National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 23, 2004

In March 2002, Sr. Evelyn Mattern, with her dog, Paz, holds a banner for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

Sr. Evelyn Mattern, mystic and activist

Friends mark passing of sisters who lead peace and justice efforts in Raleigh diocese


Just six weeks from death, Sr. Evelyn Mattern sat for an interview in the living room of her log home, which she referred to as Peace Hill, in a rural community about 20 miles north of Raleigh, N.C. The cancer discovered in her lungs had spread, her face was swollen, her voice strained.

“I think I’m really ready to die,” said Mattern, who spent 32 years in the Raleigh diocese working on a range of justice and peace issues. “But I know from the experience of other people you can’t always have it when you want it. I would be happy if it would be over now.”

Mattern, a poet, author, mystic, activist and member of Sisters for Christian Community, died Nov. 30 at Sacred Heart Home in her native Philadelphia. Her poetry and prose were published in numerous religious magazines and journals, including NCR. She was honored Jan. 7 on what would have been her 63rd birthday.

Mattern’s friends gathered at United Church of Chapel Hill, N.C., for a memorial service to tell stories about the woman who was a champion of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, and who devoted her life to working for justice and peace.

Friends joked that Mattern was better known for campaigns that ended in failure. A front-page tribute to her in The (Raleigh) News & Observer was headlined: “Triumphs lie in fights, not wins.”

The first coordinator of the Raleigh diocese’s Office of Peace and Justice, Mattern led campaigns to bring justice to farm workers, to stop war and nuclear arms proliferation, to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and to alleviate poverty.

Yet, her work did yield fruit. Scores of people became involved in farm worker support thanks to programs established by Mattern that brought middle-class people into the state’s squalid migrant camps to provide assistance.

She spoke in dozens of churches around the state about issues ranging from war to poverty, and she spent most of the 1980s as one of the state’s top lobbyists in the North Carolina Legislature, pushing for the passage of bills to help the marginalized.

Just before she was diagnosed with cancer, Mattern, a nonsmoking vegetarian who looked much younger than her age, had agreed to reduce her hours as program associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches to become resident director of a monastery she cofounded with a Baptist minister and a Jewish woman.

Mattern authored two books that are frequently used in study groups. Blessed Are You: The Beatitudes and Our Survival and Why Not Become Fire? Encounters with Women Mystics.

“Evelyn was probably the most Christ-like person I’ve ever known,” said the Rev. George Reed, executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches. “Without trying to prepare a full legal defense of my position, let me just note her passionate commitment to justice, her righteous indignation at injustice, her faithful siding with the outcast, her belief in the way of peace, her deep spirituality, her frequent and comfortable passage from the inner journey to the outer and back again, her gentle spirit, her humility, her courage, her celebration of life, even her peace in the face of impending death.”

During the interview, Mattern often gazed out the window, looking at the trees gently swaying in a soft fall breeze. Mattern’s love for nature began with trees. Her niece, Jennifer Mattern Lane, said her aunt was struck by the words of Zen Master Katagrir Roshi, who used the phrase: “The silence of trees exactly.”

Not sure what it meant, Mattern said the words stuck with her. As she prepared to leave Peace Hill for a “city setting” in Philadelphia, Mattern said, “the thing that I feel I’m giving up is the trees. I really feel that God is in these woods and in these trees and in this house because of all the people who have been here.”

After she got sick, Mattern said she went from “being the busiest person in the world to being the least busy.” Around the beginning of October, she stopped using her computer. Mattern said she had to make the adjustment to “almost doing nothing and being comfortable doing nothing.”

Amid great physical pain, Mattern said she still felt a connection to God through her love of nature, and living in the present moment. “I have a tremendous sense of beauty and the importance of beauty at a time like this,” she said. “And I would like to be able to maintain, if I can, some sense of that as long as I can. I’m very conscious of everything that’s in this moment, and I don’t know what the next moment is going to bring.”

Mattern, who earned a doctorate in English literature and wrote her dissertation on Shakespeare, said she never asked the question, “Why me?” in reference to her illness. Through her worldwide travels, she said, she was “aware of all the suffering there is in the world; the pain people feel. Why wouldn’t we have our share of it?”

Mattern, whose given name was Linda, said she was raised in an atypical Catholic family that was “really not too religious but very ethical.”

Her father, Joseph, who once worked as a labor organizer, “had great respect for the working person.” After graduating from Philadelphia’s Little Flower Catholic High School in 1958, Mattern joined the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters in Philadelphia where she “had a pretty strict monastic training for about seven years under temporary vows and then made final vows.”

She chose the name Evelyn Joseph after her parents.

With the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which Mattern called “a glorious thing,” she decided to join the Sisters for Christian Community. Vatican II brought “some significant changes” to people’s lives, Mattern said.

“For example, I think people are much more serious about prayer, not as a ritual, but as an inner movement of the spirit,” she said.

Although she was an inaugural board member of the Women’s Ordination Conference, Mattern said she never felt called to the priesthood herself. She said she enjoyed being in community with other sisters.

The Rev. Mel Williams, pastor of the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., was one of the people who collaborated with Mattern on the monastery project. Williams praised Mattern for the “balanced life that she lived.”

“She was both a contemplative and an activist, and she showed us that activism alone can burn us out,” Williams said. “So she kept going back to Peace Hill to her contemplative hermitage, sitting in silence, sometimes alone, sometimes with some of us, and she kept returning to that well which nurtured and kept peace in her heart.”

In planning the monastery, Mattern told Williams there were “two essentials -- it needs to grow out of community and it needs to be interfaith. That’s the way the world is moving.”

The monastery, which Mattern named Solidarity Contemplative Center, is to be “a center where beleaguered activists and tired clergy can sit in silence and gain sustenance from the sacred wisdom of our glorious traditions,” Williams said. “We started working on fundraising letters, and then Evelyn got cancer and our plans were interrupted and we have been since then overwhelmed by grief.”

Fr. Al Dash, a diocesan priest who knew Mattern for 30 years and served as her most recent pastor, said Mattern loved everything in creation.

“The title sister could not have been a more appropriate title for Evelyn, because she was really everyone’s sister,” Dash said. “She loved all people. She didn’t look at labels or categories. She just saw people as God sees people, people to be loved without any conditions or reservation, and she gave herself to those people. She saw God’s presence everywhere.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2004

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