Sister Juana: First a mother of three, now a mother to the immigrant community of Northern Kentucky

ERLANGER, Ky. - Talk about a career change. Formerly married with three children, Sister Juana Mendez made the switch from the secular world to the religious arena when she was 40 years old. Always interested in spiritual life, she entered the order of Sisters of Charity and graduated from Mount St. Joseph with a master’s degree in religious studies.

In 2000, she became the pastoral associate at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, part of the Diocese of Covington. Across the street from the cathedral was a building where she began holding English as a Second Language classes. Thirty people showed up. She expanded the offerings to housing and GED.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Cleveland, Sister Juana has dedicated the latter part of her life to helping the immigrant population.

“It is my responsibility as a Christian,” Sister Juana, 63, said. “We’re all God’s children. I love doing it and want to live according to the Gospel’s values. I will give you my last ten dollars.” A physician once told her, “You have an angel looking over you.” She agreed, and her 50-hour work week is testament to her commitment.

Today Sister Juana is parish administrator at Cristo Rey, a Hispanic parish on the grounds of the former Marydale Retreat Center in Erlanger, Ky. In a few months, she will move back to the diocese, focusing her work on Hispanic ministry. Most of the worshippers at Cristo Rey have roots in Mexico.

Services, both spiritual and practical

In 2001, she formed the Centro de Amistad de Cristo Rey (Center of Friendship of Christ the King), an outreach program which serves a Hispanic parish of 500 mostly undocumented workers as well as other immigrants.

Open Monday through Thursday, the Centro offers many free services.

These include:

  • an annual health fair
  • immigration assistance
  • help finding employment
  • banking education
  • tax preparation
  • home buying assistance
  • citizenship classes.

In particular, the free health fair offers vision, hearing, and dental services, as well as Pap smears, HIV testing and diabetes screening provided by volunteer physicians and nurses.

“It’s a struggle for them,” says Sister Juana. “I give as much as I can. My goal is to educate parents and kids.” In addition to people with roots in Spanish-speaking countries, Centro de Amistad de Cristo Rey helps immigrants from Russia, Vietnam and Brazil.

Sister Juana has collaborated with Catholic Charities  to put on a housing program in Latonia. Another active partner is Gateway Community and Technical College, which holds an English as a Second Language class at the Centro campus. From Northern Kentucky University, Professor Leo Calderon has provided bilingual students to teach English.

Money from a foundation provides resources to do immigration work, college tuition for Hispanics and Christmas toys for children.

Connecting with community

Bringing the community into Centro, Sister Juana has reached out to a police officer from Boone County to talk about local laws. She has also brought in a Latino banker from US Bank who opened checking accounts for those who had never had them.

“A lot of people want to learn,” Sister Juana said. But, she explained, new arrivals are often afraid of the immigration representatives. She travels to Columbus, Cleveland and Chicago to represent Latinos in immigration hearings. As the children of immigrants begin to go to college. Calderon often gives seminars on how to apply for scholarships at college, particularly Gateway and Northern Kentucky University.

“I love it. It’s a lot of work. I like to socialize and meet the people,” Sister Juana said. 

People are especially grateful for help with immigration, work permits and residency cards.

“I pray a lot every day. Prayer is the answer to it all.There are days I feel discouraged, but I put my faith in God,” Sister Juana said.

NKU's Calderon said Sister Juana has had a profound impact on the Hispanic community. Her programs assist new arrivals acclimate to their new environment, he said. Respected by the Latino community and others in the Northern Kentucky, Sister Juana has built her reputation by focusing on the needs of the Latinos.

“She champions the underprivileged,” Calderon said. In Sister Juana, he said, “We have a strong leader.In her own humble way, she has done a wonderful job.”

More about Centro

  • 947 Donaldson Hwy, Erlanger, Ky.
  • Tel. (859) 538-1175
  • Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday
  • Cristo Rey Mass: Sundays 12:15 p.m., Wednesdays 7:00 p.m.
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