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Remembering Sister Giovanni

This photo of Sister Giovanni is a collage that hangs in the GAP high school in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Sister Mary Giovanni Gourhan, affectionately known as Sister G, was born in 1914 and entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame when she was 18 years old. Sister G was missioned to Sacred Heart School in St. Paul, Minnesota, which began her long and devoted tenure in education. With Saint John Bosco, who gave his life to working with youth, as her chosen patron saint, Sister G had a heart for the students who were marginalized due to educational ability and economic status.

For three decades, Sister G taught elementary education in a variety of schools in Minnesota and Iowa. In 1963, she was assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe School on the west side of St. Paul, Minnesota. It was here that Sister G encountered the extreme poverty and educational disparity of the west side and decided something needed to be done. In 1964, Sister G began a summer program for students to engage in crafts and recreation. Her passion to help underserved youth continued to inspire growth in the program and, in 1967, Sister G founded the Guadalupe Alternative Program (GAP). In 2019, GAP merged with Change Inc., an organization with a similar mission and vision. The merger helped streamline the management of both organizations and ensure their continued success. The GAP alternative high school kept its name and still serves students in St. Paul, Minnesota. The school continues Sister G’s dream of serving the underserved to this day.

S. Giovanni Gourhan was a well known and honored women in St. Paul, Minnesota, for starting GAP school. This is a black and white photo of her with a shovle and microphone.

What began with no funding and little support blossomed into a high school serving 60 students in only two years. In the two decades that followed, the school continued to grow, and so did its reputation. It was not long before city leaders were encouraging families to send their teens to GAP if they were struggling in traditional high schools. Through dedicated teachers, counselors, tutors and staff, the effect of the school on the community was remarkable.

John Persico, a counselor at GAP who was hired by Sister G, wrote a blog post reflecting on the radical and inspiring nature of Sister Giovanni:

“Sister G was another one of those people who I think defied time by not allowing herself to be hemmed in by the strictures of her time. A woman in politics in the ‘60s, a woman entrepreneur, and a woman who would challenge the male bastions of power was not a typical role. In the early ‘60s, a woman’s place was still largely in the home and many men, especially those in power, did not take kindly being told what to do by a woman, much less a school nun.”

Commenting on this post, a former student of Sister G writes:

“I went to GAP in 1974-1976. I was kicked out of regular schools and was considered 'unteachable.' By my senior year, Sister G had me doing college courses and tutoring other students who were slow or having trouble with their lessons. One day, a former teacher from the last school I got kicked out of came to visit the school and was amazed at the work I was doing there. He said, ‘You have that guy tutoring here? He is incapable of learning. He even pulled a knife on me in class once!’ Sister G replied, ’You never presented him with challenges.’ In 1976, I graduated at the top of the class and earned scholarships at area colleges.”

This is a mosaic image of Sister Giovannie Gourhan, which was  built into the wall above the entrance to GAP school.

After much fundraising effort on the part of Sister G, a new school building was constructed in 1989, one year before Sister G's death. She was the driving force behind all the growth throughout the years, even if she would say otherwise. She always credited God and her staff for any success or acknowledgment.

Sister G encountered many obstacles and hardships, she was also recognized by civil and church organizations as a bold, successful and servant leader. She received many honors and awards, including the Catholic of the Year Award in 1986, an honor from the Governor of Minnesota in 1987, who proclaimed, “Sister Giovanni Day” and the Franciscan International Award in 1988. Additionally, in 1990, the Great North American History Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, honored her with the Homegrown Heroes Award and wrote a play about her.

S. Giovanni Gourhan was a well known and honored women in St. Paul, Minnesota, for starting GAP school. This mural is on the wall of the El Burito Mercado in the District del Sol on Cesar Chavez Street. There are many figures represented in the mural but

Sister G died on December 26, 1990, at the age of 76. She left a lasting impression on the city of St. Paul. The students she served, the staff and School Sisters of Notre Dame. Expressing her continual gratitude to God, Sister G would often say that when she got to heaven, she was going to say, “Wow!” At her eulogy, Father Dick Rice, Sister G's spiritual director, remarked that God would probably respond, “Wow!”.

Jody Nelson, Ed. D., LMFT, Executive Director of Change Inc., and the 2022 Women’s Leadership Luncheon speaker in St. Paul, Minnesota, shared, “When I came to GAP, now named Change Inc., in 1994, a few years after the death of Sister. Giovanni, who founded the school, there were…I counted…91 pictures of her throughout the building. I was assigned to a big, oak desk with a glass top and…you guessed it…staring up at me were several pictures of Sister G. It was intimidating! But, as I got my bearings and found my own voice to lead the school, I began to take comfort in Sister G’s presence and came to believe that she was supporting me. Over time, we gave many of the pictures of Sister G to students and alumni...we currently have a tiled portrait of her, arms outstretched, over the entrance of the school building…but she is definitely the rock upon which GAP school is built.”  You can hear from Jody Nelson, Ed.D., LMFT, through a podcast interview.

Learn more about Change Inc., and the GAP high school.


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