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Darlene Ann Nicgorski

Human rights advocate, loving spouse

Darlene Ann Nicgorski, a former nun who was convicted of sheltering Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in a landmark trial, died in Pomona on February 28, 2017 at the age of 73.

“She lived her life to the fullest, filled with compassion for others and speaking out against injustice wherever and whenever it appeared,” her spouse Chris Blackburn said. Darlene and Chris moved to Pilgrim Place in 2013 and immediately loved both the retirement community and the city of Claremont.

Darlene was born to Clementine and John Nicgorski on November 19, 1943 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she attended Catholic elementary and high schools. She received her bachelor’s degree from Alverno College in Milwaukee and her Master of Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

In 1966 she became a nun in the School Sisters of St. Francis order, answering the call to “make a difference in the world.” Her first assignment was to start a childcare center in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She said that her experience working with the poor in rural Mississippi prepared her for her missionary work in rural Guatemala.

As the young nun was packing to go to Guatemala for her new missionary assignment, she heard the shocking news that four Catholic women missionaries from the United States, working in El Salvador, were raped and murdered. Undeterred, she still undertook the journey. In July 1981, a few months after her arrival in Guatemala, the village priest and his driver were assassinated by gunmen from the Guatemalan military. A villager warned Ms. Nicgorski and the other nuns that their names were on a list and their lives were also in danger. Ms. Nicgorski and the others made the treacherous journey out of Guatemala. While waiting for her future assignment, she continued to serve the refugees and the poor in the camps that sprung up in Honduras and on the Mexican border.

When she arrived back in the United States, she started working in Phoenix with various interfaith task forces to respond to the growing influx of Central Americans arriving at church doorsteps along the border.

Because of her own experiences in Guatemala, she knew why Guatemalans and Salvadorans were fleeing their countries. The Reagan Administration saw it differently. In January 1985, she and 15 other church workers were indicted by the federal government on 71 counts of transporting and harboring Central American refugees. During the course of the lengthy trial, it was revealed that the government paid informers to infiltrate Bible study classes and other religious events. The jury convicted six of the 11 people who stood trial. Darlene Ann Nicgorski was found guilty of conspiracy to violate US immigration laws and was sentenced to five years’ probation. She responded to the verdict by saying, “If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of living out the Gospel.” But even the heavy hand of the Justice Department could not stop the courageous advocate. During and after the trial, Dar spoke at churches, schools and other public events in more than 200 cities.

After the trial, Ms. Nicgorski left her religious order and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to begin a new chapter in her life. There she met her spouse of 29 years, Chris Blackburn. She became the chair of the city’s human rights commission. The couple proudly marched with the Cambridge LGBT group during many Boston Gay Pride Marches. In 1996, Ms. Nicgorski and Ms. Blackburn were honored by the Cambridge Peace Commission as Peace and Justice Awardees.

In 2001 the couple moved to North Carolina, where Ms. Nicgorski became a consultant for the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) and where she continued to speak out on behalf of refugees and immigrants, women’s equality and LGBT rights.

In 2008, Ms. Nicgorski and Ms. Blackburn were married in San Francisco. In 2013, they relocated to southern California. In 2015, Ms. Nicgorski was part of an interfaith delegation that visited Honduras and Guatemala to hear firsthand why people in these countries still risk everything to travel to the United States. On her return, she felt it was even more imperative to speak out on refugee and immigration issues and declared over and over again, “No human being is illegal! “Just weeks before she died, she was at a demonstration at the Ontario California International Airport challenging President Trump’s immigration ban.

Ms. Nicgorski’s courage and passionate commitment to social justice were honored by many organizations. Among her many awards were the 1987 Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year; the Union Medal from Union Theological Seminary 1987; the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award from the ACLU of Northern California; the Mayor’s Proclamation and Key to the City in Santa Cruz; and the Prophetic Figure Award from the Women’s Ordination Conference.  

She is survived by her loving spouse Chris Blackburn, her sister Virginia (Mark Caspersen) of Spotsylvania, Virginia; her brother Walter Nicgorski (Elaine) of South Bend, Indiana; eight nieces and nephews, and many great-nieces and nephews. She is also survived by her brother-in-law Dick Blackburn (Jill Ridky) and their daughter Jennifer. Ms. Nicgorski was predeceased by her brother John.

Darlene Ann Nicgorski’s papers are housed in the Special Collections section of the Honnold/ Mudd Library of the Claremont Colleges. A memorial service celebrating her life will be held on Saturday, April 29 at 3:30 p.m. at Pilgrim Place in Claremont.

To honor Ms. Nicgorski’s life, donations may be made in her memory to the fund for retirees who need assistance at Pilgrim Place, 625 Mayflower Rd., Claremont, CA 91711 (put “RHSP” on the memo line) or The Sanctuary Movement (CWS), 475 Riverside Dr., Suite 700, New York, New York 10115.

Donations in Darlene Nicgorski’s name may also be made to The Ms. Foundation for Women, Emily’s List, Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Lesbian Rights United We Dream Action and the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity.