Immigrants’ stories explored in book about sisters’ literacy center

By Sharon Boehlefeld | Catholic News Service

AURORA, Ill. (CNS) — While looking for a project so she could cross “write a book” off her bucket list, Anna Marie Kukec Tomczyk thought about her time as an associate with the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois.

She first thought of focusing the book on the sisters’ ministry in Peru and called her friend, Dominican Sister Beth Murphy, to discuss it.

Sister Murphy, communication director for the order, didn’t think the Peru idea would be the best subject for a book, however.

“As I thought about another story, I thought of the work our sisters were doing in the Dominican Literacy Center with immigrants. Nobody has ever written more than a newspaper article about them and I thought it was a good idea,” Sister Murphy said. “And since the literacy center was interested, that’s how it happened.”

Tomczyk, a Chicago resident who attends Queen of All Saints Parish there, already knew of the literacy work. She agreed with Sister Murphy and approached the center’s administrator, Dominican Sister Kathleen Ryan. A book could help others learn about immigrant lives and about the work the sisters continue to do.

This is the book cover of “We Are Eagles,” by Anna Marie Kukec Tomczyk. (CNS photo/courtesy Anna Marie Kukec Tomczyk via The Observer)

“The Dominican Sisters help people on the margins of society. So, Sister Kathleen believed creating a center to help immigrants to learn English and to improve their way of life fit perfectly into their mission,” Tomczyk explained. “As more former students achieved in life, the sisters saw the ‘pillars’ of their Dominican life in a new way.”

Those pillars, “which undergird their lives as Dominican women,” Tomczyk added, “are community, ministry, study and prayer. Now, the sisters saw how the pillars were supporting their immigrant women as well.”

It took three years, but Tomczyk’s work eventually became the book “We Are Eagles,” which was released last spring.

As she began talking with people involved with the center located in Aurora, Tomczyk realized that the literacy center was nearing its 25th anniversary and decided to focus on that angle. She started talking to “early students” about their stories “from how they came to America to how they are today.”

“The center had students from Mexico from the very beginning. Their lives (in the U.S.) were dramatically different from Mexico. One woman was washing clothes on a rock in a stream near her home. Another toted water in jugs.

“I talked to each about how they came to the Chicago area and adjusted to life here. (One) couldn’t communicate to the doctor what was wrong with their child. (Another) couldn’t help with homework,” Tomczyk said.

The women’s inability to speak and read English “became quite a divider between the mom and family,” Tomczyk said. “The children at school, the husband at work were picking up the language.”

But the women wanted help. Some picked up words at home and others looked to community colleges to go further.

Along the women’s paths, the literacy center’s “one-on-one tutoring was customized to their needs,” she said.

When it was time to publish the book, Tomczyk said she was shown “a couple of samples (of cover art) to look at.”

The final design, by Juan Pablo Ruiz, took Tomczyk’s breath away. She was struck by the red background framing an image of a woman and a soaring eagle in a field of flowers.

“It was just a beautiful cover,” she said. “He gets credit for designing all that.”

Tomczyk, though, gets the credit for putting it all together.

“As a journalist, she already had that sort of broad world view,” necessary for a project like the book, Sister Murphy said. “I thought she did a beautiful job. I know she had to very gently probe the women for the depths of their stories and I think she did a beautiful job of communicating their stories.”

Tomczyk sees the stories as belonging to the women.

“A lot of these women bootstrapped their lives and set goals for themselves and did it — with the center helping, too, along the way,” she said. “It’s a women’s book (about) women’s issues. That’s how I hoped it would be perceived.”

Boehlefeld is the retired features and multimedia editor of The Observer, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockford.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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