A Sister to All – Sister Juana Mendez
S. Juana Mendez’s call to the Sisters of Charity Community is unique. Although she felt a pull toward religious life at a young age, she married and raised three children. It was after her children had grown and she was no longer married that she once again felt religious life calling. S. Juana was drawn to the Sisters of Charity Community through her friendships with Sisters Ann Dorenbusch and Florence Cremering, and before long she found herself sitting down and talking with the Sisters of Charity Formation Director. Shortly after, she entered the Community in August 1995.
For the last 18 years, S. Juana has ministered for the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky. She is currently the Hispanic diocesan minister. While she says she wears many hats, she mainly concentrates on immigration work, helping people adjust their status in the U.S. As a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) representative for the Department of Justice she is given accreditation through the diocese to practice immigration law. In addition, Sister is the parish administrator at Cristo Rey parish in Erlanger, Kentucky, where she has created many new programs and classes, including English as a Second Language and GED courses.
A native of Puerto Rico, S. Juana says she “knows what it’s like to move to this unknown world where you don’t know what’s going to happen. The people I work with are mainly from Mexico and a majority don’t have documentation. It is so meaningful to see people go from feeling as though they are no one to having a status, if you will, here in the U.S.”
In your opinion, what happens when we neglect the needs of the less fortunate?
In my opinion, when you neglect someone, they feel as though they are no one. I remember many years ago knocking on the door of a parish in Cleveland wanting help, my need was financial. The person I spoke with was a Sister, who said to me, “We’re not able to help you, you will have to go somewhere else.” Boom, she closed the door. I felt as though I was no one. I wasn’t even invited into the convent to see why I needed money, or to look at options – other than financial – to help me.
I think when we neglect to sit and to listen to others, there is the potential for them to turn away and to go someplace else for help. And, oftentimes, they will go to the wrong place. Maybe they will get drunk, or they will find drugs. It’s sad because it does happen. That’s why every person who walks through my door, I make sure I listen to them. I don’t want them to feel like they are no one. They want someone who will listen to them, embrace them, and to look at ways to help them out.
How do people respond to you as a Catholic Sister?
I receive a lot of respect. Using “Sister” helps. I had one instance where I traveled about three hours from Cincinnati to help a young man, they wanted to arrest him because they thought he was another person. It was incredible, I walked in and everyone I talked to didn’t offer help. Then, the last person I spoke to I decided to take a different route. I said, “I’m Sister Juana Mendez and I need help.” She said, “Oh Sister, have a seat, I will see if the judge has time to see you.” The judge came out, asked me to wait, and after court he took care of me.
When you think of a brave woman, who comes to mind?
The first person who comes to mind is Elizabeth Seton. She was a mother and wife, and she suffered through so much; yet, nothing stopped her.
I also think of my mother. We lived in poverty in Puerto Rico. I felt when we moved to the U.S. that we were rich because we moved into an apartment with electricity; we didn’t have electricity or running water in Puerto Rico. She was very brave in the sense that she was always very positive. She never gave up. We struggled a lot, there were many of times that we didn’t have food; yet, she managed to have a little piece of bread for each of us to eat. She was always looking for different avenues to feed us, or to put a roof over our heads.
What does it feel like to experience joy?
It feels like I won the lottery! I’m so happy when I see people happy. I don’t know how else to say it but it feels as though I won the lottery. A lot of people are out there trying to find ways to find joy, but they don’t realize that we already have it, especially in each other. I feel that if I make you happy, that makes me happy. I couldn’t ask for more. Ever since I was young I was looking for ways to help others and to make them happy. I don’t worry about me, I worry about the other person. Even today, I could have a doctor’s appointment, and a person walks in and tells me they need help, and I would cancel my appointment to help them. It’s what they need and what makes them happy so it makes me happy.
What does it mean to you to be part of the sisterhood? What is it like to have a spiritual bond with other Sisters?
It’s like having an extended family. I worry about my blood sisters and brothers, but I also worry about my Charity Family. If one suffers, the other suffers. I feel sad when someone else is sad. It is the extended family member I can go to, and depend on; there’s 200-plus Sisters that I can call on, and ask for help, to pray for me, to be present with me.