Nun marks decades assisting immigrants

Latino friends thank `heart of apostolate'

February 23, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

For most of the past four decades, Hispanic immigrants arriving in Baltimore, looking for work or a place to stay have first turned for help to a sprightly Irish-American Roman Catholic nun.

Sister Mary Neil Corcoran has been an educator, job counselor and spiritual adviser to the city's burgeoning Latino community as director of the church's Hispanic Apostolate, a social services outreach where she first volunteered in 1963 and which she has directed since 1975.

She was also in charge of arranging Spanish Masses in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and served as the Hispanic chaplain in the city detention center.

Now 75, Corcoran has retired, after a fashion, and her family, friends and grateful students will gather today to mark that passage at Mercy High School. Hector Torres, former spokesman for the city Fire Department, succeeds her in running the apostolate.

But Corcoran still volunteers, coming to the office in Upper Fells Point every day to teach English. And she will continue as a detention center chaplain.

"This is a little like going to your funeral before you're dead," she said of all the fuss.

But her life's work has been a big deal for those she served. For these immigrants, many of whom were undocumented and suspicious of anything smacking of government or authority, she was the face of the Catholic Church and an unexpected advocate who asked no questions and made no judgments.

"She's the soul, the spirit, the heart of the apostolate," said Evelyn Rosario, who spoke no English when she met Corcoran as an 18-year-old a decade ago, shortly after arriving from Guatemala.

With the nun's help, she learned enough English to get an office job. Now Rosario is back with the Hispanic Apostolate, having been enlisted by Corcoran to act as her coordinator of services.

"Most of us look up to her. She's like a role model to us," Rosario said. "The fact that she, as an American, had that interest to help Hispanics makes it more special. A lot of people just don't know how to thank her, and one of those people would be me."

Cardinal William H. Keeler noted that when Pope John Paul II visited Baltimore in 1995, he had lunch at Our Daily Bread soup kitchen with a group that included a Mexican couple with two young boys. "They were able to tell the pope about how sister had helped them through the Hispanic Apostolate," he said.

While Corcoran was a warm, welcoming presence, she was no pushover, either to the students she recruited or the volunteers she pursued to teach English or provide medical services. The one thing she would hammer on repeatedly to immigrants was the need to learn English.

"I've always felt it was so important for them to learn English, because you want to see them get ahead and succeed and not be so dependent on other people," Corcoran said.

"She taught me it is OK to have your culture and be part of it, but you do need to learn how things are done in the United States to take part in society," said Marcela Blinka, who came with her parents to the apostolate when they moved here from Colombia.

"She also doesn't give people a hard time if they don't follow through," said Blinka, now a social worker in the oncology department of Johns Hopkins Hospital -- and a volunteer at the apostolate. "I've seen her kid people around if she hasn't seen them in a while. But they know they're always welcome to come back."

Her approach to English classes is to make them as flexible as possible. A student can drop in anytime during the day to study with a tutor, and there are some classes that meet nights as well.

"We adjust to their program," she said. "My thinking is if they get a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, they can't go to the manager and say, `I can't come to work tomorrow because I have to study English.'"

Corcoran's interest in Spanish language and culture began in high school. Born and raised near City College, she took Spanish at Mount St. Agnes High School and majored in the subject at Mount St. Agnes College in Mount Washington. Once she joined the Religious Sisters of Mercy -- a path she chose because she wanted to serve people through the church -- she pursued advanced linguistic studies because "in those days, the order decided what you were going to do."

She traveled in Spain, where she earned a doctorate in Spanish literature and linguistics from the Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona. Still, she never longed for the ivory tower of academia. In fact, she pitied a fellow nun also tapped for advanced studies in medieval literature. "I heard she was in the library all the time," she said. "I was never buried in one of those vaults."

She returned and began putting her learning to practical use, first ministering to Cuban immigrants who had fled the newly installed Castro regime.

"Most of them were professionals," she said. "But many of them left without anything and didn't speak any English."

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