From Ballymun to Boston
This week Sr Lena Deevy was given the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad
Sr Lena Deevy, the Boston-based champion of undocumented immigrants – she isn’t keen on the word “illegal” – is walking through a Dublin park and reflecting on the award she received this week from President Higgins.
“I’m a mixture of very excited and humbled. You do the work you do because it’s important work; you don’t do it to get awards. But it is great affirmation of what my organisation is doing in Boston, and it’s also a way to let other people know how important the work is. It’s like an endorsement. I never thought a day like that would come.”
On Thursday the 69-year-old was among 10 people to receive the new Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad, which for the first time formally recognises the Irish diaspora for services to their community. In his citation President Michael D Higgins spoke of Deevy’s work as being made up of “small acts of kindness, unseen but with profound effect. As well as being a highly effective advocate for justice she represents all of the unsung heroes without whom many of the lives of our fellow countrymen and -women would be a far bleaker place.”
Deevy says that since she was a young girl, growing up in Co Laois on her father’s farm, in Crettyard, she has been inspired to help people in difficult circumstances that she came across in her community.
“I grew up in a staunchly religious house, and the Christian message I’ve always followed is, act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly . . . Jesus came to serve and not to lay heavy burdens on people. I believe in allowing and empowering people to be the best human beings they can be.”
As a younger woman she studied nursing in north Wales, returning home to be a midwife at the National Maternity Hospital, on Holles Street in Dublin, but even though she had a strong religious vocation she knew she didn’t want to work in a hospital or a school or an institution. Instead she chose to join the Little Sisters of the Assumption and went to work in Ballymun, in Dublin, establishing home-help services and training localpeople to develop their skills.
She remained there through the 1970s and 1980s. Was it grim?
“To outsiders it was a grim place. People would ask me, ‘What are you doing there?’ but why wouldn’t I be there? What they didn’t see were these amazing people. It was the place in my life where I’ve felt most at home, the most comfortable. I have had struggles in my life, and I have an affinity with people who are struggling.”
After 20 years she left Ballymun for Harvard, where she was accepted, largely on her experiences working with the disadvantaged in Dublin, on a master’s course at the Ivy League college’s school of education. It was near the end of this course that she began researching the 30,000-strong undocumented-Irish community in Boston, which led to her helping establish the Irish International Immigration Centre. In 1990 she became the first executive director of the organisation.
She is passionate about the need to support undocumented immigrants. In addition to providing the services they need – ranging from drug counselling to legal advice and childcare – she campaigns for legislative reform. She believes immigrants keep the United States “democratic, compassionate and visionary”, and is well used to rebutting the arguments of those who say illegal immigrants don’t deserve sympathy, as they are the architects of their own difficult situation.