With support from Pope Francis, a nun helping Trans women in Argentina is refusing to back down in the face of criticism of her ministry.
– “There’s no reason for me to oblige them to return to their biological identity”
Sister Mónica Astorga Cremona spoke to Valores Religiosos to say that she “respects the choice of the self-perceived identity” of the Trans women she has been accompanying since 2006 in the city of Neuquén.
“It’s not for me to judge. Jesus asks me to care for people just as they identify themselves, asking for help. There’s no reason for me to oblige them to return to their biological identity”, explained the Discalced Carmelite.
Sister Mónica once dedicated her ministry to young people with addictions who ended up in the prison system.
That was until one day a Trans woman came to Sister’s convent to make a donation with money from the “only work we can do” – prostitution.
That day the nun spoke with that woman for two hours, and when the conversation was over she encouraged her to return to the convent with her companions.
Four more Trans women later came to visit Sister Mónica’s convent, and one spoke words that went on to haunt the nun when she explained that her dream was to have a clean bed where she could die because “when I go out on the street I don’t know if I’ll come back or end up in a hospital”.
Sister Mónica devoted years to accompanying the Trans women of Neuquén, encouraging them to stop using drugs and helping them out of the vicious cycle of sex work. But she couldn’t stop thinking about their dream of just having a clean bed.
In 2017 the Carmelite religious managed to get local government to donate a piece of land “for the exclusive use of Trans people”, which later materialised into a promise to build them public housing on the plot.
Finally the new housing complex for Trans women in Neuquén was inaugurated last month, complete with a message of encouragement from Pope Francis.
“Dear Mónica, God – who did not go to the seminary or study theology – will reward you abundantly. I pray for you and your girls. Don’t forget to pray for me. May Jesus bless you and the Holy Virgin take care of you. Fraternally, Francis”, the pontiff wrote to Sister.
– “If this project works, it will enlighten us to do this type of thing for other vulnerable groups”
Already in 2009, when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and visited Neuquén, Jorge Bergoglio encouraged Sister Mónica in the face of the misunderstandings she was suffering: “Don’t abandon this frontier work that the Lord has given you and, for whatever you need, you can count on me”.
Speaking to Valores Religiosos, the nun explained that “the term ‘frontier’ in the Church has a lot of meaning because it implies working with people ‘discarded’ by society, with whom few want to get involved”.
The new home in Neuquén consists of twelve apartments for vulnerable women Trans women, who in Argentina have an average life expectancy of just 45.
Each apartment is 40 square metres in size and comes equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, heating and hot water, and on site there is also a common multipurpose room and land for a vegetable garden and recreation.
“There are people who are waiting for this place to fail because they think it’s crazy to gather together twelve Trans people; that there will be drugs and prostitution and it won’t be possible to control it. They think they are people who can’t get on in life”, Sister Mónica denounced.
The nun added that people in the Church, particularly, think it would be better to spend the time, money and effort on single mothers or the disabled. “But if this project works, it will enlighten us to do this type of thing for other vulnerable groups”, Sister Mónica explained.
The religious isn’t cowering in the face of the opposition to her project, insisting that she gets her strength “from prayer, from my community and from the formation they gave me”.
Judging by the testimony of one of the new residents in the Neuquén home, Sister Mónica’s prayers and efforts are paying off:
“I am very happy, very grateful to God and to Sister Mónica who was so kind to us. We must build a monument to that nun; she’s in everything. She was attacked so much! But with God’s strength she continues to pull for us”.