Though she died 25 years ago, Carol Anne Messina, SCN, remains very much a presence in the hearts and minds of those she worked alongside. “Recorder es vivir — to remember is to live,” Maria Montez, a farm worker, noted at the time of Carol Anne’s death. More than two decades after her death, Sister’s legacy is very much alive as evidenced recently when the low income housing development, Casa Messina, was named in her honor.
Speaking at the recent dedication in Edcouch, Texas, Juanita Valdez-Cox, Executive Director of La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), fondly recalled Sister Carol Anne, and her tireless efforts in low income communities. Upon their first meeting, Valdez-Cox couldn’t believe Sister Carol Anne was a nun saying she didn’t know a nun would be leading picket lines and lobbying the legislature. Her eyes were soon open once she saw Sister Carol Anne in action,“No matter how tough the assignment, she always got the job done, often with a smile, a joke, and a hug.” “And with chocolate and music,” adds Tess Browne, SCN, a close friend and confidant who worked alongside Sister Carol Anne lobbying Texas lawmakers on behalf of farm workers in the 1980s.
Sister Carol Anne worked endlessly for the passage of the workers compensation bill, unemployment insurance and the abolition of the use of the short-handled hoe. Sisters Carol Anne and Tess successfully lobbied for legislation to abolish the 24-inch long farming tool which required workers to stoop for numerous hours, causing severe back problems and arthritis.
In 1989, Maria Vincent Brocato, SCN, gave a moving reflection on the life and work of Sister Carol Anne, “So many of us knew Carol Anne Messina — and we have no doubt that she belongs in a SCN study of pioneering and risk taking … From South Plainfield, New Jersey to the migrant fields of South Texas, Carol Anne Messina’s life made a statement — and God’s people have benefited from that gift of her courage.”
In 1990 on the fifth anniversary of Sister Carol Anne’s death, Valdez-Cox wrote that Sister Carol Anne was deeply missed but that even in her death, her presence could be felt. “Sister Carol Anne may be gone, but her work remains as a living memorial to her persistence. When workers remember that the growers cannot force them to use a short-handled hoe, Hermana Carolina is in their hearts. When an injured farm worker collects Workers Compensation benefits for an accident in the fields, Hermana Carolina is remembered with great appreciation. And when growers are fined for not providing toilets and sanitation facilities to field workers, one can feel her genuine sadness at having to go to such extremes to acquire even the most basic human dignities.”
SCN Associates Elizabeth and Felix Garza worked closely with Sister Carol Anne in the 1980s. Felix, who currently serves as the President of the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM) Board, is quick to point out the lasting impact of Sister Carol Anne’s work and how members of the SCN family continue to follow in her footsteps.
Passionate about social work from a very young age, Sister Carol Anne committed herself to reaching out to the poor and needy. She always wanted to be among the people and carried out ministries in a variety of settings from the rural areas of Bardstown, Ky., to positions at St. Joseph Infirmary, Our Lady of Peace Hospital, St. Benedict Learning Center, the Health and Welfare Council of Louisville, and the Family and Children’s Service in Roanoke, Va. In 1974, Sister Carol Anne became a member of the Pastoral team at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Raymondsville, Texas. Five years later, she became part of the National Farm Workers Ministry and joined the United Farm Workers (UFW) in Texas to help the organization become a viable political force. As Sister Maria recalls, it was in this role that Sister Carol Anne showed herself to be a true pioneer and risk-taker becoming a challenger to local and State lawmakers, on behalf of “her” Hispanic people. “She seemed fearless on their behalf, surely the active, decisive stance of a pioneer woman,” adds Sister Maria.
So it is fitting that Casa Messina has been named in honor of Sister Carol Anne. The new facility includes 76 units of multi-bedroom apartments along with a community center, two playgrounds, pool, and laundry facilities. The National Farm Workers Service Center (NFWSC) commissioned Casa Messina through funding help from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs as well as the Hidalgo County Urban County program. The grand opening ceremony was held in October 2009.
Vice-Provincial Brenda Gonzales, SCN, often thinks of Sister Carol Anne, “She was a tough talking Italian from New Jersey, but with a soft heart.” Sister Brenda says she was inspired by Sister Carol Anne’s tenacity and sense of justice. Sister Tess says Sister Carol Anne also inspired many of the state’s legislators and students at the University of Texas-Austin. Her presence and work were so respected that when Sister Carol Anne and a former Governor of Texas died the same day in 1985, the Texas Senate was adjourned in their honor. And just days later on January 17, lawmakers passed a resolution honoring “Sister Carol Anne’s devotion to the struggle for the downtrodden farmworkers of the Valley.”
Dozens of people wrote letters, articles, and tributes following Sister Carol Anne’s death, including touching words from Marie Sweeney, a former SCN. “Those of you who knew her, realized that Carol Anne was quite colorful by nature. Her sense of humor, her frequent and spontaneous tears, and her ability to embellish a routine occurrence into a memorable event resulted in as many troubles as rewards for her. … For as many people that came as friends to her funeral, there are probably just as many people that felt relieved at her absence. For them she became the adversary because she lived on the frontier of justice that I believe Catherine Spalding would have eagerly embraced. … She seemed so versatile, so resilient, so untiring. And yet, it was she who was called to an early death.”
Sister Carol Anne died when she was just 47.
For the last 25 years, Valdez-Cox has spoken with great passion about Sister Carol Anne, last October she once again emphasized the impact of this amazing woman and how she deserves to be recognized for the positive change she made for farmworkers. “She was a truly faithful follower of the teachings of the Holy Scripture,” says Valdez-Cox , “whose actions spoke louder than her words.”
To view a video clip of the dedication of Casa Messina go to:
This story originally appeared in the SCN publication, The Journey, to learn more
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