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With humility and a soft voice, she fights Trump on the border

Meet Sister Norma, the pope’s favorite nun

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande ValleyErin Clark/Globe Staff

She is a simple woman who speaks softly. She wears a thin smile and a religious cross on a silver chain around her neck — a symbol of a devotion directed toward the heavens.

And then she recounts her remarkable earthly journey, which has taken her from her poor hometown along the US southern border to the halls of power. It’s a path of humility and selflessness that has captured the attention of Pope Francis himself.

Sister Norma Pimentel is a woman of faith. And of grit. She possesses an uncommon compassion. Spend an hour with her and this much is clear: She’s no cookie-cutter nun.

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At first, she studied fine art, not religion. As a young girl, she went to prayer group meetings mainly because of the promise of pizza afterward. She earned money designing fashions for the display windows of clothing stores.

She had dreams of life on Madison Avenue.

But God had a different idea.

It was a calling that she could not ignore, a vocation that has propelled her to the epicenter of something that is nothing less than a humanitarian crisis along the border she has called home all of her life.

When she looks at what is unfolding along the US-Mexico border, she sees people, not politics. She sees a tragedy that is cruelly converted into grist for campaign commercials. She sees God’s children crying out for help.

And she wonders who can hear them. And who won’t.

Sister Norma is a sister of the Missionaries of Jesus and executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She was in town the other day to speak at a Catholic Charities of Boston event focused on today’s immigration policies.

When I sat down with her beforehand, she spoke at a volume worthy of a solemn evening novena. But behind those words was a well-earned authority, a power more befitting of a skilled heavyweight boxer.

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Are you listening, President Trump?

“It saddens me to hear him talk and say things that are just not true,’’ Sister Norma told me. “He describes the immigrants as criminals. It’s not true. It’s hard for me to understand someone — especially the president — to be able to describe people in such a negative way.’’

And don’t give her any of those open-border arguments.

“Somebody said, ‘Oh the Democrats want open borders.’ I’ve yet to see a Democrat who says, ‘I’m for open borders.’ Nobody is saying that. It’s all propaganda,’’ she said.

She knows why they’re coming, and you probably do, too. They’re fleeing violence. For the most part, they are refugees, not criminals.

She’s heard the hurt in the voice of Border Patrol agents who are sworn to protect our borders, keep legitimate criminals out, but to recognize humanitarianism when they see it.

“I’ve had the Border Patrol on the phone saying, ‘Sister, there’s this family here. Please treat them well. They’re hurting,’ ’’ she recalled. “The officer feels moved by the fact that they’re suffering. It breaks your heart.

“You realize these are people who are fleeing and they’re not criminals. But they’re being treated as criminals. And that’s what’s so wrong.’’

We spoke at the Labouré Center in South Boston, a community center that provides, among other things, a clean and safe place of learning for kids from 4 weeks to 6 years. It’s familiar territory for a woman raised by parents who were devoted to their kids in a border town when tensions were decidedly less fraught than they are today.

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She started kindergarten in Mexico, but when her family decided to make the US side of the border their home, she began again in Brownsville, Texas, never leaving her Mexican heritage very far behind.

She had feet in both countries. And comfortably so. That dual heritage is the propulsion system for the work she does today.

She almost didn’t make it here.

In high school, she was a C student, an unfocused kid content to skate by with minimal effort. When a school counselor deemed her unfit for college, she buckled down and improved her grades enough to gain acceptance to college.

She had a gift for art, and earned good money designing those clothing-store display windows..

“This road promised me the world,’’ she said. “And I chose to stay home.’’

And, against her family’s wishes, she found God. Not the God she once feared, the God who punishes the wicked and delivers dire consequences for those who misbehave.

No. She found a God of benevolence and love.

“Now, as I look back, I can describe it as the scales falling off my eyes,’’ she said. “Because I started to see life almost totally in a different way. I had no desire for anything other than just becoming more involved with everything having to do with God.’’

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So that’s what she did.

“That changed everything for me,’’ she said.

She began her religious life on the first day of spring, a March day in the late 1970s.

She thought she knew her religion. She did not. “I realized I knew zero about church — about faith,’’ she said. So she learned all over again.

She studied the Old Testament for a master’s degree in theology. She struggled to keep up. So she taped all of her class lectures, and re-listened to them late into the night.

“My mind was like a sponge,’’ she recalled. “When I graduated, the professor didn’t ask me a single question because he said, ‘Why? You know it, Norma.’ ’’

She took her vows in an era when Border Patrol agents would deliver refugees to church shelters. And she saw firsthand the consequences of benevolence toward immigrants when a local bishop was criticized for taking in too many people fleeing Central and South American countries.

“He said, ‘What’s wrong with feeding somebody?’ ’’ she recalled. “Back then, it was not so political. It was either you’re for or against it.’’

She has a ready — and stunningly simple — answer for those who ask why she helps those looking for freedom in America; for those who ask her bluntly: What are you doing?

“I say, ‘Restoring human dignity. That’s what we’re doing.' ’’

Even in the era of Trump, whose campaign rallies are petri dishes for closed borders and closed minds, she finds reason for hope.

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“The hope I see is in people,’’ she said. “I have great hopes in the human family. I see the change in a person who can be 100 percent against helping countries and shifting 100 percent to believe that’s the right thing to do. I’ve seen that.’’

Those are the words of a woman who has made a difference. Who was treated here last week with the deference that she has surely earned.

The same woman who was moved to tears when Pope Francis smiled back at her from that jumbo 9-by-9-foot screen in 2015, when he personally thanked Pimentel for her work with migrants and refugees during a virtual papal audience broadcast by ABC’s “20/20.”

“I want to thank you,” Francis said then. "And through you to thank all the sisters of religious orders in the US for the work that you have done and that you do in the United States. It’s great. I congratulate you. Be courageous. Move forward.’’

And then the pope said something else. Something the people Sister Norma Pimentel has worked with all her life could applaud:

“I’ll tell you one other thing. Is it inappropriate for the Pope to say this? I love you all very much.’’

And then the nun from the Rio Grande Valley bowed her head in prayer, and returned to her seat with tears on her cheeks.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.