From orphans to undocumented minors, Sister Phyllis Kelleher has a heart for helping the young
"Hermana, tomorrow is my birthday,” the 17-year-old Central American boy said to Tacoma Dominican Sister Phyllis Kelleher. “Oh, a birthday!” the 81-year old nun excitedly replied in Spanish.
But the teen burst out crying, Sister Phyllis recalled. “He just grabbed me and he said, ‘I’ll be 18 and I’ll be put in the [federal] detention center.’” All she could do was hold him, trying to keep back her own tears.
The teenager, like the other boys at Selma R. Carson Home in Fife, arrived in the U.S. as an “unaccompanied minor” — without legal documents and without an adult responsible for him. When the boys, ages 12–17, are apprehended by state or federal law enforcement agencies around the country, they’re sent to the 23-bed facility (operated under a federal contract) to await immigration proceedings.
Sister Phyllis knows all about the poverty that drives these youths, mostly from Central America, to cross the border — she lived in Mexico and Central America for over two decades, working hard to feed the orphans in her care more than beans and rice.
“If your family needs food, how could you not?” Sister Phyllis said about crossing the border.
Twice a week, she meets with “her boys” at Selma Carson, teaching them about the Catholic faith and reminding them they are God’s children. “God is in your life. He has already accepted you,” Sister Phyllis tells the boys. “It’s you who have to accept him.”
She gives them rosaries, medals and prayer cards, mostly collected from fellow sisters and friends. “I always bring up our Blessed Mother,” Sister Phyllis said. “Even if they’re not practicing Catholics, she is important to them.”
While living at Selma Carson, the boys receive education, medical care and access to legal and social services. Most of them haven’t had any formal schooling, so sitting in a classroom setting is challenging, said Olivia Acosta, who teaches at the home. But Sister Phyllis is patient with them and “the boys look to her as a role model and an inspiration,” Acosta said.
“She has so much peace,” Acosta added. “I would like to be like her at her age! Amazing is the word for her.”
Strengthening her faith
Born in Great Falls, Montana, Phyllis Kelleher grew up on a farm north of Portland, Oregon, before her family moved to Renton when she was a high school junior. The family went to Mass, “but we didn’t read the Bible,” she said.
Her path to religious life began when a group of women proselytizers from another denomination knocked on the family’s front door. Phyllis and her aunt were trying to defend their faith using the Bible, but weren’t doing too well. As the visitors were saying negative things about priests, Phyllis’ mother arrived home and demanded the women leave.
The experience left Phyllis, her mother and her aunt determined to better know the Bible and Catholic teaching. So they began meeting weekly with their local pastors. After several months, one of them told Phyllis: “You know what? I think you’re going to be a nun,” and gave her a list of four religious communities. She took it home to think it over. Eventually, Phyllis somewhat randomly decided, “Let’s go over to Tacoma and see those Dominicans.”
She discerned her vocation while living in the Dominican community and finishing high school at Tacoma’s Aquinas Academy. After graduating in 1955, she joined the community, then taught for 12 years in Yakima, Bellingham, Ellensburg, Seattle and California, eventually earning a science degree from Washington State University.
Dedicated to orphans
When the school where she was teaching closed, Sister Phyllis began caring for children in a different way. She traveled to Mexico to visit a fellow sister who was working at an orphanage of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (Our Little Brothers and Sisters).
“I fell in love with those kids, and the culture, the language,” Sister Phyllis said. She stayed for nearly a decade, at first caring for 95 young children at one home, then 300 boys at another.
The only difference between teaching and working with orphans, Sister Phyllis said with a laugh, “was that being a teacher, you had Friday afternoon till Monday morning free, but the orphanage was 24 hours, seven days a week.”
After returning to the U.S., Sister Phyllis worked in California for two years, registering Latino citizens to vote and using her Spanish to help farm workers fill out paperwork. In Philadelphia, she aided a farm workers’ boycott, speaking at local churches and schools about the workers’ substandard living conditions.
But in the early 1980s she was drawn back south of the border, initially helping the Adrian Dominicans at a sewing co-op in Nicaragua. There she was asked to manage the “baby house” at a new NPH orphanage on Lake Nicaragua. Sister Phyllis fished the lake by boat, risking shark encounters, to help feed the children.
Eventually, the orphanage cared for 40 babies. “My worst case was a month-old baby boy who weighed 3 pounds. I’m not kidding, he could fit in your hand,” Sister Phyllis said. Rotating shifts, she and two other workers used an eyedropper to feed the baby an ounce of special milk every hour for two days. The amount was gradually increased until the baby could take a bottle; today Pepito is a 12-year-old who loves to dance and sing, Sister Phyllis said.
‘I have my boys’
After returning to the U.S. for health reasons, Sister Phyllis readily agreed when asked to minister to the boys at Selma Carson Home about 18 months ago.
“She’s wonderful — nice, quiet, has the patience with them,” said David Ortega, Selma Carson’s program services manager. “We are very, very fond of Sister Phyllis here,” added Art Tel, the home’s manager.
Sister Phyllis teaches the boys an hour of religion twice a week; during a recent class, she had her students glue images of Jesus on cards, then write their names and words from Isaiah 43:1: “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Besides her work at Selma Carson, Sister Phyllis attends meetings of Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest (AID NW). Along with other Dominican sisters and associates, she ministers to families who come to visit loved ones being held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Sister Phyllis hopes to return to volunteering inside the detention center, where she used to help translate and fill out paperwork. She was especially affected by the experience of a man with three small children who came to visit his wife. “He held up the baby to the window and the mother kissed the baby through the window,” Sister Phyllis said. Seeing mother and baby separated like that created a desire to help the detained women.
“I want to go back in the detention center and work,” Sister Phyllis said, “until I can’t do it anymore.” For now though, she said with a smile, “I have my boys. They’re very moving.”
Northwest Catholic - July/August 2018