Catholic Sisters Reflect on Work in 1980s Sanctuary Movement

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Twentieth Street residents, Sister Kathleen Healy, 91, and Sister Lucia Lodolo, 78, who taught at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church starting in the mid-1960s, are spending their retirement years volunteering at Saints Anthony’s Foundation Social Services Department. “Mostly smiling at people,” said Healy.

Saint Teresa’s school closed in 1974 due to low enrollment.  In the early-1980s conflict erupted in the Central American countries of El Salvador and Guatemala.  Military forces stripped away the rights of low-income people through violence, threats and intimidation. Many citizens of those countries fled to the United States and other nations seeking asylum.  However, the political climate in the U.S. proved to be a barrier to those looking for a safe harbor.

“Catholic Charities reached out to us and asked us to become involved with Sanctuary,” Healy recalled. “We went to the countries in groups of 20, and would live there for a week or so at a time, and got involved with the lives of the people there. We discovered what terrible pain they were going through, because at the time Reagan wouldn’t allow them to be given refugee status. We wanted to help these people.”

Efforts spearheaded by Catholic Charities and St. Teresa’s ignited a movement across San Francisco that brought members of different Christian denominations and Jewish congregations together to work towards aiding the Central Americans. Pre-Internet, news of the work spread by word of mouth, as did stories of the victims of violence, changing San Franciscans’ attitudes towards refugees. During this time, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who had been voicing his opposition to the injustices inflicted upon the poor, was assassinated, along with four nuns.

Healy and Lodolo had heard countless other stories of murders and atrocities.  They began pressuring former Mayors Dianne Feinstein and Art Agnos, as well as the Board of Supervisors, to pass a law to allow refugees to be granted asylum without being questioned by authorities about their immigration status. Reverend Peter Sammon, St. Teresa’s pastor at the time, was integral to organizing the faith-based coalition to push for an ordinance, which passed in 1989, declaring San Francisco a City of refuge.

A February 1995 View article stated, “St. Teresa’s Church reacted with anger to the government’s attack on the Central American sanctuary movement. The movement —160 churches and religious groups across the U.S. — shelters political refugees from Central America who fear for their lives if forced to return to their native countries. The Reagan Administration in January 1985 arrested 16 sanctuary workers and 65 aliens across the country. St.Teresa’s spokespersons stressed that the church will continue to be committed to offering sanctuary.”

Sisters Healy and Lodolo along with Father Sammon, reportedly lobbied the San Francisco Police Department to stop unlawfully inquiring about residents’ immigration status after the ordinance passed.

The coalition invited refugees to tell their stories to small groups of people around the City, including parishioners at St. Teresa’s. A vote was held to designate the parish as a Sanctuary Church – meaning that police wouldn’t be provided any information pertaining to refugees – which passed by 88 percent.  A minority of parishioners voted against the measure, fearing that the pastor would be targeted. Parish phones were believed to have been tapped by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Lodolo remembered that even parishioners who were against the Sanctuary Church designation helped plan and attend a celebration held following the vote.

“We housed a mother with two children for six months in our convent,” said Lodolo. “Her husband had been dragged out of their home in El Salvador one night. The mother escaped with her children, and they were our first refugees. She and her husband both came from wealthy families and wanted to reach out and help the poor. That’s why he was kidnapped and killed.”

The Sisters believe the concept of sanctuary today differs from the 1980s and 1990s, in part because of unique social and political conditions. Healy doesn’t think that the sanctuary movement is as secretive as in the past, recalling last century marches where people obscured their faces with bandanas, while today some churches adorn their facades with blatant signage such as, “We Welcome Refugees.”  St. Agnes Church in Haight Ashbury helps refugees secure safe living conditions and become legal residents. Recently, the Church held an informational session about refugee rights, expecting 30 attendees; roughly 300 people showed up.

Still, the Sisters are aware of immigrants living in San Francisco who are in constant fear of deportation. “If people are afraid to talk about getting deported, that’s not going to help,” Lodolo commented. “People are afraid that they won’t see their children again. Today the issues for refugees seem broader to me. Some people don’t want Muslims in the country. If you look at the bloodshed from bombings in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s brutal.”

The Sisters view their work within the Sanctuary movement as a blessing that allowed them to connect with the community and get a glimpse into the lives of people from many walks of life. They remember those prior decades as sad, difficult, times for those fleeing violence in Central America, many of whom had lost family members and were frightened for their own fates. “It was a chapter in my life that really meant a lot to me as I became educated about what was happening in El Salvador,” said Healy. “Both of us love the poor, and our community was formed on the basis of working with people who were put down. So, it was an opportunity to do that, and we met more loving people than we would have ever met anywhere.”

“I always say that I grew up here at Saint Teresa’s because I became very involved with people and their families; you see their hardships, all the anxieties and the hopes,” explained Lodolo. “Then, working with the refugees, their suffering was just unbelievable. So, it puts you in touch with people and their suffering, and you grow.”