This history column usually focuses on the single “planet” that is our parish, showing how it fits into the “solar system” of our immediate neighborhood. Every now and then, though, it’s good to step back and look beyond our single point of light, to the whole sky and the many galaxies beyond our view that form our universe – and the many cultures and communities that form the wider Catholic Church, of which we are such a small part. And in that, Sister Gertrude Borres is our key!
Sister Gertrude, of the Religious of the Assumption – in the convent across the street from the church – was named Director of the Archdiocesan Office for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees in 2019 – just before the Covid pandemic hit — and has been working steadily ever since, through crisis after crisis, with different waves of immigrants and migrants. Her mission is two-fold: working with Catholic Social Services to connect people with resources to take care of their physical needs (loss of jobs, healthcare during covid, documentation, etc.), and, also, to help people feel welcomed by recognizing that “language, culture, and customs are important” and it’s vital to “nurture faith as lived.” Her office currently supports chaplains saying Mass in seventeen different languages other than English or Spanish – and embraces the rich diversity of customs and traditions that anchor and enrich Catholic experiences around the world – from Asia and the South Pacific to Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
How has our parish intersected with Sister Gertrude’s work?
As the Afghan crisis unfolded, Sister Gertrude says, when Catholic Social Services welcomed about fifty Afghans arriving in Philadelphia, her role was to support and help with resettlement. When a family who moved to our neighborhood wanted to send their children to St. Francis de Sales School, she went to Father Eric, who went to Sister Mary McNulty, and among them, they arranged for this to happen. Parishioners contributed to help cover tuition. The parents then needed to learn English, so Sister Kathy Benham, IHM, was also looped in, and the parents began to attend English as a Second Language classes at the IHM Literacy Center.
Ukraine is currently immersed in an ongoing war and conflict. The Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy is Orthodox Catholic and has its own support organization, so Sister Gertrude’s efforts have focused on spiritual solidarity and the understanding that there is little we can do physically to help, but “it strengthens them to know that people are praying for them.” The Zoom Novena Pilgrimage that just ended – a joint effort with the local Ukrainian Church, in which, each night, participants learned the story of one city and the impact of war – cultivated empathy for people in Ukraine who, she notes, in their suffering, “are experiencing the passion of Christ.” The Taizé Prayer Service at our parish, at the end of the novena, strengthened the newly-forged bonds with the Ukrainian community and the sense of sharing in the same mission.
On World Communications Day, Pope Francis compared the church to a choir, in which “unity does not require uniformity, monotony, but the plurality and variety of voices…” He hopes to “rediscover a symphonic Church, in which each person is able to sing with his or her own voice, welcoming the voices of others as a gift to manifest the harmony of the whole that the Holy Spirit composes.” Sister Gertrude who is herself a migrant, born and raised in the Philippines, feels that the role of her office is to “make the big church closer to the migrants and refugees.” Here at SFDS, she would like to “open us to not only our little world but to the universality of the church and our parish mission expressed right there in our title, as ‘United by the Most Blessed Sacrament’!” Let the dialogue begin!