Sisters offer a spring of hope in Arizona desert

Sisters Lucy Nigh (left) and Judy Bourg participate in the Migrant Trail each year. This 75-mile, week-long walk near Tucson, Arizona, brings attention to the severe risks migrants face when crossing the border.

The Sonoran Desert, nestled in the southeast corner of Arizona, is a challenging environment of blistering hot days and chilly nights, mountainous terrain and dangerous animals. These obstacles make for a perilous journey for migrants, who are often unprepared for such hazards as they make their way towards the U.S.-Mexico border. Tragically, since the year 2000, nearly 4,000 men, women, and children have lost their lives crossing Arizona deserts.

In 2010, Sisters Judy Bourg and Lucy Nigh answered the call for a new SSND border outreach ministry in Douglas, Arizona. Since that time, they have been dedicated to helping migrant travelers in search of a better life, remembering those who lost their lives on that journey, and advocating for immigration system reform.

During the 12 years they have been in Douglas, no two days have been alike. “Since we continue to meet new opportunities for service, and with the immigration and deportation policies constantly changing, our responses to border needs bring us into new opportunities,” said Sister Lucy. “We are always adjusting and learning along the way.”

The sisters’ outreach began locally, and continues to this day, at the migrant humanitarian aid center just on the other side of the border in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. Shifts are busy as the center sometimes sees upwards of 200 people in a 24-hour period. Work includes responding to immediate needs such as food, water and medical attention. They also talk with migrants to answer questions and often provide a clean change of clothes to replace what has been torn or lost.

Constantly adapting to border needs over the years has led the sisters to a diverse scope of service including outreach at migrant shelters in both Mexico and the U.S., coordinating the placement of memorial crosses to honor those who have died in the desert, supporting a women’s sewing and gardening cooperative, helping to establish a migrant carpenter school and business, and even prison ministry.

“We named ourselves “Comunidad Enlaces de Esperanza (A community creating networks of hope),” said Sister Lucy. “We wanted to be present as a community in mission, and not simply as individual workers.”

Another way in which the sisters participate in community with others is through the “Healing Our Border” vigil every Tuesday. During this somber event, the names of migrants whose remains were found in the desert of their Arizona county are remembered aloud. The prayer service began with just 12 migrant names in December 2000, but has grown to approximately 350 persons.

Much of the sisters’ ministry has been accomplished through the collaboration with others in the Douglas community, including outreach with Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Quakers and non-denominational partners. The extended community even gathers outside of advocacy work to join each other for holidays and other special occasions.

Despite the Arizona desert’s relative remoteness, Sister Judy and Sister Lucy still find ways to connect with SSNDs nearby and the congregation as a whole. “We belong to an extended assembly group with sisters in California and Phoenix,” Sister Judy said. “We all get together virtually to discuss province business at least three times a year, and then occasionally just to chat. Sister Lucy and I also serve on province Shalom committees. Plus, there are numerous opportunities to join virtual province gatherings for prayer and webinar learning sessions.”

Sister Lucy recognizes that immigration can be a polarizing topic. For SSND however, its history is inextricably connected to the immigrant experience as the School Sisters of Notre Dame initially came to the U.S. as immigrants to respond to the educational needs of German immigrants. While people migrate for a variety of reasons, School Sisters of Notre Dame continue to stand in unity, support and love with their immigrant sisters and brothers.

“Jesus’ message to all of his followers is that we love all—our neighbors, those on the margins, even our enemies—along with our family, friends and those who share our values,” explained Sister Lucy. “Being from Wisconsin, I had, and still have, much to learn about my white privilege and how to serve humbly. What strengthens me in this service is all that I receive inspiration from the stories of those I meet—their dedication, love and sacrifice for family, as well as the suffering that brings them to the border.”

How to get involved
Learn about and follow along with the sisters’ work at:

MEET OUR SISTERS

Sister Lucy Nigh entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame community at age 18. She has been a SSND for 53 years.

What ministries have you served in prior to your current call?

  • Intermediate grade teacher (Marshfield and Superior, Wisconsin), 1970-80
  • TYME OUT youth retreat director (Mequon/Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 1980-84
  • Milwaukee Province vocation director, 1984-1990
  • Children’s Hospital clinical pastoral education (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 1990-92
  • Michael hospital chaplain (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 1992-97
  • Milwaukee Province Provincial Councilor, 1997-2005
  • International Program Director at Generalate, 2006-09
  • Interprovincial vocation team 2013-15

What drew you to a ministry working with migrants?
When I left Rome in 2009 and looked for another ministry, I wanted to do something that would challenge me to keep improving my ability to speak Spanish. I have always been involved in a variety of social justice issues. There was the opportunity to live in the bilingual community of Douglas/Agua Prieta and to work with migrants. It was a winning choice to join this new community initiative in Douglas!

What do you do in your free time? Hobbies, interests, etc.?
I grew up on a farm, and I have created a garden in almost every place I have lived. Especially tricky, but I’ve learned to garden in the hot Arizona climate. I learned to play guitar in high school and have often served as a liturgical musician in local parishes. I haven’t written any new songs for a LONG time, but I did in the past. If I have time and there is a special project, I sew, knit, crochet, and macramé. I love to sing and besides leading a folk choir at church, I’ve joined a community choir. I like to camp, and we have some lovely campgrounds in our local mountains.