Champion for immigrants to receive Catholic Charities honor

SrGraciela1-WEB-800x500_cIf there’s one thing Sister Graciela Rosas does not want, it’s an award. The 66-year-old sister of the Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary is distressed by the way her joy in serving others with love seems to keep bringing her so much attention.

For the last 50 years of her religious life, Sister Graciela has dedicated herself to serving the least in society, a vocation she says has filled her life with blessings. (See related story on this page.) It pains her to receive awards when what she really wants is to go on serving quietly, as God asked.

She was persuaded to accept this year’s Justice in Action award from the Diocese of Camden’s Catholic Charities only when she learned it would be presented at the Justice for All dinner, a benefit for the poor.

“If I can help the poor I will do it,” she finally replied to the dinner’s organizers who urged her to accept.

For the last five years in her work at the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton, and her 50 years of consecrated life, those words might have been her motto.

At the parish, Sister Graciela leads an ESL (English as a Second Language) program, prepares young people to receive confirmation, helps with the parish’s Code Blue program offering shelter to the homeless during the winter, has established small faith-sharing groups for the community, and runs a weekly group that advocates for justice for immigrants, just to name a few.

“Sister Graciela for me really embodies what Pope Francis is calling priests and religious to be, that is, workers in the field hospital caring for those who have been wounded,” said Father Vincent Guest, pastor of the Parish of the Holy Cross.

“She walks with people thorough the various difficulties they face in life and she walks as a religious, whether it’s accompanying a family to the hospital to see a loved one or going to immigration court for a detained parishioner who is not documented, or peacefully protesting in front of a congressman’s office advocating for a change in immigration laws. Sister is there, representing the church for people who are in need.”

Catholic Charities’ Justice for All Dinner annually honors one organization and one individual who work for justice in the Diocese of Camden. This year’s individual honoree is Sister Graciela and the organizational honoree is the Camden County Police Department under the leadership of Police Chief J. Scott Thomson.

The Justice For All Dinner raises funds that allow Catholic Charities to provide direct assistance to those experiencing financial crises in South Jersey.

“Sister Graciela’s work with and on behalf of our immigrant brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Camden, particularly those who are undocumented, is a great example of the importance of working for justice through love,” said Kevin Hickey, executive director of Catholic Charities. “During this Year of Consecrated Life, and Sister Graciela’s Golden Jubilee year as a religious sister, it is a fitting time to honor that witness.”

The Justice for All dinner will be held Thursday, Sept. 17, 5:30 p.m. at the Adelphia Grand Ballroom, Deptford. To buy a ticket or become a sponsor, visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/JFA.

The blessings of Sister Graciela’s life

SrGraciela2-WEB-800x500_c

Sister Graciela Rosas stands with some of the altar servers during the Mass Bishop Dennis Sullivan celebrated at Larchmont Farms, Elmer, on Aug. 29. Photos by Alan M. Dumoff, /ccdphotolibrary.smugmug.com

Sister Graciela Rosas entered religious life in Mexico in 1965 at the age of 16.

“My plans were to get married and have a large family and be a missionary in Africa. I didn’t really choose to become a sister, but God had an initiative and I answered yes,” she said.

She lists the various ministries she has worked in over the last 50 years not as items on a resume but as a series of blessings.

In 1983 she left Mexico and spent 18 years working with immigrants in Texas and Washington State, performing many of the same kinds of services as she does now in Bridgeton: helping immigrants learn English, learn to drive, find jobs, and learn about the culture and laws in the United States; or accompanying them to doctor’s appointments and to court to serve as an interpreter or simply a prayerful support.

Her work has always included a pastoral dimension, encouraging the people she serves to participate in the church community as lectors, musicians or catechists, and to keep their faith and traditions.

“Working with immigrants has been another blessing for me. It has strengthened my faith living with them, suffering with them, and also enjoying many beautiful moments. When they talk to me and I see their hunger for God, it strengthens my faith,” she said.

She returned to Mexico in 2001 and spent five years teaching in her congregation’s schools until her lifelong dream came true. In 2006 she was sent to Nigeria, finally becoming a missionary in Africa at the age of 57.

“I always knew in my heart that I would get there,” she said.

She spent nearly six years in Africa, returning only when she contracted malaria. Her return brought her to Bridgeton and back to her ministry with U.S. immigrants.

Over the last five years, she has been an outspoken advocate in the parish and community for changes to immigration law and a path to citizenship for undocumented people. She has led vigils and novenas in front of congressmen’s offices and met with representatives, always bringing with her families who could share personal stories of suffering.

Recently, she has led the parish’s effort to push for legislation in New Jersey that would grant driver’s licenses to people who cannot prove legal status. Last March, she organized a town hall with Bridgeton officials at the parish that was attended by 500 members of the community to support the legislation.

“I see how they suffer,” she said of the immigrant families she works with. “I always try to be there for them because I have learned a lot about how to help better the situation of immigrants, who are a blessing for me, for this parish, for this diocese and for this nation. They are hard workers, people of faith, who need to live in a better situation.”

After 50 years, Sister Graciela says her vocation has brought her joy.

“It’s a very simple life and it’s a very blessed way to live. I am surrounded by only the goodness of God.”

Her message for those who wish to attain the same happiness is a simple one.

“Service with love will give you happiness,” she says. “It’s a blessing to have the opportunity to serve any person, but especially the lowest in our society. I have learned that happiness comes from service with love.”

 

The Justice for All dinner will be held Thursday, Sept. 17, 5:30 p.m. at the Adelphia Grand Ballroom, Deptford. To buy a ticket or become a sponsor, visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/JFA.