Ex-Nun Reflects: Risked prison for her beliefs

This article was originally published in The News & Observer. Photo Credit: The News & Observer.

August 3, 2011

By Lynda-Marie Taurasi

CARRBORO—Sitting outside Weaver Street Market, her retirement as vice president of human resources for Piedmont Health Services hours away, Darlene Nicgorksi shuddered as she recalled her pastor’s assassination in Guatemala.

“I still remember the knock on the window”, she said before speaking in Spanish:

‘¡Abre la puerta! ¡Mataron al padre de Tulio!’

‘Open the door! They killed Father Tulio!’

It was July 1, 1981. Although 30 years have passed, the former nun has hardly forgotten the incident that changed her life. It led her to become a celebrated feminist, an immigration-rights activist, and a convicted felon.

Nicgorksi, known then as Sister Darlene Nicgorksi of the School Sisters of St. Francis Catholic Order, was serving as a missionary in Los Amates in northeastern Guatemala. She was sent to the Central American country amid civil turmoil to create programs for village women wanting to teach preschool. Two years before, President Carter had ended all military aid to the country’s army due to its human rights abuses, as thousands of anti-military activists were tortured, killed or became known as Los Desaparecidos, ‘The Disappeared’.

“I was getting to know the people and the culture,” she said. Her village was in a peaceful, rural setting and most of the violence was happening on the western side of the country close to the Mexican border.

“There were meetings to talk about what [would] happen when the violence comes over to this side of the country, but they didn’t expect it then.”

Six months into her stay, her pastor Father Tulio Maruzzo, an Italian, Franciscan priest who spent several years serving in Guatemala, was gunned down on his way to Nicgorski’s village. She was urged to leave at once, as nearby villages were being ambushed.

Fleeing refugees

 Nicgorski found herself among many Guatemalans fleeing to Honduras, Mexico, or to the United States. She managed to escape to Honduras and eventually settled into a seminary in Chiapas, Mexico. There she delivered food and clothing to Guatemalan and Salvadorian refugees at the Mexican border and recorded their stories for human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

Her plan to return to Honduras was thwarted when an associate was kidnapped, so Nicgorski returned stateside. Safely at her parents’ house in Arizona, she had time to reflect and educate herself about Latin American politics.

“I was not really a political person before that, but I became a political person,” she said.

It was at a Phoenix bible study when she first heard of a local, ecumenical group aiding Guatemalan refugees seeking political asylum.

As her participation with the group, called The Sanctuary Movement, increased she said she realized “our government was not following its own laws.”

It is against U.S. policy to aid countries violating human rights. It would later be known that the United States was providing money, weapons and training through graduates of The School of Americas (since renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) to military leaders in both Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1970s and ’80s.

Sanctuary movement

The Reagan administration had declared refugees from Central America to be economic migrants, not political refugees, which hindered any legal asylum process under the 1980 Refugee Act. Akin to the Underground Railroad, The Sanctuary Movement was initially started by Tucson residents Jim Corbett, Jim Dudley and John Fife in the early 1980s.

Central Americans would make their way through Mexico to the United States where sympathizers would meet them at the Arizona border and match them with sanctuary communities willing to house and feed them while providing health care and sometimes employment. In exchange, the refugees would discuss their plight with local church and college communities.

By the time Nicgorski accepted a paid position in the movement, funded by the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, cities such as Chicago and three states – New Mexico,  New York,  and Wisconsin – had declared themselves public sanctuaries. Her responsibility was to match refugees with appropriate situations.

“I thought ‘this is more important than going back to Guatemala’ because I think my own people in the United States need to be educated about what is going on, ” she said.

In 1985, Nicgorksi and 10 others were indicted by a federal grand jury for transporting and harboring ‘illegal aliens’. The story made national headlines and Nicgorski was thrown into the spotlight.

“I had a compelling story, ” she said. “I was a nun. I spent time in Guatemala, and I faced a 25-year prison sentence.”

Found guilty

Mike Altman was Nicgorski’s defense attorney throughout the six-month-long trial.

“When the trial started in October of 1985 there were 150 sanctuary churches spread throughout the United States, ” he said.  “By the time the trial was over, there were 350 churches and temples that declared themselves sanctuaries.”

The following May, Nicgorski and seven others were found guilty of violating immigration law and convicted of four felonies. Among them was Peggy Hutchison, a lay person with the United Methodist Church.

“We really wanted to tell the story of what was happening to the people of El Salvador and Guatemala, and the U.S. government was trying to keep us from doing that because it would implicate the U.S. support for the war against innocent civilians, ” said Hutchison. “Darlene was committed to telling the truth.”

Five years after her pastor in Guatemala was murdered, on July 1, 1986,  Nicgorski was sentenced to five years probation.

Once she knew she would not face prison, Nicgorski moved to Boston and began to examine her sexuality along with her role in the Catholic Church. “Dealing with my sexuality was a growing issue … realizing that I was lesbian, ” she said.

In January 1987, Gloria Steinem named Nicgorski one of Ms. Magazine’s “Women of the Year” for her work in The Sanctuary movement. Later that December, Nicgorksi decided to leave her Catholic order.

“I was becoming something else, ” she explained. “I could no longer go around speaking against injustices and ignore the injustices I saw [in the Catholic Church] around women and sexuality.”

Soon after, she met her partner of 23 years, Chris. To earn a living for the first time in the secular world, Nicgorski taught ESL which led to a stint at Harvard University and the creation of her own company. Teaching English in a corporate setting and providing support to immigrant workers helped Nicgorski segue into human resources. When she and Chris moved to North Carolina in 2001, Nicgorski landed a job at Piedmont Health Services, a position she held for nearly 10 years until she retired on July 1.

“Darlene has made a life-long commitment to working with others throughout her career. She was an important contributing member of the Senior Leadership Team at Piedmont Health.” said Brian Toomey, CEO of Piedmont Health. “We were grateful to have her as part of our team.”

At her house in Chapel Hill, Nicgorski said retirement will have her organizing the Sanctuary memorabilia she plans to archive at the Harvey Mudd special collections library in Claremont, Calif.. She and Chris hope to retire to Claremont next year.

As she sifted through newspaper articles, pictures, and videotapes, she said: “I really felt this was my mission, not realizing where it would take me or how it would change me. In terms of making a real difference, this is what I was supposed to do.”