April 12, 2023, Suttons Bay, Michigan – Sister Susan Gardner, OP, was recently invited to serve on the national Catholic Native Boarding School Accountability and Healing Project (AHP) and on its Listening, Learning, and Education Subcommittee. The project’s goal is to bring about healing and accountability with Native American Catholics in response to the Church’s sin of attempting to eradicate the culture and language of Indigenous children through boarding schools. Last month, the subcommittee offered two webinars to educate people in the United States about the boarding schools: “Native Boarding Schools: Learning from History to Promote Healing” and “Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma and Resilience in First Nations Communities.” Sister Susan’s service on the committee is the latest aspect of her many years of ministry with Indigenous Americans. She served with First Nations peoples in the Archdiocese of Keewatin-le Pas – encompassing parts of the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. She currently ministers at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish, which includes numerous Native American parishioners, in Suttons Bay, Michigan, and as the Director of the Native American Apostolate for the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan. Sister Susan said the AHP Committee is made up of people from across the United States: Indigenous people, single and married people, women religious, and priests. The goal of the subcommittee, she said, is to “educate the Catholics in the pews” who never heard of Catholic institutions such as boarding schools for Native American children. In the videos, she said, “we try to emphasize how really horrible it was.” Boarding schools for Native American children were instituted by the U.S. government about 150 years ago in an effort to teach the ways of the new U.S. culture and to eradicate the students’ own culture and language. The schools were run by religious groups, including the Catholic Church in the United States. Sister Susan Gardner, OP, at the 160th anniversary of her parish, St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Suttons Bay, Michigan The injustice of the boarding schools was brought forward in the subcommittee’s first video by Father Michael Carson, Assistant Director for Native American Affairs Committee on Multicultural Diversity in the Church for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He called the Church’s role in boarding schools a sin, Sister Susan said. “Our sin was that the Church has taught from the beginning of time that it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach the children – and we pulled the children from their homes,” Father Michael said in the video. “We should never have allowed that to happen or the abuse to happen. It was racist.” Sister Susan emphasized that the children who attended the schools – and their parents – suffered trauma from the experience. In the subcommittee’s second video, she said, presenter Amy Bombay, MA, PhD, spoke of how trauma is handed down from one generation to the next. “Children who went to the school didn’t have a parenting model – they didn’t know how to love,” Sister Susan explained. “If they smiled or waved to their sisters or brothers [while at the boarding school], they were punished. It broke down all the family ties. When they became parents, they didn’t know how to love their children.” Sister Susan noted that many of her parishioners were affected by Holy Childhood of Jesus, a boarding school in Harbor Springs, Michigan, open from 1829 to 1983. The suffering that the children endured still affects some former students today. She recounted a recent incident in which a funeral was held at the school. One woman could not go to the hall for the funeral luncheon because of the painful memories. “That was where the children were punished so severely,” she said. Sister Susan is enthusiastic about the Gaylord Diocese’s upcoming approach to healing people wounded by the boarding schools. On Saturday, May 20, 2023, her parish will host a ritual to return the names of the children who attended Holy Childhood of Jesus back to their families. “Children’s names were taken from them when they went to the boarding school,” she said. Invitations to the Giving Back the Names ceremony were sent to the Tribal Councils of six tribes. “Five tribes responded with total gratitude and can’t wait to come,” Sister Susan said. “We’ll be in a circle with each group to say we’re doing this because we’re deeply sorry for what happened and we want to hear their stories.” During the ceremony, “each set of names [listed in a large book] will be smudged,” following a common indigenous ritual in which herbs such as sage are burned and used to cleanse an object or space, Sister Susan said. Bishop Jeffrey Walsh of the Diocese of Gaylord will present the book of names from each tribe to the Tribal Chairperson, who will be invited to speak. While the Giving Back the Names ceremony is a new approach – Sister Susan believes that the Diocese of Gaylord is the first to hold this ceremony – many other Catholic groups that have been involved in boarding schools have sought reconciliation as well. Communities of women religious, for example, are apologizing to the communities whose members were taught in the boarding schools they ran. While Sister Susan and members of the Healing and Reconciliation Project are working with Indigenous people to acknowledge the sins of the past, she and her subcommittee are also working with the public to make more people aware of the boarding schools and the suffering they brought about. “My hope is that we continue to reach people,” Sister Susan said. She most often hears the argument that most of the boarding schools were in place a long time ago and don’t need to be discussed. “My response is usually that the Holocaust happened a long time ago and yet we do not doubt the stories of the Jewish people,” she said. Just as the Holocaust was a trauma for the Jewish people, so are Native Americans still traumatized by the boarding schools. “The message I want to give is to please listen with open hearts and minds to anything [Native Americans] say, because healing can only happen when we listen and understand and believe,” Sister Susan said. “I just hope that healing can really begin and make a difference.” Read more about Catholic involvement in boarding schools in this article from The National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Project.