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Puerto Rico Profile: Sr. Isolina Ferre

January 14, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Over the last century, the people of Puerto Rican have made great contributions to life in the United States. They have been soldiers in times of war, and politicians in times of peace. They are musicians, athletes, and actors; doctors, lawyers, and engineers. They have enriched the culture, defended the values, and fulfilled the aspirations of the United States.

Yet perhaps no Puerto Rican has offered so great a spiritual gift to the United States as Sister Isolina Ferre. In her 85 years, Sister Isolina has worked among the poor on her native island and throughout the United States. She has been a model not only of selflessness and charity, but also of immense courage and ingenuity. She has provided the poor with inspiration, hope, and the promise of peace and prosperity, inspiring one writer to call her the "Mother Teresa of Puerto Rico."

Isolina Ferre belongs to one of the most wealthy and influential families in Puerto Rico. Her brother, Luis A. Ferre, is a well-known former governor of Puerto Rico and the founder of the New Progressive Party. Her nephews include the president and editor of the newspaper El Nueva Dia, the president of Puerto Rico Cement, and the former mayor of Miami.

Sister Isolina knew early in her life, however, that she did not want to be rich and powerful. She therefore decided to devote her life to God and those less fortunate than herself. When she was only 21, she went to Philadelphia to join the Sisters of the Blessed Trinity.

Over the next 30 years, Sister Isolina labored tirelessly to improve the situation of the desperately poor of the United States. She worked with Appalachian coal miners in West Virginia, with Portuguese immigrants in Massachusetts, and with inner city youth in Brooklyn.

Service to the poor and powerless often goes unrecognized, but Sister Isolina's success made her contributions impossible to ignore. In New York, she became famous for her work at the Doctor White Community Center in the late 1950s and '60s. There she was able to mediate between warring African American and Puerto Rican gangs, teaching them to resolve disputes without violence.

In 1969, Sister Isolina returned to Puerto Rico, ostensibly to retire. Her work, however, was only beginning. Confronted with the poverty in her native Ponce, Sister Isolina developed a network of community action centers in impoverished neighborhoods. Her strategy was to provide the people of Ponce with the tools to create a future for themselves.

One of the most important of these tools is self esteem. Sister Isolina understood how poverty robs people of their dignity, and she realized the need to instill in them a strong sense of self worth. She began by handing out cameras. This innovative program taught photography to children in Ponce in order to show them the importance of their individual visions of the world.

From these simple beginnings, Sister Isolina has established an entire network of facilities to empower the poor. Today there are five Centros Sor Isolina Ferre in Puerto Rico. The centers provide high school equivalency education and job training, as well as programs dedicated to strengthening families and stopping juvenile delinquency. With 350 employees and a combination of public and private funding, the Centros Sor Isolina Ferre help 10,000 people every year. As for the photography program, it has entered the digital age. Now students are taught to use high tech cameras to take photos that are developed and manipulated on computers.

In recent years, Sister Isolina Ferre has been recognized for her lifetime of work for the poor. In 1989, she received the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism. Last August, Sister Isolina was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She became the fourth Puerto Rican to receive this distinction, which is the nation's highest civilian honor. The other three Puerto Rican recipients were Luis Muñoz Marín, Antonia Pantoja, and Sister Isolina's brother, Luis A. Ferre.

During the Medal of Freedom presentation ceremony in August, President Clinton stressed the importance of those who strive "to improve the human condition, to deepen the reach of freedom, to widen the circle of opportunity, to strengthen the bonds of our national community." The First Lady added that the individuals being honored had "helped fulfill America's promise by reaching out to the marginalized and the powerless, including our youngest citizens, and lifting them up to recognize their own gifts and abilities."

Presenting Sister Isolina with her Medal of Freedom, the President remarked, "Sister Isolina once said that a community grows only when it rediscovers itself. On behalf of the many communities you have helped to make that wonderful discovery, a grateful nation say thank you." Sister Isolina reacted with characteristic humility and grace. "I thank God for the honor," she said, "not only for me, but for all those who work with me and for the community."