March 27, 2020, San Rafael, California – At Dominican University of California, professional faculty members are not the only people who teach students and influence their lives. Sister Mary Soher, OP, as Director of Campus Ministry, and student leaders help the entire university community to understand the ideals of the Dominican Order, reach out to people in need, and become involved in social justice issues.
“I work with our student leaders to help our university community embrace and embody the Dominican ideals of study, reflection, community, and service,” Sister Mary said. “I’m learning how to advise and empower them so that they continue to grow as leaders in developing a variety of skills, amidst all their other responsibilities. I’m learning how to best support them and then together offering quality programming to their peers and to the university.”
An Adrian Dominican Sister, she is in her fourth year of service at Dominican University of California, sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael.
Sister Mary and her team of students work to make members of the campus community aware of issues such as homelessness and hunger; coordinate Sunday liturgies, labyrinth walks, retreats, and a variety of activities; and support students in their challenges.
An ongoing project of Sister Mary and the student leaders is the Penguin Pantry, initiated in September 2018 that once a week offers students with a selection of produce, starches, protein, juices, and snacks from the SF-Marin Food Bank. “It’s totally run by students for the students and it’s become an opportunity for internships and capstone projects,” Sister Mary said. The students are now working with the food pantry’s government affairs manager, becoming involved in advocacy work.
Student leaders are also active in making their fellow students aware of the issue of homelessness. Sister Mary said, the student leaders recently collaborated with a local group that provides outreach to homeless youth to offer the students the opportunity to participate in a solidarity sleep-out.
“We sleep on the plaza using cardboard boxes and sleeping bags for protection,” she explained. The students do have some comforts – the availability of rest rooms and the knowledge that they can go back to their homes if they get too cold. Despite these advantages, Sister Mary said, the experience is one of solidarity with people who are homeless. “It’s being willing to experience for a night what other people have no choice but to experience,” she said.
Sister Mary also led an Alternative Spring Break that brought 10 students to the San Diego-Tijuana border to learn about immigration issues. During the March 7-14, 2020, trip, the students spent three days on each side of the border, learning about the issues and hearing from people who minister to immigrants – as well as from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Sister Mary’s ministry also involves supporting the students in their challenges. She pointed to financial insecurity as a major issue for many students. “There’s a lot of pressure that I think they put on themselves because many are first-generation in their family to go to college,” she explained. “They feel they have to be perfect.” Many also feel pressured by the idea of repaying student loans and feel the responsibility to be present to their family members at home.
Her work with the students is enhanced by the University community itself, which offers a supportive environment to the students, helping them deal with self-doubts and pressures. “The University is really trying to build a support system to help each student,” she said.
Sister Mary has learned a great deal from her ministry at Dominican University of California, such as developing her listening skills. In addition, she said, she has benefited from her service on the Board of Trustees of Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. “I’m looking at higher education from the perspective of a board member and a member of the Congregation that founded it,” she said. “I see higher education from both ends,” both as a staff member and as a board member who must be concerned about the “hands-on experience of the daily operations of a university.”
Sister Mary said her years of serving in campus ministry have taught her to be present to the students in various activities. “I really believe in the ministry of presence – going to the sport events, the theater events, the academic presentations and being visible so that if a student needs someone to talk to they find me approachable,” she said. “Students come to college, some knowing exactly what they want to do and some not having a clue, and to be one other person to help reflect back to them what’s going on in their life is a humbling and an exciting ministry.”
October 29, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – In 26 years of mission work in three countries, Sister Maurine Barzantni has experienced a variety of cultures, languages, and life situations. But in all of those situations, she found people who struggled for a better life for their children and who showed incredible generosity and hospitality to visitors.
Sister Maurine’s service in the missions began in 1990 in the Dominican Republic, where she and the late Sister Renee Richie, OP, worked for 10 years with the people of Sección San José de Arroyo Hondo. The Sisters worked with the people of this small barrio, or village, listening to their needs and helping them to fulfill those needs.
During that time, the people were able to establish a health clinic, pharmacy, and school. Espiritu Santo School, part of Fe y Alegría, a Jesuit system of schools, grew from a few children learning under a tree to a school of 1,500 students from kindergarten through high school. Espiritu Santo recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“I think of my experience in the Dominican Republic as a community organizing venture, and out of that community organizing came health services and then the school,” Sister Maurine said. “We never dreamt of starting a school. It came out of the development of the community.”
After leaving the Dominican Republic in 2010, Sisters Maurine and Renee – along with Sisters Kathryn Cliatt, OP, and Christa Marsik, OP – began their ministry at St. Clare Girls’ Centre in Meru, Kenya. The orphanage takes in girls who have been orphaned and those who seek safety from dangers such as being sold as child brides.
“The community made a commitment of four Sisters for three years to be grandmothers to 250 orphaned girls,” Sister Maurine said. Each of the Sisters also offered her own focus. Sister Maurine offered the girls the opportunity to do painting and drawing. “It started out being just an invitation, but the teachers asked that it be part of the curriculum,” she said.
From 2013 to 2016, Sisters Maurine and Renee were invited to serve in Northern British Columbia, Canada, to offer their presence to indigenous people, members of the Carrier Nation, on four reservations. They served as pastoral assistants to Father Fran Salmon, OMI, Pastor of Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Fort St. James.
“The Carrier Nation not only survived, but had a vibrant community because they worked together,” Sister Maurine recalled. “They didn’t lose their traditional values and traditional way of life. They taught their children how to fish, hunt, trap, and prepare food for the winter season. They preserved their Carrier language and all that kept them united as a community.”
Sister Maurine said she has seen a similar spirit wherever she has ministered. “People who struggle for survival have incredible skills for living together, building solidarity in a community, because they need each other to survive,” she said. “People who struggle for survival also have a deep trust in the presence of the Divine.”
Sister Maurine also recalled the “generous hospitality” that she found in every place where she ministered. She gave the example of the Dominican Republic, where the small community was often visited by high school, college, and medical groups. “The people who had nothing, living in small, small houses without any conveniences, would welcome the visitors with big smiles and would say to us, ‘How is it that they would want to visit us?’ They felt that the presence of visitors was a gift to them.”
She acknowledged the challenges inherent in missionary work – differences in language and “accustoming oneself to a whole different environment.” Still, Sister Maurine said she loved every place she served. “Just the welcoming by the people and the appreciation and willingness of the people to really work for and struggle for a better life for their children” brought her joy, she said.
Her involvement in missionary work always came through an invitation, Sister Maurine said. “Invitation is the strongest vehicle for a calling,” she said. “We call it a vocation in the religious community, but a vocation is a calling. From my earliest years, I was always drawn to the poorest communities,” even in the U.S. cities, she said.
Sister Maurine has advice for anyone who is interested in serving in the missions. “Just say ‘yes’ and be very patient with yourself. Be present. Don’t try to do anything. The people will tell you what they need and sometimes you can help them achieve those goals – and sometimes you can’t. Even if you can’t, your presence is still valuable.”
Feature photo (top): From left, Sisters Kathryn Cliatt, OP, Maurine Barzantni, OP, the late Renee Richie, OP, and Christa Marsik, OP, at their home in Meru, Kenya, circa 2010.
October 24, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – Sister Rose Ann Schlitt has spent 50 of her 65 years of religious life as a missioner, serving in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and in six other countries: the Dominican Republic, Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, Italy, and the Philippines.
A native of Vero Beach, Florida, Sister Rose Ann entered the Congregation in 1954 after being taught by Adrian Dominican Sisters in elementary and high school. “I felt called to that way of life,” she said. But she said she didn’t enter the Congregation planning to be a missioner, “not even thinking to be a teacher.”
Sister Rose Ann’s first assignment took her to Puerto Rico to teach in Guayama. She was then sent to teach in San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic. After teaching for two years in the United States – in Georgia and Florida – Sister Rose Ann returned to the Dominican Republic in 1966 to teach at Colegio Santo Domingo, sponsored by the Congregation and again in Santo Domingo and Haina in subsequent years.
From then on, Sister Rose Ann continued to serve in foreign lands: Peru from 1969 to 1978 and in Nicaragua, interspersed with ministries in Congregational leadership: on the General Council from 1982 to 1986 and as Chapter Prioress of the Rosa de Lima Mission Chapter, which included the Congregation’s Sisters serving overseas. In subsequent years, she served in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, 2003 to 2005; Santa Sabina, Rome, to coordinate the mission work of Dominican Volunteers International, 2005 to 2010; and in San Fernando, Pampanga, the Philippines, to accompany the Sisters of the Dominican Congregation of Our Lady of Remedies as they prepared for their merger with the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
Her work as a missioner included education and pastoral ministry, as well as less formal roles. “I was living among the people and helping them to accomplish what they needed to accomplish,” she said. “I’ve taught women income-generating skills that they needed to support their families.” In Nicaragua, this involved helping the women to develop a sewing cooperative.
She has also helped people to build their own faith through Basic Christian Communities, which she coordinated in Peru. “We interpreted Scripture together,” she recalled. “We looked at our reality and response together. That model was a real joy for me.”
Sister Rose Ann clarified that, over the years, she has come to see herself as a missioner rather than a missionary. “Missionary has been updated to be more inclusive of all kinds of presence” rather than the traditional role of missionaries as evangelists. “I have learned to be with the people in very different ways for the purpose of befriending them, of living among them, of forming solidarity – forming a “we” – and not necessarily doing what I knew how to do, but what they needed me to do,” Sister Rose Ann said.
Being a missioner “is very different from one who goes as an expert and teaches from expertise,” Sister Rose Ann explained. “It’s going out of your own poverty really, but open to what is there, who is there.”
Sister Rose Ann said being a missioner has been “a call within a call. Within the call to be in religious life and mission, the second call came to be in mission more closely with the poor and live as they lived – coming down from status, letting go of recognition. It was like going down the ladder to be free, to be with others.”
“You come as a stranger and a foreigner and you have to get beyond that and reach out in a human and friendly way,” she explained. “You have to befriend them, and then anything can happen.” Missioners also have to learn the language of the people and let go of a sense of control.
Another challenge, Sister Rose Ann said, is adjusting to a new culture and customs, even to different foods. “There are some cultural differences that you don’t understand right away, or maybe you never understand,” she said. The key is to be open and suspend judgment.
Finally, Sister Rose Ann said, missioners face the challenge of leaving the people they have come to love. “It’s always a challenge to love people and then leave, but that’s a part of it, because if you love enough you don’t just stay,” she said.
Sister Rose Ann found joy in the people she came to know in her missions, but also in her work with Dominican Volunteers International. “That was a real joy, to be at Santa Sabina [in Rome], to live in an inter-Dominican community of Sisters and to prepare lay people from different parts of the world – to help them prepare, look at their objectives, look at missionary attitudes, and help them prepare for their service.”
In working with the Dominican Volunteers, Sister Rose Ann looked for certain qualities that point to those who are well matched to life as a missioner. She looked for “someone who knows it’s not going to be about them – a certain simplicity and sensitivity to the other.” She saw a good disposition in most volunteers. “None of them really were sent and thought they were going to be the experts,” she said. “All of them felt they had a lot to learn.”
Sister Rose Ann also offers this wise counsel on serving in the missions, attributed to Lao Tsu, a Chinese philosopher who founded the school of Taoism in the sixth century before Christ:
“Go to the people, live with them, learn from them, love them. Start with what they know, build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, ‘We have done this ourselves.’”
Feature photo (top): Sister Rose Ann Schlitt, OP, introduces herself to neighbors in Barrio Acahualinca, Managua, Nicaragua Circa 1979.