Sister Catherine Walsh knows how to battle poverty, violence and injustice. She knows how to help children and immigrants. She’s been doing it for more than 60 years.
Her life’s journey with the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine has taken her from inner-city Cleveland to the war-torn villages of El Salvador. For the past 21 years, she has lived in Akron helping poor folks and, more recently, a flood of immigrants from Central America.
“By the time they get here they have already had a tremendous amount of suffering and trauma along the way,” Sister Catherine said. “These immigrants are very different from previous Central American immigrants. They have more basic needs.”
Speaking with a lilting accent, courtesy of her native Ireland, she was sitting inside the Murray Peace House, a Catholic Worker home on Princeton Street that she helped open in 1998. It currently houses two immigrant families, including eight children. Inside is a large dining room table for group gatherings. Out back is a garden and a jumble of kids’ bicycles.
Sister Catherine, 80, is in the spotlight this month because she is the subject of a new documentary, “Sister: The Life Ministry of Sister Catherine Walsh.” The film charts her life from Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood following the racially charged riots in 1966, to landing in El Salvador at the end of the civil war in the 1990s, to her work in Akron.
Directed by local filmmaker Josh Gippin, “Sister” will have its world premiere on Thursday at the Highland Theatre. (See related story in Saturday Life.) The documentary came about thanks to Kenmore activist Angela Chaffin-Miller, who met Sister Catherine in 2017 and convinced the reluctant nun to sit down for interviews.
“All of the things Sister Catherine has done is a great story,” said Miller.
When Gippin first met Sister Catherine, he was struck by her strength. “She just has this fire in her belly, this courage,” he said. “She’s a force.”
There was a story going around that one night, when the Sister heard gunfire on Princeton Street, she walked outside and said, ‘That’ll be enough!”
“I am not so foolish as to go out in front of a gun,” she said. “But if there is a victim, that’s what we can help with. Whether it’s stopping the bleeding, or calling the police or the ambulance. We’ve had some close calls, but it was not aimed at us specifically. Some bullets went wild.”
She is, however, willing to break up street fights.
“I don’t mind going out when there are fights,” she said. “Because we’re not the police, we’re not armed, we can walk into a fight to try and break it up where others can’t. We’ve had a lot of training on how to de-escalate conflict. There is violence. There is gunfire. But I am not afraid. I feel very safe here.”
Catherine Walsh grew up in Tourmakeady in County Mayo, Ireland. When she was 18, she and her sister Maureen moved to America where they were sponsored by their aunt, Mary O’Neill, in Cleveland. Maureen has since passed away. Another sister, Bridget, joined them later. She now lives in Chicago and is featured in the documentary.
“I had relatives and friends here, and we had the Irish-American Hall,” said Sister Catherine. “It was definitely an adjustment, but not as severe as coming from other countries under different circumstances today.”
She was 19 when she joined the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine in Richfield.
“I think God and the Holy Spirit had a lot to do with it,” she said. “I knew that I had been skirting my calling for a while, but I figured it out.”
Following her novitiate phase and first vows, she was assigned to Parmadale Children’s Village of St. Vincent de Paul to care for children. For her next assignment, in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, she studied African-American culture.
Several of the young girls she helped in Hough, now grown women, appear in the documentary to discuss how much Sister Catherine meant to them. “She was the mother that I never had,” says one.
In her spare time, Sister Catherine studied special education at Xavier University and theology and pastoral ministry at John Carroll University. She also became a certified pastoral minister through the Diocese of Cleveland, and learned to speak Spanish, immensely helpful during her six years in El Salvador, and on subsequent trips there and to Honduras, serving as an interpreter on medical missions.
Making a difference
She is proud of what she and others have been able to accomplish with the houses of peace on Princeton Street, where the Catholic Worker Community has three homes, one with the backyard cleared out so the children have somewhere to play.
“It’s all voluntary,” she said. “We are not funded by any government agencies. The people of Akron have supported us very well. We also have lawyers, psychologists and educators who donate their time. Some who have stayed here, who learned their English here, have gone on to graduate from college."
Sister Catherine has also served in Akron as the pastoral minister for the Hispanic community at St. Bernard Church, and helped start the Peter Maurin Center, an outreach ministry in South Akron. More recently, she has been collaborating with the Akron Interfaith Immigrant Advocates (AIIA).
The sign slapped on the front door of her house reads: “We Stand With Our Brothers Who Are Refugees & Immigrants.”
All of the vitriol flying around regarding the U.S.-Mexico border, the building of a wall and the separation of families can be daunting. But Sister Catherine tries to tune out the noise.
“The politics is just horrific,” she said. “I get wired up when I see so much injustice. People are just getting trampled on, and they are all in God’s image and likeness. My concern has to be, how can we serve the people who are here in Akron? We don’t have to go anywhere. Our mission is right here.”
For more information on the Catholic Worker Community of Akron, go to https://bit.ly/2WNfZqNTK.For more on the AIIA, see their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/akroniia/.
Clint O’Connor can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.