Twice a day, four days a week, the basement of the Incarnation of Our Lord Roman Catholic Church on North Fifth Street might be mistaken for a kind of United Nations.
But instead of governance halls, the attendees are sitting in classrooms. Instead of talking politics, they’re trying to talk in English. From Haiti to Honduras, from Ethiopia to Sierra Leone, hundreds of immigrants gather to learn English and improve their lives in America.
The Immaculate Heart of Mary Literacy Center is run by Catholic nuns to battle illiteracy among the region’s transplants. The nuns see a clear connection between people’s ability to read and speak English and their ability to attain citizenship and a well-paying job. For the past 20 years, the nuns have spent every day working to change the lives of Philadelphia’s immigrant community one class at a time.
And there certainly is an audience for what they do. When the factories closed and the population of Philadelphia began to fall, an influx of immigrants has moved in to fill the gap and is continually making up a larger percentage of the population. According to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey, over 50 percent of immigrants and 150,000 Philadelphians cannot speak English well. Since a previous survey was taken in 2003 the immigrant population has risen by 4.5 percent despite an overall city population rising only 1.7 percent in that time.
Since opening its doors in 1989, the IHM Center has been struggling to keep up with local demand. This year it registered 336 students and had to turn away more, all without advertising the program. Sister Mary Regina Schuyler, who serves as director of the program, said that people come to them by word of mouth alone.
“This year I didn’t do anything, not even a church bulletin,” she said. “It’s all word of mouth, they tell each other.”
Part of what drives in students may be the center’s “no questions asked” approach to citizenship. Schuyler said that students are never asked how they got to the country and what their naturalization status is. This fills a gap, she said, because in order to attend formal schooling immigrants need to become citizens, and finishing the naturalization process requires some knowledge of English.
While there is no way of knowing, she suspects that many of them may not be legal.
“Philadelphia has become a destination place for immigrants,” she said. “We’re not doing anything wrong. It’s all fine with the [Mayor’s Commission on Literacy] what we do.”
The MCOL was created in 1983 as a city-wide attempt to increase the literacy rate. Although the courses at the IHM Center predate the commission, according to Schuyler, it was able to formalize its program and fit under the MCOL’s umbrella. As a policy, the MCOL doesn’t require literacy classes to check citizenship status.
According to Schuyler, the IHM Center has its roots in a nearby church–St. Veronica’s-–when classes started in 1975. A nun there was teaching an elementary school class at the largely Hispanic church when she realized that none of the children’s parents spoke English. She took 100 of them in for a night class, and the program only expanded from there.
In order to sign up for the courses, students must be at least 18 and not natives, meaning that they must have grown up in another country.
“When I taught them ‘plane’ I said, ‘Has anybody here been on a plane?’ and every hand in the room went up,” said Sister Mary Dolores Jean, a teacher at the IHM Center. “When they first come in they look terrified. They look around at everything and it’s so strange. As the class goes on–by the end of the class–they feel comfortable and they’re smiling…. Some never had schooling in their home countries, so you’re teaching them reading and writing for the first time, so they need a lot of help.
Although classes are taught only in English, Jean said that students are able to help each other understand what’s being said and that it helps them bond with each other.
“They’re good with one another; they try to help one another. If somebody is struggling and they finally get it, the others cheer for them and they’ll clap and give them a hug or something. At the end of the year they’re exchanging phone numbers and I say to myself, ‘How are they ever going to call one another?’ Just say ‘Nice to meet you! Nice to meet you too!’? But they get very close.”
The IHM students’ backgrounds cover much of the globe, with 38 countries represented. Almost half of the students, however, come from Haiti. Olney, in particular, has seen a massive influx of Haitians over the past several decades.
Jean-Baptiste first stepped into the IHM Center in 1990 and graduated five years later able to speak English. Over the next six years, he went on to earn his GED and graduate from college. After that he decided to return to the IHM Center and pass on what he had gained.
“I figured I would come back here to help people who came here like me when I was just coming here. I’m glad to help the people – most of them are Haitian. They speak the same language with me. It’s not Haitian only, but all the immigrants coming here. I’m working with them–Spanish, whatever language –they come here, I’ll help them,” he said.
Both Schuyler and Jean-Baptiste agreed that learning to speak, read and write English is crucial to progressing as a person and building a life in America.
“They learn enough to communicate in stores, businesses, at work, with their children’s teachers,” said Schuyler. “The more they learn the more they can mesh their lives with this country.”
“It’s very, very important [to learn English] because we can make progress–we can see that. When they come here, some of them don’t even know how to speak, how to talk, and then now after a couple months they’re progressing,” said Jean-Baptiste. “We can see that [it helps them]. Some of them go for citizenship and pass; some of them get drivers licenses and apply for a job. That’s how we know that the language we’re teaching here helps them.