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Order still serving marginalized after 80 years

Margaret Slachta would have been right at home working in Los Angeles, circa 2002. Slachta, who founded the Sisters of Social Service in 1921, worked on the plight of rural women and children migrating into the city, labor organizing for women in the garment industry, prison reform and probation services -- plus trying to influence public policy by outreach to the marginalized.

Slachta also founded the Women’s Christian Socialist Democratic Party and was a member of the Hungarian Parliament for Budapest. With 1920s Europe locked into a depression long before it hit the United States, the Sisters of Social Service reorganized and many scattered to various places, including Canada and Buffalo, N.Y.

In Buffalo, Sr. Frederica Horvath, who was sickly, could not tolerate the bitter weather. She soon moved to Los Angeles, worked at first as a nanny, then began helping Hungarian families here. Los Angeles Bishop John J. Cantwell learned of her work, met her at a eucharistic congress, bought her a little house on 2nd Street and urged her to bring more sisters.

The America-based sisters established themselves as a community on Nov. 16, 1926, and this past November marked their 75th anniversary. (There are Sisters of Social Service communities in Central Europe and Canada; overall the federation numbers about 600.)

The U.S. community includes Taiwan, the Philippines and Mexico. There are 80 sisters now, down from a peak of 125. Seventy from around the world attended the anniversary celebration.

The order is so young that when, in 1955, 24-year-old Diane Donoghue, a UCLA graduate doing community volunteer work in Los Angeles’ seedy Dogtown area, entered, most of the founding sisters were still going strong.

In those days, they wore a simple gray dress. “We looked like the Virginia Slims lady,” said Donoghue with a laugh. Her mentor, Sr. Elizabeth Prus, still wears one. At 92, Sr. Elizabeth still works part-time -- in the office at St. Vincent’s School.

Donoghue, 70, is trying to cut down to four days a week. But she intends to work at Esperanza at least until she’s 75. Though, if she’s anything like her mentor, that may be a tad early to think of quitting.

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002