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Catholic Education

Nun exposes students to Mexico’s reality

NCR Staff

They were eight students, ages 12 to 17, from Catholic and public schools in upstate New York. To them, their late February visit to the maquiladora manufacturing belt on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Bravo region was a “powerful” experience.

To Sr. Lee Connolly, who helped organize the upstate branch of Free the Children, an international children’s rights movement, it was a chance to expose U.S. students to a new reality.

The students were understandably horrified by the plight of young people their own age in Mexico and said as much to the television cameras when they returned home after eight days. The young New Yorkers had been further energized to work against child labor abuse.

The maquiladora visit, the meeting with workers, the students’ opportunity to reflect on what they had seen, was typical of much work originating in Catholic schools and parishes. Somewhere behind that work is always a layperson, religious or priest who simply won’t stop working for social justice, someone for whom each new foray becomes one more opportunity to teach and activate. Someone like Connolly.

In 1968, Connolly, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet’s Albany, N.Y., province, began teaching American history and U.S. government to high schoolers. Within five years, however, the Sisters of St. Joseph, more than 1,000 of them concentrated in Albany and Syracuse, N.Y., dioceses, decided to appoint their first social justice director. Connolly it was.

Collaborating with Sisters of St. Joseph in Los Angeles and St. Louis, she moved deeply into social justice education and advocacy. By 1978, Connolly was teaching literacy and organizing sugarcane workers with Southern Mutual Help in Louisiana, a pioneering effort of the day.

Back home, by 1980 she was active with a coalition of 10 downtown Syracuse parishes that produced a Dorothy Day shelter, the diocese’s black Catholic ministry program, and developed education and political advocacy efforts. “It was a very productive time for me and the laypeople and clergy in this vital group,” she said. The work continued for seven years, and then there was a major switch.

Connolly was commissioned to write the biography of a recently deceased local priest, Msgr. Charles Brady. His priestly life had covered the basics -- pastor, chaplain, education -- “but he’d been a terrific bridge with the black community,” said Connolly. “He was in the better housing movement, deep into civil rights, marched in Selma with other people from the area.”

To write the book, Connolly, in her words, “made a life change.” She raised money from her family and friends, and with a laywoman created a small rural retreat center in northern New York’s Ogdensburg diocese. Once she’d finished the book, the converted farm became “a retreat experience for local women, and those especially in need of a refuge from time to time -- though it was mainly a retreat.”

Listening and “being with” women, meant, she said, that the Lee Connolly who went into the retreat idea in 1987 was not the same one who emerged from it in 1991.

The retreats were during the spring, summer and fall; winters were something else. “At 45, it’s very difficult to start some of those projects,” she said. “Physically, because of the conditions of the North country, being alone for those long periods, being without water for six weeks at a time because of frozen pipes, while there’s creativity to it there’s a lot of personal development you have to do.”

Buoying her up was being “the beneficiary of the honest stories of women searching for spirituality, women coming to grips with many things in their lives, often traumatic.”

Meanwhile, the Sisters of St. Joseph community was refocusing on social concerns and mission, and when Connolly emerged from retreat work, she was smack back into social justice work again. She’s now in her sixth year. She decided on a different tack, work on poverty’s root causes -- plus welfare reform, homeless assistance budgets, involvement with groups doing public policy-related work.

In 1998, when it was Connolly’s team’s turn to provide the St. Joseph sisters with their “community topic,” they decided on “systemic change” -- not World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, “but something understandable for the sisters, sweatshops connected to consumer clothing.”

The presentation, done by outside advocates, was a success. And in the preparations, a colleague at the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition had given Connolly a videocassette of a “60 Minutes” program on Craig Kielburger, who as a 13 year old had founded Free the Children.

“I was stunned when I watched it,” said Connolly. “I would have to say I was overcome, emotionally and spiritually every time I tried to talk about it. It had moved me very deeply.” She told her community leadership this was the direction she had to take. And with the Labor-Religion Coalition, the state’s United Teachers, and the Sisters of St. Joseph Albany province behind her, she organized last October in Albany a state conference on Free the Children.

From that gathering came local Free the Children chapters, which under their student leaders -- adults serve only in an advisory capacity -- conduct child labor abuse workshops, advocate for change in sweatshop practices, seek protective laws and fundraise for school supplies for developing countries.

Typical of the youngsters on the first fact-finding mission, the February maquiladora trip, was Maura Welch, 12, a student at St. John the Baptist school in Syracuse. Last August, she attended a peer-group leadership skills-building course in Toronto, and has addressed religious educators’ gatherings in New York. Emily Wistar, 16, and Peggy Keough, 17, took school and health supplies collected by their Capital Area (Albany-Schenectady-Troy) Free the Children group for children in two newly built Mexican primary schools.

Connolly views the Free the Children kids with quiet amazement. If they knew of Connolly’s quiet persistence and determination to make a difference over the past three-plus decades, the young people might well view her the same way.

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001