“I Know How It Felt to Be a Newcomer:” An Irish Immigrant Leads Catholic Charities Boston’s HOPE Welcome Circle
Having grown up in a large, deeply religious family on a small farm in south-west Ireland, Joan Horgan, who coordinates Charities Boston’s HOPE Welcome Circle, said she has been supporting immigrants in Ireland and America for as long as she can remember. Joan said her commitment to helping immigrants is embedded into her family’s personal, religious and national identity.
“Every night we prayed the family Rosary kneeling on the cement floor. The last prayer was always for immigrants. I had a deep consciousness that many of my relatives were no longer in Ireland, and many young people, including some of my siblings, were emigrating because the Irish economy was not able to support them,” said Joan.
Bringing her family history and her expertise in trauma intervention to her volunteer work with Catholic Charities Boston’s refugee clients, many of whom have escaped war and other unimaginable and traumatic circumstances, Joan offers a listening, non-judgmental presence to every refugee she meets, letting them share their stories in their own time. She and the HOPE Welcome Circle members help them to secure apartments, provide furniture and other basic needs, and assist them with employment, medical care, English language, education, and other community integration opportunities.
“Meeting Ukrainian and other refugees in person is a humbling experience. It is one thing to learn about the war in Ukraine and other countries in news reports, but it is a whole different experience to meet those who have left everything and frequently lost almost everything in an effort to survive and begin a new life in a strange country, frequently without knowing the language of the country in which they are resettled,” said Joan. “They are our sisters and brothers in the human family, and they deserve our respect, compassion, and assistance.”
One Ukrainian client, Nazar M., fled to Boston with his wife and young daughter seven months after Russia’s invasion. He credits Joan and the other members of the HOPE Welcome Circle for changing their lives. Nazar is now a member of the Hope Welcome Circle as he wants to help other newly arriving families – “Paying Forward” what he has received. “We have a very warm relationship with everyone in the Welcome Circle,” he said. “Joan has helped us a lot. I tell her if you ever need help with anything, we will be there for you because you’ve helped my family so much.”
In her early twenties, Joan made the trek from Ireland to the United States as a Missionary Sisters of St. Columban, serving as a teacher in a predominantly Mexican Catholic school in California. “I experienced personally how it felt to be a newcomer to America, how strange it felt, how much I wanted to fit in socially. I felt isolated when people focused more on how different I was – how I spoke, my Irish accent, all the assumptions they made about who they expected me to be,” she said.
She later moved to Boston and became self-supporting. Amid the challenges of this transition, Joan harnessed every opportunity to grow and advance socially and economically, earning a Bachelor’s in Business Administration degree from Boston College and a Master’s in Computer Science degree from Boston University, while working full-time.
“I worked in information and communications technology for a number of years, but eventually that desire to be involved in church ministry came back to me,” she said.
To prepare for this new “detour” in her life, while she continued working, Joan went on to earn a Master in Divinity degree, followed by a Master in Theology degree at Weston Jesuit School of Theology. She also earned certification as a Catholic Chaplain during this time. She began working as an Interfaith Chaplain as she continued her education in Ministry at Andover Newton Theological School, earning a Doctorate in Ministry degree at age 64.
Joan worked at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital as Spiritual Care Director for almost twenty years, meeting with many trauma patients, including victims of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Joan completed many courses in trauma intervention. In her role as Interfaith Chaplain, she worked on a local trauma intervention team after 9/11, travelling to New York City to provide spiritual and emotional support to emergency service personnel. In 2008, she served as an Interfaith Chaplain with an American Red Cross emergency response team which was deployed to Louisiana following Hurricane Gustav. For a number of years, she served with a local emergency response team for emergency service personnel.
“My family always jokes and say, ‘Now, what is Joan going to do next?’” she said.
Of all the work she has done, when asked what she finds most rewarding about coordinating a Welcome Circle, Joan’s reply was simple but poignant. “I know that I am living out the most important aspect of my Catholic faith: to love and serve others as Jesus did.”