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On October 7, 1984, Margaret Ellen Traxler, SSND, joined 80 women and men in signing an ad in the New York Times asking for dialogue within the church regarding abortion.The School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) live out the struggle for peace and unity by breaking down the barriers many face for being different, by ensuring access to the same rights and privileges as everyone else. One example of a champion for diversity was Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler, who lived her life in pursuit of inclusivity and equality for all.

When you mention Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler to any SSND, you are often met with adoring comments about her many-faceted personality. Sister Donna Quinn, a friend of Sister Margaret Ellen, proclaimed, “She called us to do more, to know that people were suffering and hurting. I think that’s the call of a prophet – to reach out and say these are my people and to spend your life, which she did, bringing them out of their slavery – whatever it might be – and freeing them and letting them know they could empower themselves. That’s what a prophet does.”

Along with being a powerful catalyst for change, Sister Margaret Ellen is remembered by Sister Barbara Pfarr as, “Simple, kind, and loving as anybody could be.” She recalled when a group of sisters went to support Sister Margaret Ellen while she awaited possible discipline for signing the infamous ad in the New York Times during the presidential election in 1984. “She welcomed us by staying up to see us in and make sure we were comfortable and had all we needed. Even though sisters came to support her, she still sought to help others first. Sister Margaret Ellen exuded grace and compassion, even in the face of fear,” exclaimed Sister Barbara.

Siste Margaret Ellen Traxler speaking at a rally. Black and white image. Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler learned from an early age to care for all people, regardless of race, ethnic background, gender or socioeconomic status from the examples her parents provided. Her father and mother, a country doctor and a nurse living in Henderson, Minnesota, provided care to others day or night, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. The compassion and care her parents expressed impacted Sister Margaret Ellen deeply, and remained a very strong influence throughout her life. In her biography, she stated, “Our challenge is to love people we serve and to have them feel this love. If they do not feel our love, I believe that our love is flawed.” Her parents encouraged her fiery personality and when she entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1942, her father told Mother Andrina, provincial leader, former Mankato province, “If you dare to break her spirit, she’s coming home.” Her spirit only grew stronger and Sister Margaret Ellen is remembered as a feisty, fearless voice of change throughout her lifetime.

In her autobiography, Sister Margaret Ellen wrote, “I haven’t been disappointed. You see, one can be disappointed if you make up your mind to be. But I made up my mind, no, I will not be. I figured early on I was going to have an attitude that was positive.” Her positive attitude helped her in the fight for social change. In March 1965, she participated with many religious religious in the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the marchers demanded an end to voter discrimination based on race. After the march, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protects and enforces the 14th and 15th Amendments. Major social upheavals in America during the 1960s, along with the mandates brought forth by Vatican II, changed how women religious got involved with social justice issues. Previously, women religious worked quietly in the background to evoke change. After the Selma marches, Sister Margaret Ellen wrote an article for Extensions magazine, calling out to women religious, “After Selma, sister, you can’t stay home again!”

As the director of the Department of Educational Services for the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice in Chicago for 10 years, Sister Margaret Ellen founded and directed many projects and programs revolving around interracial relations and social justice. In 1969, she co-founded the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN) to advocate for women to be fully represented in the Catholic church and for women religious to have full control over their communities. Through NCAN, Sister Margaret Ellen continued to speak out against the Catholic Church’s treatment of women, even picketing at the Vatican in 1975.

Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler speaking with another sister.Prior to that, in 1974, Sister Margaret Ellen formed teams of women that included lawyers, judges, social workers and psychologists to teach female prisoners about their legal rights. She called this group the “Institute for Women Today.” For 15 years, Sister Margaret Ellen and members of this group visited prisons across the Midwest and the south regions of America to teach women inmates job skills and to advocate for better conditions. In some cases, the Institute was able to obtain the release of women whose civil rights had been violated. At the end of her work in Chicago, she had founded three shelters: Sister House, an interim house for women leaving prison; Maria Shelter, a place for abused women and their children; and Casa Notre Dame, a home for older, homeless women.

Sister Margaret Traxler died on February 12, 2002, in Mankato, Minnesota. Prior to her passing, Marquette University archivists asked Margaret Ellen Traxler if they could preserve her documents to show the role of the Catholic church in social justice issues. Among the Catholics chosen by Marquette University, she joins Dorothy Day, Jessica Powers, and J.R. Tolkien. Her legacy leaves a message of courage to always fight for what is right, to question social norms, and to love people exactly where they are, as they are.

Read a historical article about Sister Margaret Ellen.

Learn more about Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler on our Sturdy Roots and even watch a video.

Read about Margaret’s Village, a non-profit Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler started.


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