Tidbits From the Past: Early Efforts in Social Justice

Benedictines traditionally have no specific ministry to which they are tied or obliged, but over the centuries, they have ministered widely—locally, nationally and globally. The fields of education and health care were priorities for the Benedictine sisters in St. Joseph, Minn. While not usually labelled as social justice, they fall under that heading. The original impetus to ministry came from the Gospel and the Rule of St. Benedict, both impelling followers to serve needs of the Church and society, seeing all people as children of God. A later impetus for expanded ministries came from Vatican II directives. However, prior to Vatican II, Benedictine sisters were already engaged in a variety of social justice causes.

Our community encountered the problem of segregation head on during the late 1930s. Segregation of Black and white Americans was United States law from the 1890s on. Sadly, even Catholic institutions observed this law, whether private or public. However, in 1938, two Black women applied for admission to the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph and were accepted by the dean, Sister Claire Lynch. Some alums protested, but S. Claire responded firmly that the college would adhere to Christian principles, condemning racial discrimination as immoral and unjust. During the 1940s and ‘50s, the college accepted several more Black students—no objections—and our community received into membership Joyce Williams from Mississippi, the first Black Benedictine in our history, in 1948.

Segregation was under attack by the late 1950s, and in the early 1960s, it was dismantling nationwide, but the resistance was still fierce, so the sisters decided to take a more active part in helping Black citizens claim their rights. In the summers of 1965 and 1966, sisters from our monastery worked at St. Francis Center in Greenwood, Miss., a place established to aid the poor, mainly Black people. Aid was offered in the form of clothing, medicine, donated books and classes to improve reading skills. Letters from the sisters kept the community informed of daily activities and urged a growing consciousness of racism and extreme poverty in a nation boastful of its prosperity.

The motherhouse gave strong support to the Greenwood mission. Five sisters spent several weeks there each summer, most of them teachers by profession. It proved to be an eye-opening experience for them and the community as a whole.

After 1965, Vatican II fostered an outpouring of new or expanded ministries. A lesser-known ministry was located in northern Minnesota, near the town of Kent. This section had large beet fields, and hundreds of migrant workers gathered there each summer to hoe these fields. The families were poor, lacking many basics of life such as education, medicine and good housing.

Beginning in 1967, our sisters volunteered to aid these migrant workers. Usually, this entailed living in Kent and going out to the workers’ shacks and bringing them necessities, as well as holding classes for the children. Our Sister Lorraine Klein, among the first to volunteer, spent several weeks each summer for several years in this ministry. Her letters to community, relatives and friends described the sisters’ activities and how grateful the workers were for this aid. The number of sisters fluctuated, but the norm seems to have been two to five each summer. By the mid-1970s, the number of migrant workers dropped considerably as the beet fields declined in size and number; the sisters’ services ended at that point.

Commitment to social justice soared during the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1975, the monastery’s Global Awareness Task Team was founded, the initiative taken by Sister Merle Nolde and assisted by several other sister volunteers. It linked often with another task team which formed at the same time, Apostolic Concerns, headed by Sister Firmin Escher. Both teams proposed to examine and prioritize community concerns and ministries, though the Apostolic Concerns Task Team was more focused on traditional, local ministries and how best to expand or consolidate them. Community members were heavily invested in education and health care, and the Global Awareness Task Team aimed to broaden perspectives. They helped educate the community to become aware of Central American refugees, nuclear weapons, racism and welfare reform.

Benedictines for Peace, organized in fall 1981 in Erie, Pa., led to national and regional groups, such as Pax Christi, advocating on behalf of peace and respect for all life. At a September Chapter meeting in 1986, our community voted to endorse the Sanctuary Movement for refugees from Central America, with emphasis on Guatemalans and El Salvadorans, who needed protection from persecution in their homelands. We offered shelter and supplies for refugees and wrote letters of appeal to the president, Congress, bishops and others, seeking federal and state aid on the refugees’ behalf.

Social justice action has increased in scope and intensity these three past decades as our community continues involvement in various social justice causes, taking on new ones as needs arise. As of 2024, the community even has a director of social justice, Elizabeth Reum, to coordinate our efforts. You can learn more about our social justice efforts, past, present and future, throughout the pages of our 2024 edition of Benedictine Sisters and Friends.

Carol Berg, OSB

This article was featured on pages 6–7 in the spring 2024 issue of Benedictine Sisters and Friends.

Photo: Sister Juanita Sanchez (center back) with migrant workers in Kent, Minn.