“Working with these people is for me one of life’s graces because I am in awe of their faith, their hope, their courage and their love of life. Our country needs such people whether they be Muslim or Christian.”
Known at the Mother house as the fair trade coffee ambassador, Sister Maura McGrath’s main responsibility is with vulnerable migrants. At the very heart of her every day concerns are such issues as the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, their integration in society and the cooperation among refugees from different communities. Since 2014, Sister Maura has been a member of the Board of Directors of Action Réfugiés a Montreal faith-based NGO. Their mutual collaboration, however, goes back 25 years, when the English province of the Congregation of Notre Dame opened an emergency shelter for refugee claimants.
Sister Maura lived in the shelter for two years and welcomed women, men, unaccompanied minors and children who had just arrived in Canada.
Today, even though she coordinates the Green Committee of the CND Motherhouse, which was created to help raise awareness of environmental issues which seriously affect those who are poor, Sister Maura continues her work with refugees.
One Step Leads to Another
After she entered the Congregation, Sister Maura taught in Montreal and a couple of years later with two sisters she opened a mission in Quesnel, British Columbia. Later, she left Canada with two sisters to open a house in San Miguel Acatán, Huehuetenango, high in the magnificent mountains of Guatemala. There, Sister Maura’s primary ministry was teaching reading and writing to the Mayan people of the villages. Upon returning to North America, she was sent to a parish in Trail, British Columbia. Her experience in Central America compelled her to become more involved in social justice issues.
A Life-Changing Meeting
In 1988, the Congrégation de Notre-Dame organized a Congress on Mission which was held at the Palais des Congrès in Montreal. Sister Maura was very moved by one of the speakers, Father Juan Moreno, a Jesuit priest and fervent activist for peace and justice especially during the time of violent civil war in El Salvador. The next year on November 16, 1989, Father Moreno and his six companions were assassinated by the Salvadoran army.
Four years later in Montreal, when Sister Maura established an emergency shelter for women, unaccompanied minors and children seeking asylum, she stated: “I needed to give a title to the new refugee shelter. Naming it after Father Moreno was a natural choice.”
Refuge Juan Moreno opened in Montreal in 1993. From the start, there were important challenges: a constant need for funding; the intricacies of the refugee process itself; human beings arriving with nothing, as well as the many prejudices against newcomers. These obstacles made the life of a newly-arrived person considerably more difficult. Although Refuge Juan Moreno is now closed, Sister Maura has remained dedicated to the cause of the refugees.
In 2005, Sister Maura accepted to join her province’s leadership team in Halifax. In 2014, after eight years and two terms in office, she returned to Montreal, where she continued to answer the call to work for peace and justice with her community, the Congregation of Notre Dame.
Sister Maura’s ancestors belonged to Montreal’s Irish community. She often thinks about the conditions these families faced when they first arrived in North America in the 18th century. Although the situation of a person seeking refuge today is much more difficult she recognizes some similarities.
March 2004: Sister Maura received the Saint Patrick’s Society of Montreal’s Community Award for her work with refugees.
May 2004: During the YWCA Montreal’s Women of Distinction benefit gala, Sister Maura was nominated in the Community Services category for her work with refugee women.
October 2005: Refuge Juan Moreno was honoured to receive the Merit Certificate awarded by the Honourable Joe Volpe, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.