Sisters bring national attention to Pueblo de Palmas

A Pueblo de Palmas resident said the three sisters who’ve been instrumental in bringing the community together are her angels.

Before they came, Anita said she felt alone and empty, as she talked about her life in the colonia with a delegation from St. Gabriel’s Catholic School in Austin last week at the Proyecto Desarollo Humano community center.

20150327 PENITAS Students meet with SistersThe three sisters – Carolyn Kosub, Emily Jocson and Fatima Santiago – arrived in Pueblo de Palmas after a tornado more than a decade ago and quickly set to work creating the community center. There, the sisters offer medical and dental services, tutoring, Zumba and an assortment of classes for members of the community, which includes more than 2,000 families.

But it was weekly Mass that brought Anita into the community center. Originally from Santa Anita, Jalisco, Mexico, Anita was raised with a Catholic background and had no spiritual fulfillment when she first moved to the United States to give her children a better life.

“She also literally feels the presence of God here,” said a translator for Anita. “If someone were to ask her if she wanted to move to another colonia, do you want to go somewhere elegant or fancy or better, she would say, ‘No, I want to stay here. I have so much peace, so much joy. It’s so comfortable.’”

Last year, Kosub, Jocson and Santiago were honored with the Lumen Christi Award from Catholic Extension. It’s the highest honor from the agency, which works with nearly 100 dioceses across the country, said Joe Boland, vice president of mission for Catholic Extension.

Last week, the three women were honored by the state Legislature and the next day, the group from St. Gabriel’s arrived to tour the project. The delegation included three students, three parents and four staff members.

Jocson said it’s the residents who witness to the sisters of God’s love. They were looking for an underserved area and Pueblo de Palmas wasn’t being served at all. She’s seen the community improve from when she first arrived when there were only a few trailers and shelters put together using whatever wood they can find. Now, she said, there are some pretty nice homes in the area.

When the sisters arrived, Jocson said residents were looking for a spiritual home, and the residents pushed for the church dedicated as St. Anne’s Catholic Church in 2013.

Jocson gleefully offered a tour of the community center’s medical and dental clinics, pointing out an EKG machine and X-ray in the dentist’s office, all purchased with grant funding. Medical doctors set up shop on Saturdays, volunteering their time to see residents in the colonia. Dentists willing to donate their time are hard to come by, Jocson said, but they manage to bring one in about once a month. The clinic serves people who have no insurance of any kind and can’t afford a $50 payment at a local clinic.

“They have hope, and they will endure difficult living situations because they want their children to have a better future than they do in Mexico,” Jocson said. “So they will manage. They will endure, and they keep that dream and that hope alive, and we’re very blessed to be a part of standing with them in that.”

Catholic Extension analyzed each of the dioceses and found the Diocese of Brownsville, under which Pueblo de Palmas falls, has the highest rate of poverty of all the dioceses in the United States. It’s also the most heavily Catholic. In a time when many dioceses are closing churches, the Diocese of Brownsville is opening and expanding them.

Boland said the three sisters are an example of faith transforming society. They came not with solutions, but to listen to the people in the community and journey with them. Faith isn’t just about what happens within the four walls of a building on Sunday, but what happens when people go out and transform communities, he said.

He foresees even more of a transformation in Pueblo de Palmas in the next 10 years because the people are being empowered by the sisters.

“They come here not to proselytize, but they come here with a sense of mission, and that means that they want to find what God is up to in this community, how God is already present in these people, and to accompany them and to journey with them and to understand how they can be a resource to these people,” Boland said.

Boland said the trip from St. Gabriel’s is a trial run for Catholic Extension to show that great things can be done without the resources of cities like Boston, Chicago or New York. Students can see how with faith and a little money, amazing things are possible, he said.

“Even though it’s a six-hour drive, sometimes we can be world’s apart from one another even though we’re from the same church,” Boland said.

Dan McKenna, head of St. Gabriel’s, came down to Pueblo de Palmas in November during a community celebration of the sisters’ award and was struck by what he saw. He knew he wanted his students and staff to see what the sisters were doing in the Valley.

He said the sisters have always said it’s not them, it’s the community getting things accomplished in the colonia, and it was humbling able to see the power of the community.

“The sisters are very humble, but it’s inspiring to see that one or two or three people committed to a mission really can change lives,” McKenna said.

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