Nuns serve the needy in South Bronx

Religion: Despite occasional gunfire and gang rumbles, four sisters of St. Jerome make a difference.

May 21, 2001|By Dexter Filkins | By Dexter Filkins,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- When Sister Lucila Perez learned that she would be leaving her convent in Mexico to serve in a South Bronx church, her neighbors rushed to warn her that her very life would be at risk.

"I expected to see dead bodies everywhere and drug dealers on every corner," said Sister Lucila, 36, one of four Roman Catholic nuns who came to New York last year. "They told me the South Bronx was the worst of society."

Not so bad

But things have not been so bad. Occasional gunfire, yes, and even a gang rumble. Yet apart from these and a few other minor troubles, Sister Lucila and her three colleagues, Sisters Beatriz and Juana Pinto, and their Mother Superior, Isabel Texcucano, are having a grand adventure in a once-notorious neighborhood. They may even leave the place in better shape than they found it.

Officials of the Archdiocese of New York said that the four nuns, from the state of Puebla in southern Mexico, came to the Mott Haven section of the Bronx last August to help remedy a shortage of nuns at two churches and to provide a touch of home for the area's growing population of Mexican immigrants. Two of them work at St. Jerome's Church, 138th Street and Alexander Avenue, and the other two at St. Luke's, 623 E. 138th St., both in the heart of the South Bronx's Mexican community. There are now about 25,000 ethnic Mexicans in the southern end of the borough, said Rob Smith, a sociologist at Barnard College who studies Mexican migration to the United States.

All four sisters live in a convent at St. Luke's. "We've got a labor shortage here," said the Rev. Gerald Ryan of St. Luke's.

Since they arrived, the nuns have cut their own paths through the borough's gritty precincts. They visit immigrant families late at night, often the only time the families can be together to meet with them. They poke around the local grocery stores in search of the most piquant chilies.

`Everyone waves'

"When we first got here, everyone just stared at us," said Sister Lucila, describing their daily strolls. "Now, everyone waves and says, `There go the sisters.'" In a neighborhood where many residents are poor, the nuns stand out -- part oddity, part inspiration -- for having willingly chosen a life of poverty. Even their traditional but drab tan and brown habits of the order of St. Jerome can prompt amusement. "Don't you ever change clothes?" a little boy asked Sister Juana the other day.

At the churches, the nuns perform an array of services, helping with baptisms, distributing Holy Communion and teaching catechism. Their toughest task, they say, is making their religion relevant to people struggling to build new lives thousands of miles from their home. Many families who attend the two churches are riven by alcoholism and sexual and spousal abuse. Many of the men who left families behind in Mexico have started new ones here.

"The biggest problem here is family unity," Sister Isabel said. "We dealt with the other half of that when we were in Mexico."

For those kinds of problems, they have found, theology is not always the answer. When a young man complained that he had been cut off from seeing his 15-year-old sweetheart by the girl's father, they told him to get a job so he could impress the girl's father with his sense of responsibility. "You cannot say that everything is spiritual," Sister Beatriz said.

Just listening

Sometimes they offer no advice at all.

"In Mexico, there is a lot of machismo, and the women are discriminated against, and this Mexican mentality persists even in the United States," Sister Beatriz said recently during a break from services. "The woman may not receive the money she needs to run the house, and she may have no one to talk to about these things. Someone just needs to listen to them."

In their seven months in New York City, the sisters have compiled a list of likes and dislikes -- the museums they like, the trash along 138th Street they don't -- and a wealth of stories to tell their friends back home. Armed with only their Mexican driver's licenses, the sisters often use a car given to them by a priest for sightseeing trips. Occasionally, though, they are left baffled.

"The other day, we went to this place -- where was it?" Sister Lucila asked her colleagues.

"Somewhere up there," Sister Juana said, pointing at a wall.

"White Plains?" Sister Beatriz asked.

"No, White Plains is in the other direction," Sister Juana said.

Yet even though they are often lost, the sisters say they long ago abandoned their fears of the South Bronx or of any other place in New York City. "Somehow," Sister Beatriz said, "we always find our way back home."

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