Small and determined, she walks toward the altar as if drawn by the pull of a greater purpose. At the Spanish-language Mass where she assists – and in all her efforts elsewhere – her purpose is to honor the dignity of each human being, no matter their nationality or green card status. It propels the work of Sister Patricia Pora ’08, RSM, director of Hispanic pastoral outreach for the Diocese of Portland, Maine.
Though Hispanics in Maine are what Sister Patricia calls “a hidden population,” many in Portland gather every Sunday at Sacred Heart Church to hear Mass in their native tongue. For roughly an hour, they’re a united force, amid the strumming guitars and sharp, quick cadences of their language.
About 15,000 Hispanics live year-round in Maine in every county of the state (nationally, only Vermont has fewer as a percent of population). They range from professionals to entry-level workers, including those professionally educated but doing entry-level jobs. Some live here legally, some do not. Sister Patricia never knows, because she never asks.
What she does know is that they face a lot of racism and prejudice. “It’s alive and well, unfortunately,” she says.
Despite the fact that most Hispanics living year-round in Maine were born here, people lump them together as “illegals,” she says. In practice, the prejudice can happen this way: a Hispanic-looking man will be more likely targeted for a traffic violation, she says. If he’s undocumented and gets deported, his wife and children are left to face an uncertain future here in Maine.
Whatever the situation Hispanic families face, Sister Patricia is their advocate. Some days she intervenes with a landlord or helps someone find furniture. Some days she prepares the church bulletin in Spanish or helps families to prepare for baptism.
Part social worker and part pastoral minister, she says her biggest challenge is the size of the state. In trying to serve everyone in the vastness that is Maine, she has trekked to many corners of the state. But more often, she is forced to telephone because of the distances. Even more often, she gets called.
In the true spirit of mercy, Sister Patricia’s goal is to welcome the state’s Hispanics – and help them adapt and participate in this culture. “I want to serve as a bridge between the two cultures and present the human side of the immigrant face,” she says.
“When you scratch beneath the surface, you discover more than what is in the news,” she notes. Tragic stories in Maine involving people being trafficked or kept as indentured servants are part of the dark underbelly of the immigrant experience, she says. She also mentions the impact of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which undercut Latin American farmers when subsidized U.S. grain flooded their markets. “It’s very negative; they all can tell you stories about it,” she says.
An activist at heart who appears restless to make a difference, she keeps a low profile that reflects her quiet style. Her goal is to educate others without bringing too much attention to herself or the people she is trying to help, because some of them may be here illegally. She also works with the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of America to encourage federal legislation to protect immigrants. Reform needs to be on the agenda for the first 100 days of the Obama administration for anything to happen, she claims. “We want to stop the raids,” she says, “because they tear apart the families.”
While doing her ministry, Sister Patricia recently earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Saint Joseph’s because she needed to better understand the way ministry is organized in the United States, as it is structured quite differently than in Latin America, where she lived for 28 years.
Growing up in the desert of rural Chile, Sister Patricia, 61, came to Maine as a student at nearby Windham High School. After graduation, Pora planned to return to Chile, but instead her mother and siblings ended up moving here. She volunteered at Maine Center for the Blind, where Sister Miguel Landry encouraged her to think about entering the Sisters of Mercy. Though born Presbyterian, she saw as a child how much the Catholic faith meant to Latin American people, and was drawn to religious life as a teenager. She joined the Mercy order in 1967, choosing them because the Sisters were committed to the poor and embraced the social mission of the Church.
After working at Mercy Hospital for 10 years and graduating from University of Southern Maine, she taught at the Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point, Maine. Its rural and desperate feel reminded her of Chile, and she spent 10 rewarding years there. However, she yearned to go back to Latin America.
When Sister Mary George O’Toole ’51 gave her a magazine about Mercy missions in Latin America, she asked for permission to follow her dream and subsequently spent 12 years in the mountains of Peru as a pastoral agent. During one of her visits back to Maine, a nurse asked her to interpret for a Spanish-speaking patient. Later, when she finally returned to the U.S. in 2002 because her mother was ill, she began to get a lot of calls to help members of the Hispanic community. In 2005, the Diocese and the Sisters of Mercy agreed to share the cost of a position for Hispanic ministry.
Fifteen nationalities are represented every Sunday at Portland’s urban Sacred Heart Church, where 70 to 100 people, including children, gather for Spanish-language Mass. The atmosphere is friendly and cohesive, strikingly illustrated by what happens during the part of the liturgy called the “sign of peace.” Traditionally, parishioners shake hands and offer an expression of peace to those adjacent to them. But at this Mass, people travel across the aisle and up and down the pews to clasp hands and greet each other heartily.
Toward the end the Mass, the children grab tambourines and maracas, and join in to make music while everyone sings. The church is central to Hispanic culture, and Maine is no different. A strong sense of community pervades the after-Mass gathering as children play, lively chatter spreads and people linger over snacks. On some Sundays, a fiesta is staged to honor the patron saint of a given country. Native costumes are sewn, piñatas are batted open, everyone feasts and national pride flourishes.
In the future, Sister Patricia would like to start a drop-in center where people could learn job-specific English and computer skills. “We want to provide opportunities and learning experiences for them,” she says.
In the meantime, she tries to create a sense of acompañamiento or “walking with,” in order to build the confidence and self-identity her community members need in order to understand the traditional Maine culture and the way it works. Though the relatively large Hispanic communities in Portland and Lewiston are more cohesive than before, much remains to be done.
As Sister Patricia leaves the church, her cell phone rings insistently. Standing on the steps in the sun, with the wind blowing her hair, she answers the call.
by Charmaine Daniels