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Young nun fights for justice for immigrants and the poor in Indy

June 17, 2017 | IndySTAR | Link to Article

"To see a young, dynamic person, talented in so many ways, choose religious life, that's inspiring."

 

Tracey Horan had never been behind the walls of a convent before she moved to El Paso, Texas, after college to teach middle-school math.

She was surprised to learn that the religious sisters watched TV, told jokes and even drank beer on occasion. But they also were deeply spiritual and committed to social justice issues. Horan, who was on a journey of self-discovery and discernment, wondered if she was being called to the religious life.

The Indianapolis native and Roncalli High School grad lived with the Sisters of Charity for two years, growing not only in her faith but in her awareness of systemic poverty, discrimination and economic oppression — issues the sisters confronted in their work and discussed at the dinner table every evening.

Today, the 29-year-old one-time cheerleader-turned-teacher-turned-community activist is a second-year mission novice with the Sisters of Providence, founded by Saint Mother Theodore Guerin in 1840. She will take her first vows this year — vows of poverty, chastity and obedience — on her way to becoming a full member of the religious order based at St.-Mary-of-the-Woods.

Aging religious

Women like Horan, now known as Sister Tracey, are a rarity these days. New recruits in the ranks of nuns and sisters in the United States have plummeted for decades, though recent years have shown a slight trend upward. (What's the difference between a nun and a sister? Nuns typically live a life of contemplative prayer in a monastery, while sisters are rooted in community ministry.)

According to National Religious Vocation Conference data, more than 90 percent of the nation's 58,000 nuns and sisters are 60 and older. The median age of the 300 sisters in the Sisters of Providence is 75, Sister Tracey said, adding, "I bring down our average, I'm proud to say."

She senses a resurgence in interest in religious life, pointing to her own "class" of sisters as proof.

Sister Tracey Horan prays at Christ Cathedral, during

Sister Tracey Horan prays at Christ Cathedral, during a vigil and march to call on city and county law enforcement to stop supporting unlawful detentions of undocumented immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)

"We have eight women in formation, which is exciting. A lot of communities aren't getting any new people."

"I think people are looking for something, a sense of intentional community," said the young sister, who looks like most everyone else at a local coffee shop on a Monday morning, dressed in slacks, a T-shirt and sandals in the summer heat. "It takes a lot to be focused on this kind of mission, so it is important to be with other people who can strengthen you."

It's hard for her to describe why she feels this is the life for her. "It just fits. I equate it to falling in love. I feel like I can be my fullest self in this life."

Her parents, longtime members of St. Jude Catholic Church on the south side, were pleased but skeptical when she announced her plans to join the religious life.

She had enjoyed an active social life in high school and college, all while holding true to her Catholic faith. Joe and Eileen Horan thought their daughter would follow a more traditional path. But she had long felt there was something more she was called to do.

"My parents didn't believe me at first; they thought it was a phase. Over time, they started to see I was the happiest I'd ever been."

Community activist

Her mission as a Catholic and a Sister of Providence is advocating for the dignity and well-being of all people, paying special attention to the poor and disenfranchised. It's fitting then that her faith journey and ministry search brought her back to Indianapolis last summer when she joined the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN) and the Justice for Immigrants Campaign of the Archdiocese as a bilingual community organizer. 

It's the perfect intersection of faith and civic engagement, she said. She mobilizes support for causes critical to Catholic social teachings. And her status as a sister brings a moral presence to bear, whether it's in meetings with city officials on mass transit or in organizing a public rally to force action on what she and IndyCAN call the unlawful detention of immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Indianapolis.

She calls it "sending a moral message." And she has no problem calling out policies she considers illegal and immoral.

But when religious leaders and others have the opportunity to meet with policy makers and put a human face on a policy outcome, the conversation shifts, she said. 

"Me being a sister and being part of IndyCAN and working on this in a really clear and public way, I think gives people hope. It really is an extension of the church."

Her co-workers say she's the perfect messenger.

"She is so spiritually in tune, such a divine being," said Nicole Barnes, IndyCAN operations manager. "Her sisterhood is integrated into who she is ... it's not something she does — it's her way of being. It just oozes out of her, and she's this tiny thing, but she's feisty and serious about justice for people."

Sister Tracey lives with four other Sisters of Providence in the Nora neighborhood. Each has her own work to do in the community, but they carve out time to pray together regularly, and they take turns cooking.

To relax, the young sister watches "Parks and Recreation" and "Call of the Midwife." She's also an enthusiastic runner and hiker. She keeps up with old friends on Facebook but isn't able to spend much time with them. "I've really changed a lot since those days."

At 84, Sister Marilyn Herber is the senior member of the household, and she says Sister Tracey gives her hope.

"She's just a great example to me," said Sister Marilyn, who entered religious life in 1952. "The young people who come today are so filled with life and goodness and a desire to make change in this world. They get it."

Kind but stubborn

If it's possible to be an idealist and a realist, that would describe Sister Tracey.

The Rev. Chris Wadelton, pastor at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church on the east side, saw both sides at a February rally organized by the young sister and IndyCAN that drew 2,000 people. The City of Inclusion rally was held in response to policies by the Trump administration that some think unfairly target immigrants, Muslims and refugees.

He marvels that she is able to balance her religious training with a job that demands long hours. "She brings a renewed focus to faith-based social justice. To see a young, dynamic person, talented in so many ways, choose religious life, that's inspiring."

Juan Perez-Corona, 45, has seen Sister Tracey in action, working to help people with immigration issues, housing, medical care and employment. He's been so impressed with her commitment that he now volunteers alongside her.

"We are so blessed to have her," the father of three said. "It doesn't matter color, race, religion, she just wants to help people."

Perez-Corona, who has been in the country since 1988, now has legal status here, but he's never forgotten the fear he felt 10 years ago when he said he was pulled over by a police officer in Indianapolis for no reason and asked to produce residency papers. He spent nine days in jail, but it took years to resolve his case with IndyCAN's help. 

Going where others won't

Sister Tracey said examples like that inspire her to do the hard work that others, even many within the church, are reluctant to embrace.

"This is the heart of our mission," she said. "When our sisters first came here, they were really pioneers, and that's still kind of our role. (Sisters) often choose to be in places where other people tend not to be. But if we're not willing to get out in the trenches, what are we doing?"

It's also challenging, she said, because "it forces us to ask questions that are uncomfortable." 

Take immigration, for example. "We’re dealing with this narrative that says all immigrants are criminals and that the only people being deported are criminals, which we know isn’t true," she said. She has worked with IndyCan to develop a hotline for immigrants and others to call if they feel threatened by authorities.

She wasn't always so welcoming to undocumented immigrants, she said, recalling a high school discussion more than 10 years ago about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

"I was one of those who said, "They're criminals; it's pretty clear, they're breaking the law.' But I had no idea."

A teacher assigned her to research the other side of the argument. "I was so ticked off, but it was really smart of her. I had to see — why are people crossing, what are their stories, what's behind this?"

So she allows some grace for those who are not yet willing to fight what she believes is a moral imperative.

"I have to remember my own transformation, and I've come a really long way as far as understanding and getting a broader picture of people's experiences and perspectives. If it's possible for me, being as stubborn as I am, it's possible for anyone."

Sister Tracey's work in the community was just recognized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who held their Spring General Assembly in Indianapolis. In a reception Wednesday, she received the 2017 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, sponsored by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, for her work to reduce poverty and racial inequality.

In prepared remarks, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, formerly archbishop of Indianapolis, described Sister Tracey as a "dynamic young woman promoting the common good among immigrants and brothers and sisters living in poverty."

While the day-to-day "slow work of God" is not always glamorous, her ministry lends hope, said Shoshanna Spector, executive director of IndyCAN. 

"Society yearns for courageous, prophetic leaders who are prepared to inspire, speak out and support the most marginalized. Sister Tracey is this person."