By Michele Ristich Gatts
Director of Mission Advancement
With little more than a prayer, Betsy Horne set out from Scotland for New Castle, Pa., in the 1800s – seeking a better life. Times were still difficult. Betsy was eventually widowed with three young children and had few prospects for her young family.
Then she found work at an orphanage. Her wages? The exchange of somewhere safe for her children to live.
Betsy’s story resembles that of countless immigrants, maybe not in precise details but in essence. Indeed, many of our families proudly tell similar stories of desperation and gumption by ancestors immigrating to the United States.
Sister Norma Raupple, who’s leading a mission trip to the U.S./Mexico border to minister with refugees seeking asylum, says she feels Betsy’s presence as she’s meeting with families at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center.
You see, Betsy was Sister Norma’s great-grandmother.
“These families experienced extreme poverty in their homelands. They lived with the constant threat of violence. There were no opportunities for their families,” she observes. “They want a life for their children.”
Our project, Building Bridges at the Border, was created through Sister Norma’s experience having ministered in Brownsville, Texas – a virtual immigrant town – from 1997-2007. She’s led several mission trips to the border over the last few years.
The humanitarian crisis there, where thousands of families (most staying at Brownsville’s neighbor, Matamoros, Mexico) are working with the U.S. Department of Immigration to be granted asylum status, is drawing volunteers from across the country and every generation.
Our group includes five young women and an Ursuline Sister of Mount St. Joseph. Together, they’re bringing comfort to the 50 refugee families staying at the Respite Center, whose claims are being processed, and those living in tents across the border, waiting for their turn to meet with U.S. Immigration officials.
They’re also working with the families to teach them English.
“The kids are doing really well in learning English from our group,” Sister Norma reports. “They’ll be able to help their parents moving forward.”
Sister Norma tells the story of one quick learner, Obed, a teenage boy she taught to count in English using bananas. His family was part of a group that fled Angola.
“Three hundred of them left eight months ago. One-hundred fifty of them survived,” she says sadly.
Two of the young Angolan families are now permitted to travel, and will soon reunite with family members living in the northeast. Our Building Bridges at the Border group helped plan the trip.
While the families awaiting court dates have a better shelter than those still in Mexico, Sister Norma says the Respite Center lacks windows. She adds that families have no phones to communicate with family members already granted status and living in other parts of the country.
“They’re persevering, though,” she posits. “They’re focused on a better life for their families.”
And we hope they’ll do as well as Betsy did those many years ago. She worked so hard and so well at the orphanage that she became good friends with the administrators. They admired her abilities and work ethic, and invited to serve on an advisory board for the institution.
“Someone even left her their furniture,” Sister Norma states proudly. “Our family still has and uses those antiques!