SCL: 150 years of solidarity with the poor

By Heather McNeill

The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth had much to overcome in those early years. They made a long difficult journey from Nashville, Tenn. to the frontier lands of Kansas—no easy trip in the mid-nineteenth century—and begged to gain support for their order.  Some didn’t want to support the sisters because they had settled in Kansas, a dangerous place rife with struggle back then.  Yet, the sisters made a home there and, fittingly, in what would become that free state, they found a place to continue their works of charity for the poor.

This year, to commemorate their 150th anniversary, the sisters are reflecting on the journey that changed the course of their order’s history.  Through celebration, study, and prayer, they are remembering the sacrifices of their predecessors and adapting the lessons of their lives to their own service to the poor in a much different world.

“[Our history] is really the true expression of our charism for the poor,” Sr. Peter Parry says. “Unless we can build on that history—there’s really no future for us, so it’s really important to keep that history alive…it’s really important to know where we came from and that will help us to know where we are going perhaps.”

Since their founding, the sisters have continued their fundamental mission of caring for poor.   Over the years, however, with sisters in many states and Peru, their cause has become global, and their concerns have turned from the basic problem of feeding and sheltering the poor to addressing the complex systems contributing to poverty.

“The situations that made people poor became much more apparent, so the works of charity also took on a dimension of justice.” Sr. Marie de Paul says. “You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘you can give a man a fish, or you can teach a man to fish’— change the system in other words.  Another example is, if you see a baby floating downstream, you rescue the baby, if the babies keep coming then somebody will surely go upstream and find out why.”

In 1987, the order’s leadership responded to the changing demands of this globalized world by creating the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth’s Social Justice Executive Committee.  The sisters appointed Sr. de Paul to head the committee, who served as coordinator for about 15 years and now assists the current coordinator, Sr. Therese Bangert, in organizing partnerships with other groups and individuals as well as leading advocacy and education efforts.

The committee has focused the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth’s energies in many different areas, bringing the community together to advocate for the poor and effect change.  In the late 1980s, one of the committee’s first major projects was to create a corporate stand against the death penalty, which brought different congregations together and solidified the community’s commitment to the issue.  In the year 2000, the committee led the sisters in the global debt forgiveness effort which helped relieve the heavy burden of debt in many countries that largely fell on poor people. Currently, the group is concentrating on issues in three major areas: peace and nonviolence; poverty affecting women and children; and earth and environmental issues, which are contributing significantly and rapidly to poverty.

The sisters are also addressing concerns that resonate locally as well.  For example, the group and its partners have met with Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius on immigration issues. They have also fought against agricultural subsidies, a concern affecting many people in the Midwest.

The committee has inspired the sisters to respond to issues in many ways, including writing letters, e-mails, and visiting government representatives, composing reflections and prayers on issues, and taking corporate stands to educate their members and the public.  As a member of the Sisters of Charity Federation, which has non-governmental organization (NGO) status and a full-time representative at the United Nations (U.N.), the sisters are able to communicate their views on peace and justice issues in an international forum.  In turn, the federation sends out information to the member groups to educate and inspire action.

“You have to try to discern how much energy you have, where it can go,” Sr. de Paul says, “like I just sent out a prayer on human trafficking, the Sisters of Charity Federation leadership has been working on that—we haven’t done a lot…Our NGO at the U.N. sent the monthly alert out, so all of the groups would try to act on that.”

Over the years, the sisters have effected dramatic change because of their determination. In the 1980s, they succeeded in getting through to the United States government to help their sisters in Peru who were threatened and bombed during a struggle between guerillas and the Peruvian government.

“I think we did save some lives that time,” Sr. de Paul says.

Other times, their impact is more difficult to measure, but the sisters sense a growing awareness about issues in the community that is promising. “I think that grassroots awareness has increased a lot,” Sr. Parry says. “That’s where it has to start: individuals having conversations with their families, their parishioners, or whatever. I think that’s really important, and I don’t think you can do it without a grassroots foundation, and someone has to start it up.”

Still, when asked whether they’ve been “effective” in their work, Sr. de Paul shakes her head. “You don’t do it because you’re going to be successful, you do it because it’s the right thing to do it.  The Church, the Gospel, God, the Holy Spirit call you to do it.  You can’t not do it,” Sr. de Paul says.  She paraphrases the response Daniel Berrigan gave when the Jesuit priest and activist was questioned whether he would have been more effective if he had not participated in the civil disobedience that put him in prison. “I never thought I’d have to be effective.  God is not effective.  God doesn’t make things happen.  God doesn’t change…’”

In this year’s Jubilee celebration, with the theme of “from founding to future in gratitude and joy,” the sisters are recognizing the spirit of selfless charity in their order, and find history important both as a map of where they have been and as a compass for their future.  Like those sisters long ago who begged for support, today’s sisters, who are confronting the immense and global problems of the poor, can take comfort in a teaching of their foundress Mother Xavier Ross, which is engraved on a statue of the mother at the sisters’ home base in Leavenworth.  The statue shows the mother seated with a book in her hand.  Written on the book’s pages is a statement that speaks to the optimism and hope that has helped the order survive these 150 years through adversity: “Look forward to the good that is yet to be.”

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