Regular long-time readers of Bondings 2.0 may remember our posts about Sister “Monica,” a U.S. nun who pioneered ministry to transgender people. We’ve covered her involvement in this groundbreaking work a few times (here and here, for example), and you can read about her ministry and why she chooses to remain anonymous, using only the pseudonym Sister “Monica” when she appears in the media.
In another part of the world, another Sister Mónica has emerged who is doing similar outreach work with the transgender community. This Sister Mónica (which is her real name) lives in the Neuquén province of Argentina and is a member of the Discaled Carmelite Order, a contemplative community. Her ministry has even attracted the attention and support of Pope Francis.
Her story first appeared in OhLaLá, an Argentinian web magazine for women. Thanks to “Rebel Girl,” the blogging name of a contributor to Iglesia Descalza, a site for progressive Catholic reflection, we have an English translation of the article featuring Sister Mónica Astorga Cremona.
The story recounts how Sister Mónica’s pastoral life has always been with those on the margins of society, and that an encounter with a young transgender woman focused her attention on the needs of this community. The nun described the story:
” ‘I feel that God wants me to accompany the wounded and that’s why I take responsibility. They often tell me I stand with them; it’s that I feel that from that place I can understand them. Because when we look at them from the other side, it’s impossible. I get in deep,’ the sister adds.
“And because of this kind of attitude, it’s not surprising that in December 2005, when Romina, a trans woman, approached Lourdes parish, the bishop decided this was a job for her.
“Romina went at that time to the church because she wanted to donate a tenth of her wages. ‘When the priest asked her where it came from, she told him from prostitution, and she explained that that was the only work she could get. At that point, the priest called me and told me about the case.’ “
Sister Monica describes the poignancy of many of the simple hopes that some transgender women face, as well as the crushing obstacles to living with dignity:
” ‘The first time I came to see the group of trans women, I asked them to tell me their dreams. One of them, Kathy, told me that hers was to have a clean bed on which to die,’ says Mónica. At that time the nun contacted a priest, told him about the case and got an abandoned house which eventually became the refuge of the girls, as Mónica calls them.
“As she got to know this group of women, she learned how they lived — that they couldn’t hold any job except prostitution because they weren’t accepted in any position, that they often didn’t finish their studies because they were discriminated against in school, and that hospitals threw them out when they were about to die, so that in most cases they died alone and abandoned.”
As with many pastoral ministers who stand in solidarity with the marginalized, Sister Mónica has had her detractors, though she also seems to have the ability to turn those detractors into friends sometimes:
“Mónica admits that within the Church itself there are conflicting opinions as to her work with these people, but says she has the support of Pope Francis and that in her community small advances have already been achieved.
” ‘Once, when Romina had just come to the church, a lady came to find me and told me,”There’s a transvestite.” I replied that she was a trans woman, and then she asked me what she was doing in the church, to which I replied, “What are you doing here?.” At first, she continued questioning me about Romina’s presence, until I asked her what would happen if that were your child,’ she says.
” ‘After a couple of days, she came back and apologized to me, and at the following Mass she went looking for Romina to give her the sign of peace,’ she adds.”
As for the papal support she has received, the nun explains that she has been in email correspondence with Francis:
“. . . [S]he affirms that Pope Francis knows of the work she is carrying out with this group of women and that he supports her. In an email he wrote her: ‘In Jesus’ time, the lepers were rejected like that. They [the trans women] are the lepers of these times. Don’t leave this work on the frontier that is yours.’ “
The nun sees the possibility of a society that is free of oppression of transgender oppression, noting that such oppression is what causes these women to live lives of poverty and addiction:
“The girls make a huge effort against the stream. We have to help them and integrate them. They are capable and intelligent people, but they are abused. We ourselves are the ones who lead them to the streets. If society would open the door to them and give them a chance, we could help them get out of this. . . .
“. . . I think who is that person to judge like that and bury another live.”
The witness of Sister Mónica should challenge all of us to take one more step along the journey of advocating and standing in solidarity with trans people. It is people like her who are building God’s reign of justice and peace in the world and in our Church.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry