Faith formation job takes broad definition in rural Delaware

SELBYVILLE, Del. - There's no mistaking Sister Agnes Oman's Irish heritage, even after decades in the United States. If her coloring and her accent didn't give her away, her way of describing her ministry would - she tells one story after another.

Mostly, the stories she told for Catholic News Service May 1 in the living room of her apartment/office were about the immigrants of the Delmarva Peninsula, and their struggles to support families here and in their home countries, while avoiding coming to the attention of authorities who might deport them.

Sister Agnes, a Basilian sister, is technically employed by the Diocese of Wilmington's faith formation office, but here at the bottom edge of Delaware, that job description takes in a lot of territory.

Yes, there are the classes she teaches or supervises: general religious education, and courses to prepare children for first Communion and confirmation, parents for baptism and sometimes engaged couples for marriage.

But in a community where immigrants from Mexico and Central America and their children are the fastest growing population, Sister Agnes also knows her way around the police stations, courtrooms and detention centers. There have been many, many trips to schools, clinics, hospitals and lawyers' offices as she jumped in to help people with limited English skills and different cultural backgrounds navigate the U.S. way of doing things.

"There was one lady who came to me with a letter from a lawyer, saying she owed money," started one story. It turned out the woman thought she had paid off a hospital bill, and had no idea that she was being billed separately by various doctors who provided services.

"She was from Mexico," explained Sister Agnes. "You don't get bills for a hospital stay in Mexico," which has a national health care system. Sister Agnes said she was able to get the woman on a payment plan for the bills she didn't realize were not included in the hospital's bill.

Before nearby Maryland started requiring proof of legal residency in 2009, she shepherded hundreds of people through the process of applying for driver's licenses. (A new Maryland law taking effect in January will create a special category of license for undocumented immigrants.)

And she has come to the rescue of at least one Spanish-speaking neighbor who unexpectedly gave birth at home and needed someone to translate for the paramedics who were called.

Sister Agnes came to the region after working in San Antonio and having spent five years in Mexico in rural Veracruz, the state where many of the immigrants in southern Delaware originate.

When she arrived, she said, she thought the lush farmland and rural communities reminded her of Ireland, but the situation in which the Latino immigrants live and work was more like "Texas, 30 years ago."

Though immigrants make up the majority of the population in some of the small towns of the peninsula, many of the tens of thousands of people who pass through the area en route to the nearby Atlantic beaches have no idea they're there.

In Georgetown, for instance, the Sussex County seat about 10 miles up the road from Selbyville, the main streets of town are home to a typical rural assortment of small shops, offices and many closed storefronts. But a block off the main drag, signs in Spanish advertise shipping to Central America, Guatemalan food, Latin music. There are fewer empty stores here and lots of pedestrians patronizing the businesses.

Helping the immigrants and the longer-established, mostly white communities get used to each other has been part of what Sister Agnes sees as her job.

That presents a ministry challenge at times in the two communities where Sister Agnes works: Our Lady of Guadalupe in Frankford, a mission of a larger parish in Bethany Beach, and St. Elizabeth, a mission of a parish in Westover, Md. One successful crossover effort involved a traveling image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, brought to the area by the Knights of Columbus.

After an earlier effort to mark the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a traditional way didn't go over well with the non-Latinos in the mission, the traveling image was celebrated with recitation of the rosary, which proved popular across cultural lines.

As Congress takes up immigration reform legislation, Sister Agnes thinks the main thing that would make life easier for the immigrants in southern Delaware is a chance to live more openly - by getting legal residency status, driver's licenses and Social Security numbers so they can work more openly.

"The reality is in this area you can't get anywhere without a driver's license," she said. Many of the immigrants work in the beach resort hotels within a 30-minute drive, but getting there can be an hours-long process for someone without a driver's license.

As her time in Delaware comes to an end - she's moving back to Texas this summer - Sister Agnes talks about some of the immigrants she knows who have been in Delaware 15, 20, even 30 years.

"All their children have grown up here, they all know English," she said. Sometimes families leave, either voluntarily or because someone is deported. But most eventually come back.

"Deep in their hearts they all know, their children have a better chance here," she said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970