Sister Norma Pimental, MJ honored for her ministry

The 2018 Laetare Medal has been awarded to Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J., the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Sister Norma has received worldwide recognition for her direction of the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. The center was established by Sister Norma in response to an influx of illegal immigration in 2014. It provides immigrants food, clothing, and a place to rest after they cross the border into the United States.

Sister Norma’s reception of the medal on March 11 marks the 136th year the Laetare Medal has been awarded at Notre Dame. The Laetare Medal is considered the oldest and most prestigious award given to an American Catholic. It is so named because it is awarded on Laetare Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent.

Pope Francis has praised Sister Norma’s work of welcoming immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. In a virtual town hall meeting featured on ABC’s “20/20,” he singled her out and said to her: “I want to thank you. And through you to thank all of the sisters of religious orders in the U.S. for the work that you have done and that you do in the United States.”

The university titled her Laetare Medal profile “A Bridge Among Walls,” referring to her fulfillment of Pope Francis’ frequent call to “Build bridges, not walls.” Instead of working to prevent immigrants from entering the United States, Sister Norma welcomes immigrants with open arms. She leads her volunteers in clapping and shouting “Bienvenidos!” when immigrants enter her center.

Sister Norma said of the border between Mexico and the United States: “I grew up here, and we didn’t have walls. People from this side and that side, we were family. They allowed us to be in community with each other.” Sister Norma often brings people to the border wall in Hidalgo, Texas to pray.

According to Sister Norma’s Laetare Medal profile, she believes that “an outsized emphasis on security can come at the cost of the merciful response children of God are called to employ.” Sister Norma shows mercy towards immigrants entering the United States, saying, “They’ve come through so much. They’ve come from different countries in Central America, up through Mexico, most of the time walking and hiding from people who want to hurt them.”

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chief of the Rio Grande Valley Sector, Manuel Padilla, has developed a relationship with Sister Norma. He said, “Without Sister Norma, our mission of border security would be a very difficult one to achieve.”

Sister Norma said of this surprising relationship between herself, who provides for illegal immigrants, and Padilla, who prevents illegal immigration: “He’s doing his job, he’s protecting us, making the border safe. But he also agrees with all we’re doing. So he’s always calling and asking me, ‘How can I help to make sure you’re doing OK?’”

In response to the selection of Sister Norma, Dream SB, a tri-campus group committed to defending human dignity in upcoming DACA negotiations and future immigration reform, commented, “It is exciting for Dream SB to see a Catholic leader who holds our same ideals with regard to human dignity and immigration reform be honored by the university. We hope that this continues a productive conversation about Dreamers, DACA, and immigration reform in our community.”

Sister Norma acknowledges that for some, the work she does is controversial. In response, she says, “They haven’t had a chance to get close. To see that face of that mother, of that child, and when you see that there’s a special connection that happens and you know as a human being you feel the need to reach out and help.”

Sister Norma thoughtfully explains that through her work with immigrants and refugees, she experiences God. She said, “It’s that encounter you have with an immigrant that transforms us and allows us to experience the presence of God.”

Father Jenkins said of the selection of Sister Norma: “Jesus said, ‘When I was a stranger, you invited me in.’ Sister Norma Pimentel has given her life to welcoming Christ in the immigrant and refugee. In awarding her the Laetare Medal, Notre Dame celebrates her witness of seeking and generously serving Christ in the most vulnerable.”

Ellie Gardey is a freshman living in Lewis Hall studying political science, philosophy, and theology. She has a love for sushi and country music. Contact Ellie at