overload for parishioners used to a more contemplative experience.

Now, as we plan a new lighting system for a new century – more on that later – and our present congregation is poised to add its own careful signature to our historic church, let’s think about the power of light to guide our way forward, and how illumination can symbolize hope and renewal!