While the measure of power may be impossible to quantify, having God on your side certainly brings with it some cachet. Of course, having a mere mortal like Pope Francis sing your praises doesn’t hurt, either. That’s where Sister Norma Pimentel now finds herself. The Brownsville native has had several audiences with the pope; has been to the White House a couple of times; and was recently honored by the University of Notre Dame with the Laetare Medal, considered the highest honor that an American Catholic can receive. But it’s not Sister Norma’s Catholic faith that moves people, it’s her faith in humans. The sort of mustard-seed faith that, as Jesus said, can move a mountain.
In this case, the mountain is the rancorous national debate over immigration policy. While Sister Norma has stayed clear of the politics swirling around the issue, her Good Samaritan example of providing comfort to those who have crossed our border has put her at the forefront of an international story. Her command post, the Humanitarian Respite Center, is a scant three blocks from the downtown McAllen bus station, where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement releases refugees who have been cleared to stay in the country until their asylum claims are ruled on. Sister Norma has established a contingent of volunteers to take the immigrants to the center for a meal, a shower, a nap, a change of clothes, and to assist them in getting to their next location. “We’re just helping them to restore their dignity,” she says.
When Texas Monthly went to McAllen to photograph Sister Norma for the cover, we got a sense of her quiet power. The Humanitarian Respite Center that she runs was noisy and jam-packed with people, yet Sister Norma radiated calm and authority. “Many of the immigrants had just met her for the first time, but they seemed to trust her—and by extension us—immediately,” one of our staffers said. “These are people who are in the midst of a situation that most of us would find completely traumatic. Yet look at how at ease they are in these pictures.”
These simple gestures gained the notice of Pope Francis, who once asked her: “Is it appropriate for a pope to say this? I love you very much.”
As the arguments about immigration have raged on, Sister Norma’s influence has grown, particularly since this country’s conscience was awakened by the federal government’s recent policy of separating families at the border. As she did in 2014, when a surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America drew national attention, Sister Norma has focused on her mission to provide simple aid and comfort to weary travelers. Her actions reminded many that no matter how contentious the policy arguments were, there were actual people at the center of these debates, people in dire need of mercy and charity. As she traveled across the country to talk about her work, the stories she told served as a powerful voice for these immigrants.
Recently, Sister Norma told a rapt audience in Dallas about a little girl who had been separated from her mother for a month before being reunited and brought to the Respite Center. The girl, who said she had cried every day of her ordeal, told Sister Norma, “Today, I’m not going to cry.”
That’s the power of Sister Norma, who has been called the Pope’s Favorite Nun and the Mother Teresa of South Texas. “Helping another human being is never wrong,” she has said. “That’s never a wrong thing to do.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Demonstrating the Power of Mercy and Charity” Subscribe today.