Nun reflects on iconic migrant shelter

SAN BENITO — In an old wood-frame ranch house, Sister Norma Pimentel guided more than 100,000 Central American refugees on their paths to a new life.

In 1982, when the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville turned the house into a shelter, Pimentel began serving as assistant director of Casa Oscar Romero, named for the archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, who was killed while offering Mass in 1980.

“It was like an oasis for them,” Pimentel said of the shelter, which became a symbol for the Central American exodus of the 1980s.

By the time it closed in 1992, the shelter had helped 130,000 refugees, Brenda Nettles Riojas, the diocese’s spokeswoman, said.

“There were literally thousands coming,” Pimentel said. “We were seeing whole families coming day and night across the river. We had a couple of hundred families at one time.”

The shelter offered migrants food, clothing and housing as they prepared to apply for political asylum in the United States.

“They were fleeing civil war. They were fleeing for their lives,” Pimentel said. “The stories were horrible. We heard stories about torture, people getting killed.”

In San Benito, many residents complained about the shelter at 311 Wentz St.

“There were two reactions — very polar-opposite,” Jonathan Jones, a former paralegal with Casa de Proyecto Libertad, a human rights group in Harlingen, said. “There were anti-immigrant folks and there were a lot of folks who really helped out.”

For Pimentel, her work at the shelter led to a life dedicated to helping immigrants.

Now executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Pimentel continues to help migrants after their journeys across the border.

“I have been involved since I entered religious life,” Pimentel said of her work with immigrants entering the country. “It’s part of my religious life.”

Currently, Texas Monthly is featuring Pimentel on the cover of its latest edition titled “The Power Issue, 31 Texans Taking Charge.”

On its cover, the magazine hails Pimentel — photographed in front of the border wall — as the “patron saint of the border.”

“It’s a blessing — being a voice and speaking out and helping people in a non-political way,” Pimentel said of her work. “I feel privileged to be given the opportunity to help.”