Refugee activist Cerniglia, 90, dies

Elise Cerniglia
Elise Cerniglia

NEW ORLEANS — Elise Cerniglia, who for over four decades worked to provide homes and new lives in the New Orleans area for tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees, died Thursday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 90.

From Cubans, Vietnamese and Nicaraguans to Russians and Romanians, Cerniglia helped immigrants find housing, jobs, education and citizenship in New Orleans. An accredited representative, Cerniglia also provided legal representation for immigrants in court and was a founder the Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugees Services. She also started a bilingual preschool.

Born in New Orleans to a chemist who moved his family to Cuba to work in a sugar refinery, Cerniglia spent her childhood in Cuba.

When she returned to the United States, she began helping Cuban children, whom she called her “angelitos,” followed later by their families, to settle and build lives in New Orleans.

Following the Vietnam War, Cerniglia helped to bring Vietnamese refugees to the area and initially played a key part in securing housing for thousands, with the first three months rent paid, in eastern New Orleans. Cerniglia was involved in assisting with the immigration of more than 20,000 Cuban and more than 40,000 Vietnamese refugees.

“She knew what it was like to be from another country,” granddaughter Kristine Cerniglia said. “And she understood oppression.”

Kristine Cerniglia said that even when her grandmother could barely see due to macular degeneration, she was still working on cases, continuing to go into court with her seeing eye dog, Ms. Boots, even after she retired from Catholic Charities at the age of 80.

“I like to think that God was thanking her for all her good work and good deeds by taking her on Thanksgiving Day,” Kristine Cerniglia said. “She is a good reminder to her children and grandchildren about what the world needs.”

Cerniglia is survived by six children, 17 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

A visitation will be Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Home at 3827 Canal St. A Mass will be held at noon Wednesday at Holy Name of Jesus Church at 6367 St. Charles Ave.