Category Archives: Networking for Mission

Mobilizing African Sisters for Advocacy

Sister Eucharia Madueke, SNDdeN

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Sr. Eucharia Madueke, SNDdeN (center) leads a group of Sisters to the National Assembly in Abuja, Nigeria.

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur work with other religious communities and organizations to foster awareness and response to socio-economic and cultural realities which impact negatively the common good. In this spirit of collaboration, my province leadership missioned me early last year to serve the Africa Faith & Justice Network (AFJN), in order to mobilize and enhance the capacity of African Sisters for engaging in advocacy, in serving the people. AFJN is a Washington DC faith-based advocacy organization founded in 1983 as a response to issues of justice that Catholic missionary congregations witness on the ground in Africa. Inspired by the Gospel and informed by Catholic Social Teaching, AFJN seeks to educate and advocate for just relations and to work in partnership with the African people as they engage in the struggle for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

euchairaTesting the Waters
I hold a common belief in the African proverb that a single bracelet does not jingle.”  In this ministry at AFJN, I am working to engage the enormous potential of African Sisters for creating change through education, training in advocacy, and strengthening associational relationships. African women are formidable agents of change. African Catholic Sisters have the potential to create change through leadership in providing those critical and essential services: education, healthcare, pastoral and social services for families, mostly women and children.

In April and May 2016, I tested the willingness of the Sisters in various parts of Nigeria to confront the structures of injustice.  In conversations with members of the Nigerian Conference of Women Religious and with other Sisters, I engaged individuals and groups in discussions to  expand ministries of service for changing the structures of injustice that impoverish our people. I also invited them to attend at Abuja the AFJN conference on Just Governance: The Nigerian Bio-Safety Law, GMOs, and Implications for Nigeria and Africa, followed by a one day Sisters’ Forum on Just Governance and the Common Good: Religious Vocation and Faithful Citizenship.  Sisters do not usually attend gatherings with political undertones but attendance at both gatherings was remarkable.  The Minister of State, giving the keynote address, remarked that the conference was special, noting the number of “women of God” in attendance.

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At the Sisters’ Forum, with over 60 Sisters from 23 religious communities, speakers encouraged the Sisters to see the issues of injustice as Nigerian Catholic Sisters, and not as individual Congregations.  Sisters reflected passionately on the issue of poor governance and the situation of women and children in Nigeria, and then committed themselves as a group to challenge those structures that harm women and children in the nation. They recognized their limited knowledge and capacity for justice ministry by requesting assistance to develop needed skills. Their eagerness to work together for change, even with an expressed fear of incapability, and their boldness to step into the future with courage showed their readiness to engage in advocacy and to effect change together as women religious.

Educating for Social Action
AFJN conducted 5 days of advocacy training from November 22-27, 2016.  Convinced of the power of education and their personal and collective responsibility to advance the common good, over 86 Sisters from 27 Congregations took the opportunity to reflect on their role in nation building, to explore the structures of injustice in Nigeria, to practice talking with authorities, and to build a network of Sisters for collaborative action.

Seeking Conversations with Authorities
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The Sisters attempted to hold an advocacy meeting with selected law-makers: the Senate President and his deputy and the Speaker of the House and the Federal Director of Police.  Despite many vain attempts to obtain permission from any of the law-makers, the Sisters were not deterred from making a visit. Unfortunately, security personnel at the National Assembly complex that housed the law-makers’ offices barred the Sisters from entering. With courage, the sisters refused to be intimidated by the security personnel; rather they positioned themselves beside the entrance to the National Assembly and peacefully and prayerfully delivered their message in public.  They asked that the law-makers protect women and children, promote sound development strategies, protect Nigerian land and water, as well as small farm holdings, stop excessive and irrational spending, and be accountable and accessible to the people they represent.  Speaking to the Police Director, who at very short notice, welcomed the sisters and thanked them for their visit to his office, the Sisters demanded that the police, in discharging their duty protect the vulnerable and respect the dignity of each person.

Movement Unfolding
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At the conclusion of the Conference, Sisters realized the importance of education to confront structures of injustice and the power of associational relationships which may enable them to speak the truth to the authorities, without fear of being targeted. Thirteen sisters representing different Congregations formed a steering committee to keep up the momentum of the Conference.  The movement is now legalized and its by-laws approved by the Nigerian Corporate Affairs Commission under the name Africa Faith & Justice Network Nigeria. AFJN will continue to journey with the group in their efforts to effect necessary change.

Seeds Grow in Southern California

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Kindergarten give a group hug to Sister Judith Flahavan, SNDdeN.

Over the course of her last thirty-one years as an active ministry educator, Sister Judith Flahavan, SNDdeN was a principal in three Catholic elementary schools in South Los Angeles, CA. In June 2012, she retired from full-time ministry. Then, during a six-month sabbatical, Sister Judith learned that Notre Dame School (NDS) in Santa Barbara, CA, the last existing Catholic school among the original four Catholic schools there, did not have a full-time principal. She made a decision to use her gifts as an educator in this city!

 

Reflections: Sister Judith Flahavan, SNDdeN

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8th Grade students at Notre Dame School in Santa Barbara, CA.

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SNDdeN) have a long history at Notre Dame. In 1906,
Fr. Stockman, OFM invited SNDdeN to begin a school for children at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Santa Barbara. In an old Armory Hall belonging to the parish, four Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SNDdeN) opened Dolores Catholic School with 150 students in 1906. Through the efforts of those first Sisters and the many who followed them, the school grew and flourished. In 1911, the Jesuits assumed responsibility for the parish. In 1974, the school was renamed Notre Dame School. Over the years, people recognized the school’s strong education, academic excellence and dedicated alumni/alumnae. When the number of Sisters diminished, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur withdrew from NDS in 1990.

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Primary students learn with iPads at NDS in Santa Barbara.

Common Realities
In January 2013, Sister Judith was happy to assume the leadership role as Principal at Notre Dame School. Moving to peaceful Santa Barbara after her many years in South Los Angeles was a bit of an adjustment. She received an amazing welcome by the many people thrilled that an SNDdeN was back, and she immediately felt “at home.” Also, as Sister became more and more involved as an administrator, she realized that among the families at NDS there are common realities shared also with the families in South Los Angeles. She learned that at this school many children (166 students out of 260 students) qualified for the federal breakfast/lunch program, which is considered the benchmark for persons living in poverty in the United States. She came to realize that the income of many families was comparable to that of families she knew in South Los Angeles.

She rejoiced in the beautiful goodness of the families:
• the respect for all persons which was evident among them,
• the way they helped each other when possible,
• their commitment to Notre Dame School,
• their reverence toward God, and
• their ethic for hard work.

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Transitional Kindergarten children learn about St. Francis and Pope Francis from Notre Dame Associate, Jackie Gonzalez.

She appreciated the dedicated faculty, two of whom were Notre Dame Associates. She saw that at NDS, St. Julie’s vision of educating those living in poverty is alive and well. She was overwhelmed by the number of alumni/alumnae living in Santa Barbara and remembering with gratitude and happiness the Sisters who gave them a strong educational foundation. Mainly, Sister Judith realized that the seeds of education planted by those Sisters were in full bloom. Even though the Sisters had not been in the school for about 20 years, their spirit and St. Julie Billiart’s charism of proclaiming the goodness of God by educating children for life still inspires and permeates with energy the daily experiences within the Notre Dame community.

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Since June 2016, a competent educator, Ms. Christina Stefanec is replacing Sr. Judith as Principal. Grateful for the opportunity of serving for 31/2 years at Notre Dame School, Sister Judith is confident that the mission of St. Julie will continue to be integrated and grow in the school, and in making known God’s goodness and love in Southern California.


“Truly, I tell you that just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25: 45
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Santa Barbara School students say “Thank you.”

On the Margins of Society

“I was hungry and you gave me food…thirsty and you gave me something to drink… a stranger and you welcomed me…” Matthew 25:35

st-margaret-logoSister Elizabeth Smoyer, SNDdeN finds energy and passion in her ministry in South Bend, Indiana at St. Margaret’s House (SMH), a day center committed to the Gospel value of hospitality. Opened 26 years ago, St. Margaret’s House helps women and children who live in poverty, as they struggle on the margins of society. The mission, central to SMH, is to empower women for improving the quality of life for themselves and their children. Staff and volunteers respond to immediate needs and open a pathway for women to make long-term changes leading to a new life. They offer programs to these women for acquiring skills to face the future with hope.

An Interview: Sister Elizabeth Smoyer describes her ministry at SMH.

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Sister Elizabeth Smoyer, SNDdeN coaches participants in the seminar, Creating My Future.

Since 2010, I have been serving as guest services caseworker, kitchen manager and assistant to the volunteer coordinator. The community at SMH helps women face life with dignity and take responsibility for improving their lives. I would describe the core of our mission as building and strengthening relationships, accomplished by “the mutual transformation of guests, staff, volunteers and donors,” in a supportive community. Poverty as well as wealth can be isolating. Addictions diminish health and the self-worth of individuals. At SMH, the hospitality shared provides acceptance, guidance in a non-judgmental way, safety and a good meal. The staff guides, respects and gives direct attention to each woman for a movement forward. Volunteers welcome guests, assist them in the clothes closet, and cook the daily meal. clothes-closet-webSome accompany the women in the art studio as they uncover talents and learn skills of artistic expression in a communal atmosphere. Volunteers have hearts and minds open to listen and support the guests and the staff. They offer help and speak of how they “receive so much more than they give;” they find how their own suffering connects them to our guests. Day by day, this communal experience opens deepening wells of compassion and silkcreations32014commitment. This community is open, honest and caring for one another. I believe this is transforming action: “By what happens in the community, everybody is changed.”

Concrete Steps
Our long-range goal is helping these women trapped in generational poverty to create their own paths for a stable and secure life for themselves and their families. With concrete steps, we assist the women to improve their lives with skills essential for competing in the workplace. The program Bridges Out of Poverty, Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World offers a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by different economic classes. Women learn the causes of poverty and the hidden rules of the middle class. Each woman examines her own reality and circumstances for creating her own action plan. She names her personal resources to make concrete changes in her life.

Another seminar, Steps for Success, offers additional lessons for these women by giving them practical skills to find and sustain employment. My responsibility is to present this seminar and to coach participants through the entire process. I accompany participants who step out of “the tyranny of the moment,” of just “doing the next thing,” to reflect on where they have been and where they want to go. The women discover a spirituality of wholeness where their gifts and talents manifest themselves. They find financial literacy with a credit review, basic budgeting and banking and learn the basics of resume writing and interviewing skills.

Providing Meals for Homeless
daily-hot-lunch-webAbout 80 persons come each day to St. Margaret’s; 23% of our guests are homeless or precariously housed. We serve a continental breakfast and an afternoon snack, nutritious food meant for some to be their main meal of the day. Before the noon meal, everyone gathers to welcome by name and applaud newcomers. This meal fosters support and inclusion in our community. We share announcements, victories as well as burdens and gather in prayer led by our guests. These women set the tables, deliver meals to the children and also wash the dishes.

St. Margaret’s House supports the varying strengths and vulnerabilities of guests, staff and volunteers. Our participation in community transforms us as we stand “with people made poor in a world marked by increasing divisions and inequalities” (Calls General Chapter 2014, p. 5). When it may seem that the “work is worthless,” we remember the words of Thomas Merton: “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

Learn more at St. Margaret’s House website or follow St. Margaret’s  on Facebook.

Children in Nicaragua Find Hope

By Sister Rebecca Trujillo, SNDdeN

GWNov2015-cover-300-pxThe Mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SNDdeN) extends to Matagalpa, a small rural town in northern Nicaragua, in a diocesan ministry to families who have children with handicapped conditions. At Special Families of Saint Julie Billiart (Familias Especiales de  Santa Julia Billiart), opened in 1996, families discover that they are not alone in their struggles. Mothers and their children find hope in a different  process for healing. Horses help to heal children. This world-wide treatment is an exclusive rehabilitation therapy, receiving recognition across the globe. Special Families (FE) has advanced this method of healing, without cost, begun in 2002 in a program for more than 500 children from the most deprived neighborhoods. This special therapy gives children with any disability a greater opportunity for physical improvement and social integration.

The family of Don Alvares Reyes,  who owns a horse ranch, supports St. Julie’s Mission of reaching out to vulnerable little ones, “the poor in the most abandoned places.” (SNDdeN Constitutions, #5, and Rule of 1818) Each week, this family reserves for Special Families two GWNov2015-4-600-pxhorses and the use of their property. Gustavo Vallejos and Suhey Meza Vallejos, staff at FE, four days a week, bring mothers and their children with disabilities to this ranch where the children meet Jacaranda and Encantada, two horses which work wonders.

These are no ordinary horses; they belong to an award-winning Spanish breed, treated like professional athletes. In the beginning, Asombrada was the first horse to be a part of the therapy sessions. When retired, she was quickly replaced by Jacaranda and Encantada (almost 30 years old).

Through this therapy,  children who are paralyzed:

  • Begin to develop their muscles 
  • Strengthen control of functioning muscles
  • Lift their heads Start to walk
  • Move arms and legs with less pain

GWNov2015-3b-300-pxDouglas is a paralyzed young boy, who experiences many involuntary body movements. Most of the time, his mother wheels her son, buckled in his chair around the ranch. He becomes a different individual when he is riding his friend, Encantada, a large white horse. But how can a person who is paralyzed ride a horse? Douglas shows such delight on horseback. Now he has some control of his involuntary movements, through this horse therapy because this scientific method uses the muscles of the horse  to develop the corresponding muscles in the human body.

Children begin horse therapy at two years of age. The therapist places the child, lying down on a blanket on the horse’s back. As the horse moves along, she stimulates the child’s outer muscles as well as massages the child’s inner organ muscles. As the muscles get strengthened through movement, the child becomes stronger and develops balance. In this relationship with the horse, children gain confidence knowing  that another living being, a friend, is able to reduce the pain and bring healing.

Autistic children capable of relating to the horses also receive this therapy. The staff at FE has witnessed miracles, when, after several sessions, autistic children hug their fathers for the first time. The horse motivates the child to improve, and being in a farm setting helps both the child and the mothers to relax, an opportunity not often available in their lives.

GWNov2015-3-300pxThis program is part of integrated therapy using a community rehabilitation model in which  groups of mothers with their children join together for sharing sessions. Each child has a specific plan for his/her therapy. FE works with the most vulnerable families who cannot afford to pay. Since having children with disabilities entails much responsibility, Special Families considers active participation and cooperation of the mothers as a form of payment for these families who have just minimal resources. The only titled horse-therapist in Nicaragua, Gustavo Vallejos, studied at Gimbernat University in Barcelona, Spain in an education program funded by Special Families. Then, he trained Suhey Meza Vallejos, another physical therapist. Each year, the University sends groups of  at least 12 graduates in physical therapy to work at FE, as interns learning and experiencing this healing through horse therapy.

Douglas’ mother thanks God each day for Jacaranda and Encantada because they have changed her son’s life by giving him better health and more opportunities for social integration. Mothers in this small rural town in Nicaragua experience the bonding relationship between their children and the two horses, and recognize that “Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other and in service of each other.” (Pope Francis in his Encyclical, Laudato Sí, (#86), from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxW3Jm-9Hug

Reprinted with permission from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, “Children in Nicaragua Find Hope,” Good Works, pp. 4-7, November 2015.

Networks Link Schools and Colleges in Britain

By Sister Anne Marie Niblock, SNDdeN

Anne-Marie-Niblock,-SNDdeNIn different ways from former years, Notre Dame Schools and Colleges in Britain bring St. Julie Billiart into 21st Century Education! Founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, these schools, colleges and the university share Julie’s educational vision. Formerly, many Sister administrators, teachers and staff integrated her educational ideals and principles in these institutions. Now only one school, Notre Dame Southwark in London, has a Sister as headteacher. Yet, with strong networks, these academic institutions continue the Notre Dame Educational Mission in Britain. For over ten years, headteachers and staff from Notre Dame secondary schools, colleges and from Liverpool Hope University have participated each year in educational gatherings. The yearly conference has led to educational partnerships. Some educators have extended special links with ND schools across the world to Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa and the United States (USA). This international network uses and contributes to the resources of Notre Dame Virtual School and the congregational educational Website, Notre Dame Online.

Within Britain, a Global Citizenship Conference takes place every year either in Liverpool or London for students, aged 13/14. Some high achieving students, 15/16 year olds, have shared opportunities in joint revision courses at Oxford University. Students across the schools have linked with one another in a variety of ways: leadership conferences, student exchanges, visits to other Notre Dame schools, e-mails and Social Media links on Twitter and Facebook.

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The schools and colleges have also developed excellent curriculum links, a photo competition and communications with postcards for a 7th year. Meetings for teachers of Science, Mathematics, Information Technology and Religious Education, held in different schools, have had amazing success. Participants have returned to their own schools with new ideas, resources and ways for taking Julie’s vision into today’s classrooms.

Students from Kyoto, Japan visit Notre Dame High School in Norwich, England.
Students from Kyoto, Japan visit Notre Dame High School in Norwich, England.

The headteachers and senior staff are committed to partnership in the Notre Dame tradition. Future plans include the development of a Notre Dame app, a video on how each school celebrates St. Julie’s Day and a National Certificate for Volunteering.

A recent project includes the production of a video showing that the memory of Sr. Dorothy Stang is alive for students today in the school settings. (Notre Dame Schools Remember…) In Britain, Notre Dame schools remember Sr. Dorothy in specific places named for her:

  • Notre Dame, Southwark, London has a room dedicated to the education of students who learn English as a second language;
  • Notre Dame, Plymouth has a building with a suite of classrooms for the teaching of English, Geography and Modern Foreign Languages;
  • Notre Dame, Liverpool has a central performing space at the heart of the school;
  • St. Julie’s, Liverpool has a theatre with seating for 230;
  • Notre Dame, Sheffield has an Environmental Learning Centre.

Camilla-Burns-ND-Schools-and-Colleges-ConferenceMany Sisters from the United Kingdom (UK) and USA have given keynote lectures at our yearly conferences. Themes include Pilgrimage, Rivers of Notre Dame, Roots and Wings, Leadership, Online Education, St. Julie and Young People, A Global Perspective and Our Notre Dame Tradition. Several British schools participated in the international Network for Mission Conferences in Kentucky/Cincinnati and Boston, USA. Such conferences inspire administrators and faculty to a stronger commitment to education and collaboration with other Notre Dame educational ministries. One quotation lingers from the 2006 Network for Mission Conference and encourages Notre Dame educators when the times are difficult. “Suppose the best work of St. Julie is yet to come.” In the schools in Britain, Julie’s vision and mission still shape young people for the future.


From Good Works, June 2015. pp. 8-9. Reprinted with permission. GWJune2015