Stories of Justice: Sr. Ida Berresheim

Giving Voice to the Voiceless


By Sister Mary Flick, CSJ, Justice Office Coordinator

Ida Berresheim

There are images which linger when Sister Ida Berresheim returns from her bi-annual visit to Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. Annunciation House is a shelter which assists the poor in migration who cross into the United States through the U.S.-Mexican border. Sister Ida has served on its board of directors for the past six years. This year, the Jubilee Year of Mercy helped shape the images Sister Ida encountered at the Voice of the Voiceless awards dinner, which she attended in El Paso after the board meeting. As she entered the dinner, a “Works of Mercy Walkway” offered depictions of the seven corporal works of mercy by youth groups from neighboring parishes.

Sister Ida cannot forget the message of the work, “Clothe the Naked.”  A woman dressed in high fashion stood alongside a cross. She looked like a mannequin, so stately, prim and tall. She wore a long black cape – but it draped only one shoulder then fell onto the ground. Kneeling at the woman’s feet and holding the bottom of the cape was an 18-year-old, underfed and ragged – sewing this piece of clothing. “It was a powerful demonstration of where our clothes come from,” Sister Ida says. “His work makes people fashionable, and he is not paid nearly enough to meet his own needs.”

The works on the walkway were intended to be educational, Sister Ida says, representing “why people leave their own countries to look for a better life.” Sister Ida has known for herself over more than a quarter century the reasons for the poor in migration.  In 1994, the former Peruvian missionary went to the Center of Hope for Women in El Paso to work with women on both sides of the border.  “We would go and talk with the women, where they were: in clinics, in parishes, in their women’s groups. And we would ask, ‘What would you like to have happen?’ Sister Ida remembers. “We would ask because we wanted the women to hear their own voice. They didn’t have a voice in their own lives. They were put down by the men in their family. Often, too, by their mothers-in-law.”

“Many of them wanted anything in which they would not have to use words. They asked for arts, crafts cooking – anything which required that they use their hands. They had no confidence in their own voices,” Sister Ida says. But they would come together for the six- to eight-week programs on life and values and the family, and an amazing discovery occurred, she says. “They began to realize they had gifts, that they were persons and had dignity.” 

Helping the women find the confidence to speak, to find their own voices, as they shared, when once they were voiceless, was what motivated Sister Ida to remain at the center until 2005. “When I turned 75 years old, I retired from the center. But I could not retire!” Sister Ida confesses. “So I began volunteering at Annunciation House.” While there, she did “volunteer welfare” – making coffee, sorting beans, and donated produce, helping in the kitchen. And when someone wanted to talk, Ida would take them to a restaurant where they could be alone.

Sister Ida retired – again – in 2011. But she never really left the people of Annunciation House. One of Sister Ida’s well-used skills in her ministry to the immigrant remains: her fluency in Spanish. “I can make myself understood,” she laughs in her humble way. “It’s an affliction,” she jokes, then turns serious, “But not. Who speaks for those voiceless people? I help them speak for themselves.”

It is her need that motivates her – her need to defend the vulnerable. “I want them to find a place in this country. There are so many negative ideas against immigrants, and refugees” she says. “There’s a lack of understanding of what is happening in other countries that drives people to immigrate here – and the part we play as Americans.”

Among the issues are poverty, violence, and the U.S. drug trade that gives rise to gangs and exploitation in other countries. She refers to Giovanny Herrera from Guerrerro, Mexico, who shared his story at the Voice of the Voiceless dinner. Fleeing Mexico after his brother had been kidnapped and murdered, Giovanny was detained for five months by U.S. border officials – “against the law,” Sister Ida says. His family members who had traveled with him were released because they had passed their test of “credible fear” and were identified as refugees.  But his was ignored. The family had been threatened by the brother’s kidnappers because they could not pay the hostage fee demanded by the kidnappers – even after the brother had been killed. Now, months later, recently released and honored at the banquet, Giovanney still mourns. “He has the saddest face,” Sister Ida says. “He lost his brother.”

But, Ida says, the violence these poor in migration have experienced at home is not returned in the land they have entered. Last year, El Paso had only 17 homicides. “It is one of the safest cities in the U.S.,” Sister Ida says. “[The immigrants] are just great people.”

How did Sister Ida develop a heart and voice for the poor? Now 88 years young, Sister Ida remembers when she was 6 or 7 years old and her father took her and her sister to see St. Louis’ Hooverville, during the worst of the Great Depression. Hooverville, named for the president whom many saw as the cause of the Depression, was “home” to as many as 5,000 of St. Louis’ homeless who settled in shacks along the Mississippi River. “It was a rainy Sunday,” Sister Ida recalls. “The people lived in cardboard houses; it was dirty, the skinny dogs were running loose. I don’t remember a word my father said while we were there. But I do remember thinking, ‘Those kids are suffering terribly from the cold and the rain.’”

At St. Margaret of Scotland grade school, she experienced an antidote to such suffering. “When I was in school, the Sisters of St. Joseph did so much with our Mission Days,” Sister Ida remembers. “It got inside me, defending those who need defending.”

She entered the Sisters of St. Joseph, and recalls vividly her teaching days at St. Vincent de Paul grade school in South St. Louis. “"I taught children from the large Lebanese community in the parish as well as children from hard-working and many from extremely poor families.  I remember my father picking me as I was leaving my mission at St. Vincent’s. He said to me, ‘Your roots went very deep here.’ He was right; I loved those kids.”

That love still animates her commitment to the immigrants and refugees she serves whenever she visits El Paso. Or anywhere she finds the voiceless.

“I’m grateful for my passion,” Sister Ida says. “I never think I have enough, but I must.” Because she continues to speak for those most vulnerable.

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