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Let peace and justice flow: SSND living peace and nonviolence

By Sisters Paul Mary Draxler and Lois Martens
SSND at Fort Benning

Peace and nonviolence consist of creating right relationships. Right relationships create justice and peace. Our foundress, Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger began her School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) community in Bavaria, Germany, during a time of social upheaval. Her vision was to have sisters live in small communities while educating girls and women who would then go on the form families. Such families are the foundation of a stable society. In the United States, SSND began serving primarily German immigrants. Mother Caroline Fries, who led the growth and expansion of SSND in North America, insisted that “what cannot be achieved by kindness is unattainable ...."

Jesus' words, “That all be one…" are foundational to the SSND mission. At the end of World War II, Mother Fidelis, Mother Commissary General in Milwaukee, wrote to the SSND in Germany, “Even if the whole world lets you down, we will remain faithful to you." SSND in the United States then sent care packages containing staples of flour, sugar, coffee, medicines, towels, sewing materials, etc. at regular intervals to the SSND for themselves and for the people of Germany.

Here in the United States, as the decades passed, School Sisters of Notre Dame recognized that the call to unity required them to stand for the rights of the African American students, whom they taught, and for all who were marginalized by our society.

In 1947, Sister Marie LeClerc Laux began her teaching ministry in Saint Boniface School in Milwaukee, where only one of 800 students was black. When she left eighteen years later, only one of the students was white. Within this short span, Sister Marie LeClerc organized the curriculum to reflect the changing culture. She also accompanied her students' families in their march for fair housing.

Sister Sylvia Hecht began the organization Shade Tree in the inner city of Milwaukee, enabling women to strengthen family life and to escape poverty, drugs and abuse.

Siste Margaret Ellen Traxler speaking at a rally. Black and white image.

Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, and in Chicago in the 1970s, she co-founded the Institute of Women Today, now renamed Margaret's Village in her honor. This organization continues to offer services and provides homes to women leaving the prison system, abused women and children and older homeless women.

In 1989, SSND associate Rita Schonhoff, supported by members of her rural community, founded Whole Health Outreach, an ecumenical program to address the needs of the poor in rural southern Missouri. This program includes Casa Guadalupe Family Growth Center, which is a shelter for abused and homeless women and children, outreach health services to the elderly and emergency funds for the needy. Whole Kids Outreach, an outgrowth of Whole Health Outreach, was designed and created by Sister Anne Francioni and her co-worker, Stephanie Morgan. Sister Anne is currently the executive director.

Sister Alice Zachmann founded and directed the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA for 20 years and then for 10 years joined the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Center, a center for victims of torture from around the world who come to the United States seeking asylum and escaping violence in their countries. She supported the victims in overcoming their trauma, finding housing and procuring legal help. For her work, Sister Alice was recognized nationally as one of the “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence" by the National Women's History Project and the National Women's History Alliance.

Sisters Lucy Nigh and Judy Bourg have just completed more than 10 years of walking with and serving the needs of the refugees who cross the border in Douglas, Arizona. They have been collaborating with the Tucson Samaritans and Frontera de Cristo and have walked the 75-mile Migrant Trail in the desert to commemorate those refugees who died in the desert.

Other peacemakers include Sister Cynthia Brinkman, who, in 2004, spent six months in the federal prison in Pekin, Illinois, because of her act of peaceful, civil disobedience when she crossed onto the military base at Fort Benning, Georgia. This U.S. military base is one of many around the world, funded by U.S. taxpayers’ money, where military from other countries are trained in methods of violence, torture, repression and war, which has been documented to be used frequently on the civilians in their own countries. A number of other SSND and associates joined yearly in the protests outside Fort Benning, traveling from the areas of Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, and Mankato, Minnesota. Learn more about Sister Cynthia's experiences in the new book, Into the Fire: One Woman's Journey from Civil Rights Advocate to Social Justice Activist.

Sisters Judith Kamada, Christine Hata and other Japanese SSND were strong advocates in supporting the creation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and in working against amending Article nine of the Constitution of Japan which allows the Japanese government to massively expand the military of Japan. Although they are aging, many of our Japanese SSND were young during and after World War II and now share those experiences and the lessons learned with younger people. “Learn,” “Pray” and “Share” are actions they continue in their aging. Supporting and learning from the Japanese nongovernmental organization Peace Boat, which is a very active part of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), is a strong focus. Continuing to hope and to not give up is most important to creating peace.

Sisters Joelle Marie Aflague and Marie Regine Redig on the Golden Rule boat

My (Sister Paul Mary Draxler) own interest in nonviolent solutions stems from my 10 years of living in the Marshall Islands. Decades before my arrival, from 1946 to 1958, the U.S. military conducted 67 nuclear tests on and over the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak. This bombing was effectively stopped by the adverse publicity of the Golden Rule Peace Boat’s attempt to stop the testing in the Marshalls. The crew of this small ship had been arrested in Hawaii for this action. Years later, the organization, Veterans For Peace continues the effort to eliminate nuclear weapons. SSND joins with them in this cause, even joining them recently in Milwaukee when they docked there.

A few of the early SSND voices promoting peace and nonviolence toward Earth are Sister Dorothy Olinger, an early educator raising awareness of the new universe story; Sisters Kathleen Storms and Mary Tacheny, created what is now the Living Earth Center on the former SSND Mankato, Minnesota, property; Sister Suzanne Moynihan and others established Sunseed in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin; and Sister Maxine Pohlman, directed the Oblate La Vista Learning Center in Godfrey, Illinois. Today, all SSND around the world are united in peace and nonviolent action toward Earth through our Laudato Si' Action Platform.

Through all the years, SSND schools continue to educate elementary through university students, “enabling them to reach the fullness of their potential as individuals created in God's image and assisting them to direct their gifts toward building the earth” (You Are Sent C 22). Enabling the fullness of potential as individuals enables the fullness of potential of families, the foundation of stable societies. Curricular and extracurricular activities reflect the changing times. Courses in peace studies and extracurricular activities such as Shalom clubs in the United States, Japan, Guam, Africa, and other countries contribute to such an education.

In April 2016, a Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International, was attended by Sister Ann Scholz, who represented SSND. The conference affirmed the vision and practice of active nonviolence, of healing and reconciling both people and the planet. After the conference, the Central Pacific Province formulated and adopted our Corporate Stance of Gospel Nonviolence and Just Peace. In it we commit to maintaining inner peace; maintaining right relationships with our neighbors near and far; respecting our interdependency with all creation; and advocating for the use of diplomacy and dialogue to abolish war and nuclear weapons.

SSND internationality itself speaks to unity, to right relationships, as illustrated in the following experience. A group of SSND from the 25th Anniversary Renewal program in Rome were visiting a church in Munich, Germany. Among them were American, German and Japanese sisters. They were approached by a German woman who commented on the joyful relationship between former enemies. Such is the power of oneness.


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You're invited to the 2024 Women's Leadership Luncheon

The focus of the 2024 Women’s Leadership Luncheon celebrates the theme, Women as Peacemakers in a Fractured World of Violence. Our aim is to focus on the impact peacemakers are making in our communities, and how the work they are doing is inspiring others to do the same.

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