Visionary Women: Addressing Needs and Responding
By S. Georgia Kitt
The following article is a continuation in our series featuring Sisters of Charity who have responded to the current needs of the times and passed them on when the timing was right. The following article features Sisters Peggy Deneweth and Janet Gildea and La Clinica Guadalupana near El Paso, Texas.
It was in 1994 that Sisters Peggy Deneweth and Janet Gildea felt a clear call to respond to unmet health care needs in the colonias just outside Horizon City, Texas. The colonias, made up of documented and undocumented families from Mexico, were makeshift communities with off-and-on electricity and running water. Residents were poor and living in third-world health conditions. The need was there. Along with S. Carol Wirtz, the Sisters prayed a novena to our Lady of Guadalupe to direct their decisions.
Having ministered at San Vicente Clinic in El Paso, Sisters Peggy and Janet were aware of the medical needs of the people living in the colonias. A School Sister of St. Francis, ministering at Holy Spirit Parish, encouraged them to build a clinic in this area because there were no health care facilities available and most had no transportation to get themselves to the hospital or medical care. In addition, these colonias were a part of their parish boundaries and they felt a definite call to serve.
The land they hoped to purchase was a piece of property where, earlier, they had buried a statue of St. Joseph. It was a perfect spot not only because it was located in the colonias but it was also at the end of the water line so that they would be able to access water. The Sisters purchased the land for $500; a miracle in itself, becoming available after it had been repossessed by the IRS for lack of payment. La Clinica Guadalupana was built in Agua Dulce Colonia (meaning Sweet Water) because it was the only colonia in the area that had running water located 15 miles outside of Horizon City.
The Sisters secured a $20,000 grant from SC Ministry Foundation and learned that the El Paso Health Department would help them with health care services in the mornings and provide all the medical supplies needed. La Clinica Guadalupana received its incorporation in the fall of that year and opened in January 1995. Sisters Mary Assunta Stang, Roslyn Hafertepe and Maryanna Coyle spurred them on and gave them the support and confidence needed. S. Peggy shared, “They gave us the courage we needed to begin the work. Janet and I are forever grateful for their concern, support, and love for this ministry.”
S. Janet wrote a monthly newsletter about the clinic, sharing stories about the families served. In one of the newsletters, she talked about how the families coming to the clinic would fill their barrels with water for their homes. There were four colonias beyond the clinic that had no running water. Due to the clinic’s location near the water line, they encouraged people to fill their water barrels there. A gentleman from California, who happened to read the newsletter, offered to buy 40-gallon tanks for families in the College Park Colonia. This made it possible to have a truck come to their homes to fill the tanks. It gave them water for two to three weeks at a time rather than filling barrels several times a week.
In 2008 S. Janet was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. This necessitated a shift; they needed to provide a physician’s salary to continue the clinic’s services. They also had two nurse practitioners that provided services and needed a physician to supervise the clinic. Various other needs arose and they were unable to continue the services that had been given. Ultimately, Project Vida clinic, which already had clinics in nearby colonias, received the federal funds to continue the services at Clinica Guadalupana. The transfer was made in 2010.
At the time of the transition other clinics had sprung up in Horizon City; access to health care was being expanded. There was a rural bus that began to operate in the colonias, becoming a connector to the local bus services going to the El Paso area. In the last couple of years, a hospital was built in Horizon City. Families now have running water in their homes and electricity. Much of this is due to awareness. People in the city of El Paso had little knowledge of those living in the colonias and the conditions in which they lived. Clinica Guadalupana became well known for its services and with the Sisters’ work with the health department, other local clinics and the hospital, awareness grew.
S. Peggy remains in touch with many of the clinic’s families. She shared, “It’s wonderful to see those we cared for as infants and watch them mature and grow into adults themselves with their own children. A few of the children have even become doctors and nurses. Some of the staff from the clinic are now nurses. Others have gone on to further their education.” Sisters Carol Wirtz and Peggy were at one of the homes in College Park at Christmas to celebrate the Novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe and saw many of their families there. What a blessing it has been!
S. Peggy would say that serving at La Clinica Guadalupana has taught her the meaning of empowerment. It doesn’t matter from where someone comes or what they possess. Everyone wants to know someone cares for them and that they are needed. S. Peggy recalls, “I have seen faces light up when I ask for help. Gloria is one of the women I worked with at Guadalupana and we are still very close friends. One day I said to her, ‘Gloria, I would like you to do the statistics on the computer.’ She was aghast! Gloria watched, listened and learned. She did a very good job and also took charge of a second-hand store on the property.”
S. Peggy adds, “Everyone is called and I learned that firsthand. All a person needs is the support and care of just one other person to give them the confidence they need to try something new. They need to be encouraged to believe in themselves. That is what Sisters Assunta, Roz, and Maryanna did for Janet and me. They believed in us!”