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October 9, 2012

Women as Peacebuilders Series - Session 1

Kathy Maire, Franciscan Sister of Allegany

As usual in Living Room Dialogues, a special guest makes a short presentation after which other participants are invited into a dialogue on the theme. Kathy Maire was invited to this first session of the Women as Peacebuilders series because of her work with the poor in Bolivia and Nicaragua, farmworkers in Delaware and the homeless in NYC. As a focus for the conversation, Sr. Kathy was asked to reflect on turning points in her life, a moment or moments that led to deeper understandings and affected the course of her life.

Her presentation inspired the following poem, an interpretive version of what she told us.

Re-Thinking Poverty

  • Wanting to emulate a saint,
  • she joined a religious order that
  • honored poverty and suffering,
  • but Franciscans at home did not
  • seem poor, or suffering much.
  • They insisted she teach French
  • in an American school.
  • She begged to be sent to Bolivia
  • as a missionary.
  • Denied for long years, at last
  • she was allowed to descend into
  • the Bolivian jungle where no one
  • asked for French lessons.
  • Instead she helped out in a clinic
  • where many were suffering
  • from TB and other diseases.


  • She remembers one woman who asked
  • that her sick baby girl
  • be allowed to die because
  • it was "too hard to be a woman."
  • A turning point came when she watched
  • maggots crawl from the mouth of a baby
  • who had been left too long snuggled against
  • her dead and decomposing mother.


  • This poverty, this suffering
  • this degraded life
  • exceeded her Franciscan imagination.
  • This was not to be revered
  • or even condoned.
  • With fresh eyes, she condemned
  • the greed behind it, and
  • vowed to fight it forever more.

The Dialogue

After Sr. Kathy told her story, the facilitator invited everyone in the group to share any experiences where their thinking and life direction was expanded or changed. Most of the 11 people who attended were Roman Catholic nuns, so many of the stories revolved around women as peacebuilders serving the poor or teaching.

One person said she worked as a catechist in Brazil for two years where she shared people's lives, after which she returned to work in New York City in East Harlem. She found poverty in Harlem to be the equal of that she encountered in Brazil. A special experience for her was meeting a mother who had prepared her 14-year-old daughter for first communion herself outside of regular Catholic instruction. Many years later this nun still marvels at the power and intelligence of that woman.

A nun born in Colombia told a story about her father who interrupted fights in their neighborhood where women were being abused. "Do not treat women like mules" he told the men.

A secular woman told a story appreciating the wisdom and sensitivity of her mother. When her physician father who had his office in their house encountered patients with emotional difficulties, he sent them upstairs where they could confide their troubles to his wife.

A young social worker told a story about rescuing a 14-year-old girl in Newark, NJ from expulsion from her school because of her pregnancy. She taught the girl one-to-one and brought her from failing grades to the honor roll. The girl is now raising her child and attends community college.

A secular woman told a story of taking a 15-year-old friend of her daughter into her home because her mother's psychiatric problems and bizarre behavior were affecting both her and the woman's daughter.

Another nun told of teaching Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican children and adults in the South Bronx because of her conviction that education is the way out of poverty.

Organizing a soup kitchen in the 1970s and 1980s led a nun to encounters with and forming relationships with people in the line waiting for food. Encouraging some of those people to help out in the soup kitchen allowed furthering of some relationships. These were people she would never have gotten to know otherwise.

Reading "The Good Earth" as a child set the course of one nun's thinking. Much later she was much moved by experiences working with incarcerated mothers. She learned there about the extent of violence against women: 98% of women in prison today have been horribly abused either sexually or physically, she said.

A secular woman spoke of being changed when she retired from an intense and demanding job. More relaxed now, she is making an effort not to be judgmental.

Finally, a nun recounted being involved in conducting a hunger survey in East Harlem in the 1970s. Women were given a bag of food and asked when they ate last and if they stole food. The results were shocking.

At the end, all agreed the stories they heard reflected the power of women and that telling the stories can impact the thinking of other people.

Peggy Ray

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