When community leaders in Ottumwa petitioned the City Council that a street be named after one of its most visible citizens, it came as no surprise to anyone. In June of this year, Sister Irene Muñoz announced that she will be stepping down in her position of Pastoral Minister, Multicultural at St. Mary’s Catholic Church after serving the communities for more than 65 years. And on Sunday, July 31, the community of Ottumwa came together to celebrate her retirement and a lifetime of her commitment to social justice.
Although most people know Madre Irene (as she is known in the Latino community) as a leader in the community in welcoming immigrants to Ottumwa and helping address their basic and faith needs, people around the state know Sister Irene for the invaluable work that she did on behalf of the migrant workers in Muscatine in the ’60s.
Madre Irene pursued the path of a nurse, a nun, and an outspoken advocate for human rights. She started her social justice service in Muscatine advocating for the rights of the farm workers and their families. As a native Iowan of Hispanic descent, she understood the difficulties the migrants faced. She fought to establish basic standards for migrant housing when she saw farmers converting chicken coops or hog sheds to migrant camps. She remembers a farmer once told her “What is a nun doing here, you’re supposed to be in church praying?”
Madre Irene lobbied at the Iowa Legislature for reform of the Iowa child labor law, which until the 1960s excluded the children of migrant workers from its provisions. She fought for the children to be in school during the summer and not working in the fields. Madre Irene empowered migrant farm workers to get involved, taught them how to navigate the system, and encouraged them to participate in the most fundamental expression of those rights-the right to vote. Madre Irene quoted “Of course, I was scared, but I didn’t want my people to suffer”
When she moved to Ottumwa in 1999, she continued to help new immigrants. Madre Irene has inspired many to become more involved in the community, reach out to those who are not as privileged, and share talents to make a positive change in the community.
Madre Irene is a founding member of the Midwest Council of La Raza in Muscatine as well as a founding member of Ottumwa’s LULAC Council, the largest and oldest Latino civil rights organization in the United States. Madre Irene was a member of the Human Rights Commission in Ottumwa and was recognized by U.S.A. Today in 2020 as one of 10 Women of the Century from the State of Iowa. Madre Irene is a recipient of the Barbara Boatwright Lifetime Achievement Award and was mentioned by Katy Swalwell in her book “Amazing Iowa Women”.
“I doubt that there is an Ottumwan that is better known around the state than Sister Irene, she represents everything that our community stands for: a welcoming community that is inclusive at its core and a place that you can call home no matter how long you have lived here” Mayor Johnson said about Sister Irene.
The naming of a street in her honor was approved by the city of Ottumwa and a plaque is expected to be placed soon.