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Far-flung networks serve the margins


If Loretto Sisters had a middle initial in common it wouldn’t be “M” for Mary, it would be “N” for Network. In the late 1970s, the late Loretto Sr. Virginia Williams founded the Loretto Women’s Network. Ten years ago Srs. Mary Ann Coyle and Nancy Wittwer founded the Loretto Earth Network (and the order helped fund a new women’s community in Maine, Sisters of Earth).

The Lorettines are ceaseless networkers -- through their nearly 200 co-members (established in 1970 when many friends said they wanted a closer spiritual association with the order); through their three Loretto-sponsored all-women’s high schools and through every facet of their outreach.

At the United Nations, Loretto Sr. Betty Obal networks within the NGO (nongovernmental organization) community. Through their hunger fund, the sisters touch the poor in Pakistan, aid religious sisters in Haiti, help a food bank in Lone Jack, Mo., and provide peanut butter for street kids in Romania.

The Loretto Disarmament/Economic Conversion Committee is active at nuclear test sites, while the community’s special needs funds met more than 163 emergency assistance requests last year -- from a children’s peace theater to Citizens for Peace in Space, from survivors of torture aided by the Guatemala Human Rights Commission USA, to the coalition fighting for just wages in the maquiladoras.

Loretto links, recent and historic, are far flung. Graduates of Loretto Academy in Shanghai (in the 1940s and ’50s, Lorettines were first interned and then ousted by the communists) still meet in San Francisco. And local: Loretto sisters touch lives through the Denver Catholic Worker House started by Loretto Sr. Anna Koop.

With reduced numbers, there’s much the Sisters of Loretto can’t tackle. But as Loretto Sr. Mary Ken Lewis, Spirituality Center director, said, if Loretto sisters can’t always do the work themselves, they make their facilities and networks available to those who can. Or join forces with other religious communities.

Dual-language learning

The dual language Escuela de Guadalupe, is a standard-looking closed-for-decades parish school, now open and rented from the archdiocese for $1 a year. It was born because a small community of Jesuits moved into the mainly Hispanic working-class Pecos Street neighborhood of northwest Denver and listened to their neighbors. The parents said they wanted their children to be bilingual. Three years ago, the Jesuits, led by Jesuit Fr. Tom Prag, and the Lorettines, led by Sr. Susan Swain and co-member Joy Gerity, brought aboard bilingual principal Tony Vigil.

The doors opened with three grades (including kindergarten) in 1999. Escuela, now with four grades, will add a grade a year until it has eight grades. What’s taught dual-language style? Everything. English dominant children are, for example, taught math in Spanish; Spanish-speakers are taught in English. The 87 students rapidly becoming fluent in each others’ tongue are only barely aware that once they’ve mastered both languages there’s another one planned for them: French.

Havern Center, founded in 1966, is a very different kind of learning establishment. The school, with a $12,000 a year tuition, has 81 developmentally disabled students who, between kindergarten and eighth grade, are prepared for mainstreaming into the regular school system.

Loretto Sr. Barbara Shulte, the founder, has been at Havern -- it’s in the former Loretto house of studies building -- for 36 years in a variety of capacities. Her colleague, Sr. Marlene Spero, is Havern’s in-house computer whiz and instructor. (Elsewhere, Sr. Marlene’s cousin, Loretto Sr. Joan Spero, a registered nurse, puts in a full-day running the St. Francis Center homeless clinic.)

Commitment to women

Loretto’s 190-year-long commitment to women’s education is reflected in Denver’s St. Mary’s Academy, on impressive Englewood acreage. It is co-ed kindergarten to eighth grade, and the only private Catholic women’s high school in the state.

Each Denver endeavor has more than Loretto in common. One other similarity is fundraising (an activity as Catholic as sitting on folding chairs in church basements).

At one end, the $8,000-plus annual tuition St. Mary’s (modest by local private school standards) has $1 million to go on its latest capital fund drive. Escuela de Guadalupe holds “Friends Raising” breakfasts to interest Denverites in their work. Project WISE -- a Loretto outreach to disadvantaged women -- annually has to raise $90,000-plus to keep going.

This Women’s Initiative for Service and Empowerment -- WISE -- is one way Lorettines weave hope into the lives of the homeless, the overlooked and the oppressed. Two others in Denver are EarthLinks and the Bridge Community.

EarthLinks (which grew out of the Loretto Earth Network), in downtown Denver has imaginatively cranked up earth education to heights not previously imagined for people generally left out of daily experiences with the natural world -- the homeless, those in care and city school children.

Imagination-grabbing programs pulled together by co-directors Loretta Sr. Cathy Mueller and Dominican Sr. Bette Ann Jaster at the now 6-year-old “experiential Earth education” project include BioBoxes for school children, and Earth Literacy trips with the poor and marginalized.

In their office, filled with plants and volunteers, Mueller and Jaster explained BioBoxes. Schoolchildren in Catholic schools in Denver collect evidence of their bioregion -- plants from the banks of the Platte River that runs through the city, accounts of how the city grew because of gold-panning in the river, details of flora and fauna native to the areas -- including the antics of prairie dogs.

The boxes are exchanged with schools in rural Colorado -- in the foothills and mountains. Annunciation in Denver swaps (and networks) with St. John the Evangelist in rural Loveland. The children go on trips and meet each other. Nor are BioBoxes limited to Colorado. Right now St. Catherine’s School in Denver is swapping boxes with St. Paul the Apostle School in Jersey City, N.J.

Mountains and prairies

On another front, while EarthLinks has lost to gentrification its Peace Garden for the homeless across from the Denver Episcopal diocese’s St. Francis Center for the homeless, EarthLinks’s Life Lessons program is booming.

In regular one-day outings with a 10-seat van jointly owned with three other non-profits, Life Lessons staff and volunteers take homeless people and people in residential treatment programs and boarding homes into the mountains and onto the prairies. They meet with naturalists and museum docents and become acquainted with new surroundings. Back in Denver some take an interest in the gardens EarthLinks helps to establish in low-income and residential treatment home yards.

A different form of residence, also with a flourishing garden, is the Bridge Community where Loretto Sr. Mary Catherine Widger lives with eight developmentally disabled women. The house was opened in 1985 by Widger, Fr. Lawrence Freeman, a diocesan priest (Bridge chaplain), and Loretto Sr. Sue Rogers. Officially it is classified as “a community-based, intermediate care facility for persons with developmental disabilities.”

Realistically, said Widger, who has 30 years’ experience with the developmentally disabled, “it’s our home.” The newest arrival of the eight has lived there for nine years. Many families would love to see their developmentally disabled child in such a setting, but as Widger -- influenced in this approach to community living by Jean Vanier and L’Arche communities -- notes, everyone is there for life.

Widger -- whose sister JoAnn Widger, now retired from American Airlines, comes in to supervise meal preparation -- also works fulltime for the archdiocesan Special Religious Education Department.

Project WISE, though, is where many Sisters of Loretto focus their hearts and prayers. And it’s where Loretto co-members Sue Kenney and Jean East focus their energies.

This regular gathering brings together women trying to survive when everything in society works against them -- abusive spouses or relatives, poverty, social services that only partial touch their needs. Usually single parents with children, they are trying to cope from a foundation of low self-esteem, minimal education, low resources and no support system.

And yet, on a recent March weekend, two members of Project WISE, both of whom live in public housing, were in Florida giving papers on their community organizing efforts in Denver to a nationwide group. At a Denver meeting prior to leaving, they spoke enthusiastically about how they had found at Project WISE the encouragement that now has them spreading their wings to help others.

Circle of friends

Also at this regular dinner gathering was Nancy, who was brought to a Project WISE meeting last year by her sister. Nancy arrived at that gathering with her 3-week-old baby, was welcomed, listened to and soon found she was in a circle of friends. Today she’s a student at the University of Denver. Once a victim of repeated abuse and betrayal, the three-times-wed Nancy said, “I was 26 before I was married to someone who didn’t hit you.” She spoke enthusiastically of the skills she is gaining through Project WISE, along with confidence in herself and her future.

East and Kenney developed Project WISE after they had worked on Denver’s 1995 welfare reform initiative. Said Kenney, “Yes, there were employment training programs, but there was nothing being built into the initiative to deal with personal issues these same women faced: domestic violence, early or continued sexual, physical or emotional abuse, or the mental and emotional needs the local health system doesn’t meet.

“Without the wider sort of support,” Kenney said, “the women might be all right at job-getting, but not at job-keeping -- because there’s so much else going on in their lives, so much to deal with related to daily survival.”

Sisters of Loretto everywhere know this situation. They funded the start-up just as they’ve funded outreach in many places. One more page in their 190-year history. The sisters also know -- as they help women on the margins with personal growth and constant support -- that whatever the Lorettines’ own future is, others have a future because of them.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002