ROME – In the latest sign of papal outreach to the transgender community, Pope Francis has written to an old friend in Argentina to say that he is praying for her and the women who will move into a new condo complex she built to help transgender women living in poverty.
Formally called the Costa Limay Sustainable complex for transgender women, the new building has 12 studio apartments and is part of a permanent housing solution for around a dozen transgender individuals between the ages of 40-70 who are currently in situations of poverty.
It was inaugurated last week in Neuquén, Argentina, by a Discalced Carmelite nun by the name of Mónica Astorga Cremona, who serves as the superior of her community in Neuquén.
Speaking to Argentine news agency Telam, Astorga Cremona, who has ties with Pope Francis going back to his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, said she received a letter from the pope backing the initiative.
According to the nun, she had written to the pope telling him about the inauguration of her new housing complex, and received a reply telling her that, “God who did not go to the seminary or study theology will repay you abundantly” for the work she has done.
In the brief response, Francis told her that he is praying for her and the transgender women she is assisting, adding, “Don’t forget to pray for me. May Jesus bless you and the Holy Virgin guide you.”
Born in Buenos Aires in 1967, Astorga Cremona, 53, lives in the cloistered monastery of Santa Cruz and San José de Neuquén, where for the past 14 years she has worked with transgender women, encouraging them to stop addiction and helping them to get out of prostitution by teaching them other trades.
After receiving her habit at the age of 20, she immediately went to work with young drug addicts and alcoholics, and for years has also ministered to prisoners in the area.
The new complex in Neuquén was built on land donated to Astorga Cremona’s monastery by the district and was funded by the local provincial government.
Many of the individuals who will now be living there had been prostitutes and had been living in situations of poverty, selling themselves to get by, however, with quarantines imposed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, those who were prostitutes have been unable to work.
Built by the Provincial Institute of Housing and Urban Development, the complex is located in Neuquén’s Confluencia neighborhood and was immediately handed over to the Order of Discalced Carmelites for administration.
An initiative of Astorga Cremona, who is often referred to as “the nun of the trans” due to her work with the transgender community, the project took roughly three years to complete.
It consists of a two-story building with six 430.5-square foot apartments on each level, as well as a multipurpose room, a large park to be used as a vegetable garden and space for recreation and parking. Each of the apartments also has a kitchen, a bathroom, heating and a hot water tank, as well as a balcony and a small internal patio.
In total, the complex cost around 27.6 million pesos to build, amounting to just under $380,000.
“This must serve as a kickoff,” Astorga Cremona told Telam, “because if a nun could make her dream a reality, then how much more can the government do!”
Astorga Cremona cut the ribbon to the new complex during an inauguration ceremony Monday, Aug. 10, alongside Neuquén governor Omar Gutiérrez and the city’s mayor, Mariano Gaido.
As part of the inauguration, Astorga Cremona accompanied each of the new tenants to their doorstep.
“They couldn’t even hold the key because of the crying,” she said, noting that one of the individuals told her the bathroom was bigger than the entire house where they used to live.
According to Astorga Cremona, the new condos are not “a refuge nor a trans home,” but they’re houses given as if they were a loan, “as if it were a rent, but without paying anything and without installments.”
Those who comply with the regulations, which are the same as any rental, are able to stay for life, however, those who disobey will be given three warnings before getting kicked out.
Four of the new tenants have moved in with their partners, however, Astorga Cremona insisted that if they die, their partners will be asked to leave, as the complex is specifically set aside for transgender individuals.
Without having to pay rent and with a food basket and a non-contributory pension, some of the tenants are able to get by without working during Argentina’s quarantine during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Others have begun making food, sweets, and preserves to sell while they wait to resume their jobs in different professions, such as hairdressing, or caring for the elderly.
Pope Francis’s letter to Astorga Cremona is not the first time the two have corresponded. They have history dating back to Francis’s time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he would visit her while traveling to Neuquén.
“He never opposed what I do, and for me it is a great support,” she said, recalling one visit from then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 2009 in which he told her not to abandon her “border work, which the Lord gave you,” and to contact him if she were ever in need.
The word “border,” she said, has a lot of meaning in the Catholic Church, particularly when it implies working with people who have been “discarded” by society, and “with whom few want to get involved.”
According to a 2017 census, transgender people in Neuquén have a life expectancy of around 45, with only five percent making it to 56 or older.
Since his election to the papacy in 2013, the two have stayed in touch. Astorga Cremona said that when the pope responds, she usually receives an email with a picture of his hand-written letter, as Francis does not personally use a computer.
In a letter received from Francis in 2017, the pope had told Astorga Cremona that he was praying for her and her convent, and on another occasion, he wrote expressing opposition to discrimination against transgender individuals, saying, “at the time of Jesus, lepers were discarded like this.”
“Sometimes I ask him how to do it when they say ugly things to me,” she said, noting that Francis repeatedly tells her not to stop praying and to continue with her work, and assures her that he is accompanying her.
This is not the first time the pope has offered personal or material support to a transgender community.
In May, through the intervention of the papal almoner, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, a group of transgender prostitutes in Rome became the beneficiaries of the pope’s charity as Italy suffered though its own strict coronavirus quarantine.
It was Father Andrea Conocchia, pastor of the Beata Vergine Immacolata church in Torvaianica, about 45 minutes southwest of Rome, who put the group of around 20 people in touch with Krajewski when they came knocking on the parish door asking for help.
Krajewski, who oversees the pope’s charity funds and who throughout the coronavirus outbreak drove around Rome handing out food and medical supplies to the poor, sent them enough money to cover their rent and bills until the nationwide lockdown ends.
Speaking to Crux at the time, Krajewski said, “This is also the face of the Church.” He stressed the need to think outside the box, because “our Church is not only for the faithful. Jesus washed the feet of everyone. This is the Gospel, it’s enough to read it to find answers of how to help.”
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