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When Irish immigrants leave their families, homes and the green hills of Ireland to start a new life in America, many know they can find an understanding ear and possibly employment from Sister Veronica Dobson, CSB. A native of Ireland, Sister Veronica has spent the last 17 years as director of the Irish Pastoral Centre in Quincy, “providing a home away from home” for recent Irish arrivals.
As founding director, Sister Veronica has watched the Irish Pastoral Centre grow from a tiny room in the rectory of St. Mark Parish, Dorchester, to her current multi-room office where she provides dozens of services and programs to immigrants. Founded primarily to benefit Irish immigrants, the office has expanded to assist newcomers from a variety of countries.
After having dedicated so many years assisting foreigners, Sister Veronica reluctantly left her position at the center in mid-January at the request of her congregation and returned to San Antonio, Texas, where the order is based.
"I have very mixed emotions about leaving," Sister Veronica told The Pilot before her departure. "I love the work."
Arriving from Ireland in 1953, Sister Veronica came to the United States with her order to establish schools in San Antonio. In the late 1980s, while on sabbatical in the Archdiocese of Boston, archdiocesan officials approached her with the idea of establishing an office to support Irish immigrants. Sister Veronica gladly accepted and began almost immediately.
"I had no job description, no office -- nothing, but within a month I had over 100 names of people I had met with and from there it just grew," she recalled.
The Irish Pastoral Centre first opened its doors in 1987, a time when the Irish economy was weak and people were leaving for America and Boston in particular in large numbers. Sister Veronica’s main concern was, and still is, to make immigrants feel welcome in their new surroundings.
"Many come without families, so we want to provide a home away from home, like what a home means to everybody," Sister Veronica explained.
In addition to serving as a place of comfort in times of loneliness, the center provides a number of other free services. They include information on immigration laws and citizenship, employment, housing and legal contacts, resume writing and interview skills classes, addiction counseling, pre-marriage preparation, support groups and pastoral services.
According to Sister Veronica, the number of Irish immigrants settling in the Boston area is not as great as it once was. However, the center receives approximately 30 calls a day from newcomers from around the world requesting assistance.
Because many immigrants come to the United States not knowing anyone, they are wary of who to trust, said Father Daniel J. Finn, pastor of St. Mark Parish, Dorchester, and coordinator of the Irish Apostolate, under whose jurisdication the center falls.
"People have a great deal of trust and confidence in her -- and in the Church because of her -- particularly immigrants when many of them are out of status and somewhat fearful," explained Father Finn, a native of Ireland who moved to America with his parents in 1964.
According to Sister Veronica, in the early years of the center Dr. Barry Woods, a Lahey Clinic cardiologist also originally from Ireland, was one of the doctors to whom she would refer new immigrants. Woods described Sister Veronica as “our Mother Teresa” because “she lives the Gospel of Christ and reaches out to those on the margins of society.”
"Sister Veronica responds to every human need regardless of creed, color or religion," said Wood. "She has taught us all an important lesson on caring with compassion and kindness."
Since Sister Veronica’s departure, Sister Marguerite Kelly, MFIC, has been appointed to manage the center and its services. Before heading up the center, Sister Marguerite worked with Hispanic immigrants in Lawrence. Even with this experience, she is wary about filling Sister Veronica’s shoes.
"I feel very happy about it but I feel that it is a great challenge," said Sister Marguerite, who hails from Galway, Ireland. "She's so well known and she has helped so many people in the past."
However, Sister Veronica said that her successor is well equipped to handle her new position and the rewards that come with it.
"I've gained more than I've given. It has been so good for me what I have learned from people," Sister Veronica explained. "I count it a privilege to be able to respond to the human needs of people especially in vulnerable times -- to listen with the heart to them and be able to help."