The bells at Our Lady of Hope Church ring a singular melody that signals the conclusion of the 10:30 a.m. Spanish Mass.
Inside the church on a recent Sunday, Sandra Irias is beginning her day with her nieces and nephews as well as her husband, Marlon. Her polite smile and empathetic nature hide the scars of a 24-year odyssey across the American landscape.
Here on North Broad Street, in the soaring church once known as “the Cathedral of the North,” is where the first half of Irias’s story ended and the second half began.
Her story, which she told in Spanish, highlights Pope Francis’s call for the world to embrace migrants fleeing poverty, persecution and civil war.
Irias, the oldest of nine children, grew up in an impoverished family in Honduras. Looking for a better life, she hired a coyote, a people smuggler, and fled her native land when she was 22, leaving behind her first-born child, a boy.
Walking 16 hours a day
“We had to walk around 16 hours a day,” Irias recalled. “I was the only woman in the group, the rest were men.”
Irias’ group traveled through Central America and Mexico. The journey took its toll and by the time the group crossed into the United States, Irias collapsed from exhaustion. “The coyote wanted to leave me behind,” she said, “but the men in the group carried me all the way to Houston.”
Irias had no idea what to expect once she arrived in Houston. Members of the group went their separate ways, and she began working in a cantina. “I hated working there,” Irias said. “I had to work day and night there for four years.”
Soon, Irias met a Mexican immigrant who became her husband. She had two children by him. “He became abusive as soon as we got married,” Irias explained. “I regretted the decision.” After six months of marriage, her husband was deported to Mexico.
Irias moved to New York and lived with her aunt. “I only lived in New York for about a year,” she said. “We became acquainted with a man who told us if we needed any help, we should contact him.”
The son she left behind
Struggling to make ends meet, Irias took up the man’s offer and moved to Philadelphia where he found them a less expensive place to live. Through all the transitions, her mind remained fixed on one thing – the son she had left behind in Honduras.
“I felt like part of me was missing,” said Irias. “I may have had a hard childhood, but I always had my parents. I felt that I was depriving my son of not just an essential part of growing up but an essential part of being human, of being whole.”
Irias was at an impasse and the man she had befriended offered her a way out. He asked her to marry him to gain her citizenship papers, which would enable her to bring her son to Philadelphia. She reluctantly agreed.
“He was very good to me the first few months,” Irias recalled, “but then he grew increasingly abusive. He became more controlling and began taking away my small income on top of physically abusing me.”
Despite the abuse, Irias felt powerless to leave because she depended on her husband to help support her and her children. She became depressed. She feared she would be stuck with an abusive man for the rest of her life and would never see her son again.
“He took advantage of my ignorance,” said Irias,” I had nothing to look forward to until two people from Our Lady of Hope came to our home.”
Irias began attending church as a way to escape from her turbulent home life. The only thing that kept her going were her children and attending Our Lady of Hope.
“I became very involved in the church and my children attended school there. I never told anybody about my problems”, said Irias.
A year went by. Irias was still married, but the abuse continued.
The director of the Hispanic ministry at Our Lady of Hope, Vicky Santara, began to notice Irias’s disheartened disposition. “‘You always look so sad,’ she told me. Then I told her about my problems.”
With the assistance of the church and a Jewish family who paid all her legal expenses, Irias was able to get her citizenship papers without her husband’s assistance.
But what about the son she left behind in Honduras? In December 2001, 17 years after they parted, mother and son were reunited.
“When I left, he was a little boy,” Irias said. “Now he was a young man. In the beginning, things were a little rocky, but eventually we caught up and he forgave me for leaving him because he knew that I would come back for him and I did.”
Light from darkness
Irias believes that without Our Lady of Hope and her children, she would not have been able to survive her ordeal. “The church was a fundamental part of finding light in what I thought was a perpetual darkness,” she said.
Irias, who is now happily remarried, wanted to give her children all the possibilities that she did not have in Honduras.
Her oldest son graduated from La Salle University with a degree in finance. Her daughter now attends Texas Christian University. Her youngest, a son, is a sophomore at Haverford College.
“I just wanted to give them a simple, normal life,” Irias said.