Catholic-run centers swamped with immigrants wanting to learn English
By Father William Ayres, Catholic News Service
PHILADELPHIA, Jul. 26, 2006 (www.catholic.org) - As the debate over U.S. immigration policies continues to rage in the nation's capital, Catholic-run centers in Philadelphia that teach English as a second language are struggling to meet the demand of immigrants determined to learn it.
A survey released by the Pew Hispanic Center June 7 showed that 57 percent of Latino immigrants feel it is necessary to learn English to be part of American society. Further, 92 percent of Latinos believe it is very important that the children of immigrants be taught English, the study found.
And that percentage reaches 96 percent when only foreign-born Latinos are surveyed -- a higher percentage than whites (87 percent) or blacks (83 percent) who believe it.
The experience of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Philadelphia bear out those numbers.
The Immaculate Heart of Mary Literacy Center has two campuses, at Incarnation of Our Lord Parish and St. Francis de Sales Parish. The Sisters of St. Joseph run the Welcome Center, a block from Ascension of Our Lord Church in Philadelphia.
Tens of thousands of adult learners have passed through the centers, which are staffed by sisters of those communities and other volunteers, both lay and religious.
"It was (the Sisters of St. Joseph's) desire to be present to marginalized people," said Sister Eileen Marnien, a member of that religious community. "Our focus is on the immigrant community."
The same is true of the Immaculate Heart Sisters. They know firsthand it is a myth that immigrants do not want to learn English.
Sisters at both centers said their immigrant students are determined to learn English; many of them attend classes after a full day's work.
"Some never went to school in their own country. Some are slow learners. But they keep coming back," said Sister Mary Regina Schuyler, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister and director of her religious community's center.
Learning a new language in the midst of all the other demands of life is no easy task, but the learners stick with it, recognizing that it is important to know English, she said. In fact, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters often have to turn people away because the demand is greater than their resources.