Sister Thérèse Cunningham, SHSp

Those Who Serve

By ROSE YBARRA

The Valley Catholic

 

SAN BENITO — Sister Thérèse Cunningham of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate has been an immigrant twice. Twice she has left loved ones behind along with a familiar way of life. Twice she has headed into the unknown in a foreign land. Twice she has adapted to a whole new culture.

At age 16, Sister Cunningham joined the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate and left her native Ireland to come to Texas. In 2000, she moved to Mexico to do missionary work and stayed for five years.

Realizing a lifelong dream to welcome and minister to immigrants, Sister Cunningham has served as a client mentor and English as a Second Language instructor at La Posada Providencia in San Benito since September 2005.

La Posada Providencia is an emergency shelter for immigrants, asylum seekers and asylees recently processed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They stay at the shelter as their cases work their way through the court system.

Some stay at the shelter for a few days while others may stay for up to a year. Many of the clients fled to the United States to escape famine, natural disasters, torture or other life-threatening situations. At the time of Sister Cunningham’s interview with The Valley Catholic, there were immigrants from 10 different countries at the shelter. More than 9,000 have been served at La Posada Providencia since it opened in 1989.

“Every day is God’s surprise for us,” she said.

A former school teacher, Sister Cunningham, 72, teaches the clients English and U.S. history and assists them in the process of enculturation by offering information about shopping, budgeting, gardening, cooking and environmental concerns.

“Besides love and tender care, they need to learn a little bit about the place they are coming to,” she said. “When I went to Mexico, I had an experience of what it feels like to be in a different culture and not quite equipped to be able to converse in the language and being the, I hate to say it, but the odd person, the person who is different from the rest. It’s like walking in the shoes of the people. I can empathize with them and I can relate to them.

“Like them, I too had to struggle with the language … when people talk to you and you are trying to figure out, ‘how am I going to answer back?’ I know that can lead to some anxiety. You feel like you are starting all over again, starting life from scratch when you can barely say, ‘¿Cómo estás?’ or ‘¿Como se llama usted?’ These are the experiences in my life that have probably helped me to identify more with the experience of the immigrant.”

Sister Cunningham also incorporates music into her lessons and teaches the clients holiday tunes and patriotic songs.

“Music and singing relieves some of the stress and anxiety,” she said. “Around Christmas, I teach them Christmas carols and around Easter, Easter songs, etc. I always teach them, “God Bless America,” which they sing with great gusto. I get chills when they sing it with their whole heart.

“They probably still have a struggle ahead of them but they are coming to this country with a great deal of hope and we try to help them along the way.”

A constant message at La Posada Providencia is to keep praying and trust in Divine Providence.

“We help them to know that God walks with them on the journey,” Sister Cunningham said. “The same God that walked with them and brought them to us is going to be with them when they leave us and go elsewhere. God will be waiting there, too.”

'Every day is God’s surprise for us'

- Sister Cunningham