Ignacia Gonzalez working with fabric

In the twelve years Ignacia Gonzalez has toiled in the United States she has had no experience like the one she is having now, she says, not even close.  This Mexican immigrant, impoverished and belittled as an “illegal,” is now doing something she never thought possible, sewing linen for a papal mass.

“All we want is an opportunity like this to demonstrate we want to work, that we want to give our children a better life,” she says, holding a bolt of white linen steady as she guides it under the thumping foot of a Brother sewing machine.  “It is a beautiful dream to make a tablecloth for the pope.”

Ms. Gonzalez and her husband came to New York intending to stay just long enough for her husband to earn money to finance his college degree back in Mexico.  Instead, her husband, once the top student in his class, now waits each day on a street corner, hoping to be chosen for construction work.  She, in turn, raises their three children while selling shoes door-to-door, earning  $5 per pair of shoes sold, $10 for boots, adding $50 to the family’s coffers on a good week.

Ms. Gonzalez’s seamstress skills come thanks to her participation in a women’s group served by Catholic Charities.  The group began meeting three years ago in the basement of St. Peter’s Church in Yonkers, a female version of Obreros Unidos, an organization Catholic Charities supports to help undocumented day laborers avoid exploitation.  At the women’s group,  Ms. Gonzalez and others grab a rare chance to speak with others who understand their challenges.  They also receive training in skills such as sewing to increase their chance of finding better paying jobs.

When Pope Francis asked to meet immigrants during his upcoming visit to New York City, Catholic Charities realized an opportunity to shine a light on these women’s trials and talents.   So Ms. Gonzalez and 17 fellow women’s group members are converting a bolt of linen into the alter cloth Pope Francis will use when he says mass at Madison Square Garden.  They are also transforming piles of cotton into tablecloths for his visit with her and fellow immigrants at a Catholic school in East Harlem on September 25. 

Thanks to this experience, Ms. Gonzalez sees a way out.  Already relatives pay her $5 to hem a dress or repair a pair of pants.  She hopes to take these skills and land a job as a seamstress at her local dry cleaners.

But for now, making the tablecloth for Papa Francisco is enough.

“He loves immigrants and he is trying to intervene for us,” she says, her daughters in their pressed polka-dot and aqua dresses coming over for a hug.  “I hope people will listen to him.”