Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ (Image: Valerie Chiang)
News Story

School of Nursing & Health Studies Commencement Speaker Calls for Witness and Presence

(May 18, 2022) — In her role as the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, the charitable arm of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border, Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, takes every speaking invitation she receives very seriously.

“It’s an opportunity to shine light on the families and the people I see so they can be seen,” said Pimentel, referring to the immigrants and refugees her organization serves.

While she receives many invitations to speak, Georgetown holds a special place, Pimentel said as she prepared to speak at the School of Nursing & Health Studies’ commencement ceremony on May 21. Georgetown University will bestow an honorary doctor of humane letters to Pimentel for her mission-oriented work to promote the human dignity and flourishing of immigrants and refugees.

“Georgetown is dear to me,” she said. “President [John J.] DeGioia has been so gracious and supportive of what I’m doing. He often calls me and asks me, ‘Sister, how can I help?’

“The Jesuits have a very strong sense of respect, focusing on the common good and social justice. All those values are so critically necessary today.”

God ‘Had Different Plans for Me’

Pimentel’s commencement address will include a sketch of her own story of growing up on both sides of the border. “I will share a little bit about how I have come to be who I am today by responding to God — who he was calling me to be,” she said.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Pan American University in Edinburg, Texas, Pimentel planned to continue her schooling and pursue a career as a professional artist, though her father wanted her to stay at home, possibly become a teacher, then get married. His word, however, proved not to be the final one.

“God evidently had different plans for me as well,” she said.

While waiting for the new semester to start, Pimentel’s friend talked her into joining her for a prayer group meeting. Toward the end of the meeting, the group sat in a circle and asked who would like to have prayers said for them. The friend, who knew of Pimentel’s disagreements with her father over her future, suggested that she sit within the circle and Pimentel reluctantly agreed. Then, the unexpected occurred. As those surrounding her prayed on her behalf, Pimentel suddenly realized God’s presence in her life.

“It’s hard to put into words what happened to me,” she said. “But from then on, I just continued to go to the prayer group. I was so drawn to know more about God and to read the Bible and pray the rosary and everything having to do about God. So that’s how my life changed 180 degrees.”

Drawn to a religious life, she became a sister with the Missionaries of Jesus in 1978. She has earned two master’s degrees, one in theology from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and a second in counseling psychology from Loyola University Chicago. Working as co-director of the Casa Oscar Romero refugee shelter in Brownsville in the 1980s sparked a passion for humanitarian aid for migrants crossing the southern U.S. border. Pimentel rose to her current position at Catholic Charities in 2004, after serving as a counselor and assistant director.

Today, Pimentel is a prominent public voice for social justice toward refugees and immigrants. In 2018, Notre Dame University awarded Pimentel its Laetare Medal, “the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.” She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2020 and received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award from Iowa’s Diocese of Davenport this April.

Despite her busy schedule, Pimentel hasn’t sacrificed her artistic gift. These days her artwork — mostly pastels because she can finish them faster in her limited time than paintings — is often auctioned to raise funds for church groups. One of her paintings was given to Pope Francis during his 2015 visit to the United States.

‘They Are Our Hope’

Though the NHS Class of 2022 will move on to work in a divided country, Pimentel expressed optimism about their future and said that she looked forward to addressing and hopefully inspiring Georgetown graduates.

“My hope is in them,” she said about the graduating class. “They are our hope. They come with a foundation that will hold them strong in standing firm with values of respect for life, of bringing unity and social justice — all these things that are so necessary and important in our world today.

“My hope is the little I can say in those moments as they’re graduating will help them see that they are needed and it’s important for their participation in our world and bringing out those values that they learned as part of their education.”

Michael von Glahn
GUMC Communications

Commencement 2022