Category Archives: Action

Marquette University bars direct fossil fuel investments with its $929 million endowment

The Church of the Gesu can be seen on the Milwaukee campus of Marquette University in this winter 2020 photo. (CNS/Courtesy of Marquette University)

Student climate activists at Marquette University celebrated after the Jesuit school in Milwaukee moved last week to prohibit direct investments in fossil fuels through its $929 million endowment.

Marquette announced an update March 24 to its university investment policy that bars investments in public securities whose primary business involves the exploration and extraction of coal, oil and gas. The move was approved by its board of trustees.

In addition, the new policy formalizes measures the endowment office has been practicing for several years, including monitoring funds for indirect exposure to fossil fuels and moving to “wind down” other private investments in fossil fuel-related holdings “in accordance with the terms of the partnership agreements.” A spokeswoman told EarthBeat the university retains the ability to maintain fossil fuel exposure “on a case-by-case basis,” particularly with companies adapting their business models toward solutions to climate change.

In a statement, Marquette president Michael Lovell connected the new policy to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” and the Society of Jesus’ four universal apostolic preferences, which also includes “care of our common home.”

“Our Catholic, Jesuit mission calls on us as an institution to invest in our students’ futures in ways that are positive for our world. By prohibiting direct investments in fossil fuels and following best practices in responsible investment, Marquette is heeding Pope Francis’ call to ‘reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals,’ ” Lovell said, adding “I am proud that Marquette University is taking this important stance.”

Maddie Kuehn, a junior and member of Fossil Free Marquette that pushed for divestment, told EarthBeat the move was “really exciting” and an “incredible first step.”

“I personally was really surprised. We had no idea that this was even on Marquette’s radar or something that they were even talking about,” she said.  

Marquette becomes the seventh U.S. Catholic university to publicly announce plans to eliminate holdings in the fossil fuel sector from its endowments and investment portfolios. The others are University of Dayton (2014), Seattle University (2018), Georgetown University (2020), Creighton University (2020), Loyola University Chicago (2021) and University of San Diego (2021). Of the seven, five of them are Jesuit schools.

In 2019, the Society of Jesus adopted four universal apostolic preferences for the next decade. On “caring for our common home,” the Jesuits called for ecological conversion in the face of today’s environmental crisis that particularly harms poor and vulnerable people, and they directed their educational institutions to raise awareness and identify ways to act.

The emissions released from the burning of coal, oil and gas are the primary driver of global climate change. Along with that, excavation of fossil fuels often destroys ecosystems and threatens the lives of communities and creatures native to the land.

A report from the International Energy Agency stated that for the world to meet the Paris Agreement goals of max 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise and net-zero emissions by 2050 there cannot be any new oil, gas and coal development.

“There is no need to invest in oil, gas or coal. The existing [power plants] are enough to meet the declining demand for these fossil fuels. There is no need for that,” Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, said in an August webinar hosted by the Laudato Si’ Movement.

In its press release, Marquette stated that its current investment portfolio is free of direct public investments in fossil fuels.

Roughly a year ago, the university told EarthBeat it estimated direct investments in oil and gas amounted to 1% to 2% of its total endowment, at the time roughly $693 million in market value.

In April 2021, students passed a nonbinding resolution with 87% of voters in support of the university implementing a five-year fossil fuel divestment plan. The vote came after a series of meetings between student group Fossil Free Marquette, Lovell and chief investment officer Sean Gissal.

Several months after the vote, Fossil Free Marquette presented a complaint letter in October to Lovell and the board of trustees alleging that the board was violating its fiduciary responsibility by investing in fossil fuels. The students pointed to Wisconsin law that stipulates nonprofit organizations must consider its “charitable purposes” in its investment decisions.

“As a Catholic and Jesuit institution, Marquette commits itself to upholding and promoting the Catholic Church’s teachings on and guidelines for care of the environment,” the student letter read. But despite repeated calls from Francis for the world to rapidly move away from fossil fuels, “the Trustees have remained steadfast in their support of an industry whose business model is based on environmental destruction and social injustice,” the letter stated.

Lynn Griffith, university spokesperson, told EarthBeat “there was zero attention given” to the allegations of violations of the board’s fiduciary duties, and that the updated policy “reflects investment practices that have been in place for several years.” That includes partnering with investment managers who follow the Principles of Responsible Investment and engage in impact investing.

While Fossil Free Marquette celebrated their school’s divestment decision, they hope to see more transparency about how the endowment is invested. That’s especially important, Kuehn said, for private schools where information about investments is not public and harder to access.

“We would like to see the university engage in discussions with students and have opportunities for them to ask questions about this issue, because I know that a lot of people care about it,” she said.

Campaigns to cut financial ties with the fossil fuel industry have been ongoing within faith communities for over a decade, and they represent the largest sector within the wider movement. While the vast majority of Catholic institutions have not divested, attention to the idea has gained traction in the wake of the release of Laudato Si’. The Vatican Bank has stated it does not hold investments in fossil fuels, and the Vatican, through messages, documents and initiatives, including the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, has increasingly recommended divestment as a viable option and “moral imperative” for Catholic institutions.

At their November meeting, the U.S. bishops approved new socially responsible investment guidelines. The revised guidelines, which many Catholic institutions in the country utilize, include an expanded section on environmental concerns, with more than a half-dozen citations of Pope Francis.

On divestment, the new guidelines say the U.S. bishops’ conference will consider that option with companies that consistently fail to initiate policies intended to achieve the Paris Agreement goals, and points to a footnote citing the Vatican’s 2020 Laudato Si’ implementation guidelines that recommend “evaluating progressive disinvestment from the fossil-fuel sector.”

Passionist Sisters seek to renew dignity for women in Buenos Aires’ poorest slums

Passionist Sr. María Angélica Agorta visits with a woman in her home in Villa Hidalgo, Buenos Aires, Argentina. (GSR photo/Soli Salgado)

Buenos Aires, Argentina — At 35 years old, Gaby* is a mother of 13, a grandmother, and a runaway convict.

Of her 13 children, eight have been put into foster homes over the years as a result of her and her partner’s drug dealing, for which they were ultimately imprisoned several years ago. After she got pregnant while detained, she negotiated a brief release in November 2020 to give birth while under house arrest and leave her baby at home in her Buenos Aires villa, or urban shantytown.

But while she was out of prison, Gaby destroyed her ankle monitor, opting to live like a fugitive and gamble life behind bars if she’s found.

For the Passionist Sisters who regularly meet women like Gaby in Villa Hidalgo, navigating the art of accompaniment can feel like a minefield, learning through trial and error how to initiate meaningful conversations that eventually yield trusting relationships.

“In other villas, the abuse a woman suffers is more visible” in the form of bruises from domestic violence, Sr. Florencia Buruchaga said. “But in Villa Hidalgo, their suffering is more private, more invisible.”

The trust between Sr. María Angélica Algorta and Buruchaga and the residents of the villa began as most Argentine relationships do: chatting while drinking mate, a traditional herbal tea.

Entering the villas of Buenos Aires as an unaccompanied outsider is commonly discouraged; for most of the population, driving past the stack of tin houses peeping above the highway is the closest they may ever get.

The ticket into Villa Hidalgo for Algorta and Buruchaga (who live in the suburb of San Martín, a five-minute drive from the villa) was a young woman who sought their help: Her cousin was about to attempt suicide by throwing herself onto the nearby train tracks, and she wanted the sisters to counsel her. Since that incident, the sisters continued returning to the villa with the woman, walking the unpaved roads together and stopping for conversations as they slowly became familiar faces.

While Buruchaga and Algorta are the only two ministering in Villa Hidalgo, their fellow sisters throughout the city carry on similar work in their nearby villas.

“We are Passionist because we accompany the passion of men and women, especially the most neglected,” Buruchaga said.

“We believe that, today, the most neglected are the women of the villa.”

A space just for villa women

The sisters find inspiration in Fr. José María di Paola, a friend of Pope Francis who’s known as “Padre Pepe” throughout Argentina, and his ministry, the Homes of Christ. Padre Pepe and his team have established spaces throughout the country over the last 20 years with a focus on addiction or those affected by it. The ministry welcomes young people from the streets with hopes of helping them address their issues, usually related to abuse, drugs or crime, and “preparing them to return to the streets — that is, their environment — and hopefully transform their families, too,” Buruchaga said.

But of Argentina’s roughly 150 Homes of Christ, few, if any, are dedicated solely to women.

“Behind a woman, there is always a child,” and therefore women are more “complex” to help, Buruchaga said. “She never moves alone, whereas when a man wants to do a treatment, he can just go and do it. But the woman doesn’t have that possibility because she has to take care of the children, the school, the house, the husband. She’s relegated.”

In February 2021, the sisters, linked with Padre Pepe’s team and resources, aimed to create a space similar to a Home of Christ for the women of the villa: Project Dignity. They would need help from local women to get started.

When they knocked on the door of the villa‘s Caacupé Chapel, the eventual site of their community space, the sisters met Olga Barreto. They asked her if she and the women needed help and accompaniment.

Sí, mucho,” Barreto remembers telling them.

Barreto moved to Buenos Aires from Asuncíón, Paraguay, in 1999 “with only the clothes on my back,” she said, along with her then-toddler daughter and her partner at the time. “We were looking for a better life. There just wasn’t work [in Paraguay], no way to advance.”

Barreto is the emblem of a villa woman: The Paraguayan immigrant works as a domestic maid, is married to a builder and lives with two of her three children (ages 12, 14 and 24) in a small house.

“The villa needs a lot of companionship because so many women live badly, both economically and emotionally from abuse and violence,” she said, adding that local children also become victims of violence, drugs and alcohol.

Three days a week, Barreto volunteers with two other women in the backroom of the chapel to hand out food and snacks to the children of Hidalgo and nearby villas, creating a space where kids can play, draw, sing and pray.

“Here, they have food and milk, but they also find peace where they know they’ll be cared for,” she said.

Before the sisters appeared at the chapel door to ask how they could help, “we felt very alone,” Barreto said. “Now, we’re supported in every sense”: The sisters help them acquire food, offer spiritual sustenance, and oversee the construction of the chapel’s communal space.

“The women now realize they’re not alone, that there are people who are invested in their well-being, that someone is interested in what happens to them, that they’re not invisible, that there are people who are aware of what’s going on in their lives,” Barreto said. “It gives them hope.”

‘This system does not allow one to grow as a person’

Though engaging with individuals is important in renewing the women’s sense of dignity, the Passionist Sisters say the issue is systemic, as Argentina’s welfare system has perpetuated generational poverty by not giving people who live in poverty any incentive to work.

Buruchaga and Algorta said those in the villas tend to fall in one of two categories: immigrants from Paraguay or Bolivia, most of whom arrive motivated to find work and pay, and Argentine families who have lived in poverty for multiple generations, many of whom have never known a family member to hold a job because they have long depended on substantial government checks.

“If you talk to some people in confidence and ask them how much they earn with all their welfare checks, they earn much more than a person who works an official job eight hours a day,” Buruchaga said, noting that this also creates resentment among the struggling middle class. “Federal assistance essentially deteriorates motivation to work.”

That mentality is cyclical, the sisters said, and therein lies the injustice.

“This system does not allow one to grow as a person,” Algorta said. “It doesn’t respect their dignity because a system that respects a person’s dignity would provide education, decent work.” Instead, children from the villa‘s elementary schools can barely read, and high school graduates achieve elementary standards, in some cases “not even enough education to become a cashier.”

The sisters, therefore, were intentional in not making their presence about handouts; rather, through the process of conversation, those they minister to come to appreciate the dignity of work on their own.

Then there’s the pervasiveness of drugs: Algorta and Buruchaga estimate that for every 10 houses in Villa Hidalgo, eight sell drugs: crack, cocaine, nevado (marijuana laced with cocaine), and paco (a combination of crack residue, baking soda, and sometimes glass and rat poison).

“Here, drugs are a given,” Buruchaga said.

But most resort to dealing drugs “because it’s easy money, and they have no other option,” she said. “They don’t realize how hard it is to get out, that there’s always a cost to getting involved.”

Barreto agreed, saying most people “get involved in drugs out of necessity and from a place of pain.”

One of Project Dignity’s increasingly popular resources is Susana Orlandi, a clinical psychologist with experience working in prisons. The sisters recruited her to make weekly trips to the villa, where she hosts individual 30-minute sessions pro bono in the chapel’s backroom.

Domestic violence, sexual abuse, malnutrition, and other conflicts in the home are typically the issues Orlandi hears from the women, she said.

“They’ve opened up a lot over time,” Orlandi said, so much so that she recently increased her visits to twice a week so she can see more women, who learn about her through word of mouth.

“One of my ideas [for Project Dignity] is to create a women’s group so they can support and listen to each other in group therapy,” Orlandi said. Though the women come to her with different problems, “feeling alone” is at the heart of their concerns, she said.

“The differences I do notice with my private patients are the resources and tools they lack to advance their life and better themselves,” Orlandi said, citing their economic dependence, the culture, and lack of education. “The problems may be the same, but the solutions are harder to come by.”

Still, just having a space where they can feel heard is invaluable, she said. Working with women, “the effects are like a waterfall on their children and grandchildren.”

Barreto said she dreams of greater outreach in the community and hopes they can “build a bigger team” to be able to do more throughout the villa, especially for the children who lack good role models.

“To change the lives [of those in the villa] — especially in just a year — is hard,” Barreto said. “It takes time, work, therapy. They need help to learn, to feel that they’re capable. But if there’s accompaniment and interest in them, then little by little, they can achieve more. It’s hard to solve everything at once, but we can make their load lighter.”

For their part, the sisters hope to one day sell their home in neighboring San Martín and move to the villa to be closer with the poor “not just economically,” Buruchaga said. “But poor in dignity.”

Salvatorian nuns build houses for war victims, widows in Sri Lanka

Sr. Dulcie Peiris, superior of a Salvatorian convent in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, with Dilrukshi Fernando and her daughters. The nun was on a follow-up visit to Fernando's home, which was built by the Salvatorian Sisters with support from Share Global.
Sr. Dulcie Peiris, superior of a Salvatorian convent in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, with Dilrukshi Fernando and her daughters. The nun was on a follow-up visit to Fernando’s home, which was built by the Salvatorian Sisters with support from Share Global. (Thomas Scaria)

Kandy, Sri Lanka — Kapila Suranga never imagined that his request for a roofing sheet he saw lying discarded in a convent garden would make his dreams come true.

The Hindu daily wager in Kandy, Sri Lanka, noticed the sheet as he was cutting grass in the garden of the Salvatorian convent in Kandy. He told Sr. Dulcie Peiris, the convent superior, that the sheet would help repair his house’s leaking roof.

The nun responded that they did not want to give him a damaged sheet; instead, she would visit his house.

“What we saw there was very touching. There was no house at all, and what they had were a few iron sheets and abandoned billboards molded in like a hut, where his wife and two small daughters lived,” Peiris told Global Sisters Report. She pooled some resources to build a home for the Suranga family.

They were among more than 200 families from different religious backgrounds who have benefited from the housing project of the Salvatorian nuns in Sri Lanka. The nuns built the houses in various parts of the island nation mainly for single parents, widows and war victims. Some who were in need, like Suranga, also benefited.

Sri Lanka’s 1983-2009 civil war between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic communities claimed up to 100,000 lives, mainly Tamils seeking a separate state, according to U.N. estimates. The official registry of the Sri Lankan government, however, puts the toll at 40,000. Both sides in the 26-year conflict are under U.N. scrutiny for war crimes.

Peiris accompanied GSR to Suranga’s new house, where his wife, Dilrukshi Fernando, a Catholic, waited for them at the main road with her 2-year-old daughter, Bhagya (which means “lucky”). She then took the team to their dream house of two small rooms, a kitchen and living room.

The house was not plastered or painted, but Fernando and her two daughters — Bhagya and 6-year-old Amali — looked happy. Suranga had gone to his work as a grass cutter.

“We had always dreamt of having a house, but never thought it would come true so soon,” said Dilrukshi Fernando, as Bhagya held her tightly and Amali stood at her side.

(Fernando is a common surname among Sinhala Catholics in Sri Lanka. The three women in this story with that last name are unrelated.)

The housing project was initiated by Sr. Dulcie Fernando, who was the congregation’s Sri Lankan provincial for three terms, with a donation from an unidentified person in Europe. He donated $3,000 for each shelterless family through Share Global, an international Salvatorian Sisters solidarity office.

The solidarity office helps sisters and laypeople initiate, coordinate and manage projects in various developing countries. They promote an equitable and sustainable society through education, health care, pastoral work and community capacity building, Fernando told GSR.

Another beneficiary is Mary Margaret, a war widow with a mentally challenged son and two daughters, in Kurunegala, about 25 miles northwest of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. The eldest daughter, whose husband recently died from a heart attack, has moved back to her mother’s house.

The houses have basic structures without plaster, painting or electrical connections.

Sr. Fernando, who has initiated several community building projects in Sri Lanka, explains, “We had a limited fund for each house. We also believed in letting the family complete the construction so that they would feel it was their own.”

However, many such as Mary Margaret could not complete the work because of dire poverty, Sr, Fernando added.

Sr. Shiroma Kurumbalapitiya, the present provincial who joined the home visits, said, “They are struggling to make ends meet during this pandemic. How can they complete the homes?”

Margaret told GSR that they are happy with what they have.

“We are grateful to the sisters for providing this home and visiting us from time to time,” said Margaret, who lives by selling lottery tickets. “But no one tries their luck during this pandemic.”

Neighbors help her family with food and other items. She goes to the town of Kurunegala to sell lottery tickets at the bus stops and other public places. Lottery is quite popular in Sri Lanka, especially among those without resources, she said.

Kurumbalapitiya said they are trying to get some funds to complete the houses and build toilets for those unable to do so.

The provincial said neighbors and local parishes cooperated in building the houses and continue supporting the families.

“So, this is not just a Salvatorian program, but a community building project where several stakeholders are involved,” said Kurumbalapitiya, who added they receive funds from benefactors through Global Share. The house is built as a “collaborative project between beneficiary families and their community,” she said.

The provincial says a condition for getting a house is that the family should have land with proper records. In some cases, local people have donated land to a family.

Hasitha Silva, a parish council member of the St. Anne’s Cathedral, Kurunegala, took the team to a house in Yaggapitiya, an interior village about 20 miles from Margaret’s house. It is accessible only by a rough terrain vehicle.

Soma Fernando, a widow, owns the house, among the first 20 built in 2015 under Sr. Fernando’s supervision. The house was larger compared to others since the parishioners helped pool local resources. The local unit of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul also assisted, with some members volunteering free labor.

At the same time, there are houses that still are not completed even after six years.

“We have to understand that people were not able to plaster or furnish their homes due to poverty,” said Sr. Fernando, adding that further funding is essential.

Their funds come from benefactors through their key Global Share promoters — Ursula Schulten in Germany and Yvonne Schmelzer in Italy.

“Recently, we have requested additional funds to support selected beneficiaries, but the pandemic situation has crippled everyone,” Sr. Fernando said.

Some houses have extended their space, affixed tiles and plastered the walls.

Sr. Fernando took GSR to a home near Kandy. This house was improved substantially as its owner now works as a gardener in Saudi Arabia.

Their only son, 22-year-old Darshan Vinith Thangavelu, who completed the work, said, “We were very poor and my father did not have a job when the sisters came forward to help us.”

Thangavelu, a former student of Fernando’s who now works on a college administrative staff, told GSR, “My next dream is to become a teacher and, when I earn money, I want to help other homeless people.”

Fernando said she had worked among women and children with a nongovernmental organization in Kandy before initiating the housing project with Share Global. The hill stations in and around Kandy were always prone to landslides and in one such incident several farmers had lost their houses, she recalled.

“But they never got a house from the government and this prompted me to initiate the housing programs,” the sister said.

The project was initially implemented in the southern part of Sri Lanka. “Now we concentrate on the Tamil population in northern provinces like Jaffna, Mannar and Vavuniya who have lost everything due to 30 years of civil war,” Fernando explained.

In Puttalam district, 80 miles northwest of Kandy, the nuns built many houses with local participation. “The beneficiaries were selected based on their eligibility and not according to their religion, caste or creed,” Fernando said.

In many cases, local community leaders and parish priests also help in selecting the beneficiary families.

Kurumbalapitiya says a house is a basic need for people because “a roof over their head means total empowerment of the family.”

The Salvatorians want to ensure those who live in the houses are empowered to lead a dignified life. “If they are sick, we reach out to them with nursing care. If their children are weak in studies, we give them tuition,” she added.

Mary Margaret, a lay Salvatorian (not the woman of the same name who moved her family into a home built by the sisters), supplies building materials for the nuns in Puttalam and has built two houses for homeless families on her own.

Fernando said the laywoman helped keep their building initiatives alive “when we were really worried about the continuation of the project during the pandemic.”

The businesswoman said she was inspired by the Salvatorians and would continue the mission “as much as I can.” Her son is a Salvatorian priest.

Salvatorian Sisters, also known as Sisters of the Divine Savior, are spread over 45 countries and six continents. Salvatorians have priests, brothers and lay collaborators, besides the nuns.

The Salvatorian nuns are located in only one province in Sri Lanka with 73 members living in 15 convents. They hail from Sinhala and Tamil ethnic communities and are engaged mainly in social apostolates, such as peace building, non-formal education, empowering women and eradicating poverty.

‘A willingness to start with ‘yes’’: How one Catholic school graduated its first student with Down syndrome

Abby Aguedelo
Pastor of St. Augustine’s, Fr. Peter Gori O.S.A. (right) and admissions director Paula O’Dea (left) hand Abby Aguedelo her diploma on graduation day./ Wendy Agudelo

Tears flowed down the faces of Abigail “Abby” Agudelo’s classmates, as earlier this year she became the first student with Down syndrome to graduate from St. Augustine’s School in Andover, Massachusetts. 

“We know other parochial schools in Massachusetts are striving to do the same today,” Abby’s mother, Wendy Agudelo, told CNA in an interview in August. “And because of Abby’s experience, other families who desire a Catholic school education for all of their children, including those containing a family member with special needs, are now looking at parochial school education as opportunistic.”

Because of her own mother’s strong Catholic faith, Wendy Agudelo had always wanted a Catholic education for all of her children. She also hoped Abby would have an academic path with “full inclusion,” and would not be placed in a classroom separate from other students. 

After Abby’s time in public preschool, however, her mother was not certain of a combination of Catholic education and full classroom inclusion.

“We noticed a divide between what we wanted for Abigail and what the school felt she should receive given her diagnosis,” she said in an email to CNA. 

It was during Agudelo’s search for a school that then-St. Augustine principal Paula O’Dea and pastor Fr. Peter Gori O.S.A. stepped into the breach, and decided that St. Augustine’s would accommodate Abby’s needs. 

“When Abby and her wonderful parents first made their inquiry to us at St. Augustine School about enrolling, the principal and I were concerned that we might not have available all that Abby would need for a successful experience,” Gori told CNA in an email. “We and Abby’s parents all agreed to give it a try and that there would be no hard feelings if things didn’t work out.” 

Gori said that Abby’s parents were “right all along” in believing that Abby would thrive at St. Augustine’s. “We received from her as much or more than she did from us,” Gori said. “It was a delight and a blessing every day and every year to have Abby at St. Augustine School.”  

Wendy Agudelo told CNA that, in general, parochial schools may not have a significant amount of resources. She noted organizations that exist to educate and support parochial schools interested in broadening their demographics. She named the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion and the FIRE Foundation as a few examples of these groups.

“Not every parochial school, or administrator for that matter, is interested in this path,” Wendy Agudelo said. “It comes with its set of challenges, but also great reward.”

She said that those who choose the path that St. Augustine’s School chose “ultimately earn the greatest return on investment.” 

“Nine years ago,” Paula O’Dea told CNA, “we didn’t have any teachers with a moderate disabilities certification. Now, we have a lot of teachers with that as their second degree, and we’ll have two full-time special ed teachers on site.” O’Dea is currently admissions director for St. Augustine’s.

O’Dea, who was the school’s principal at the time of Abby’s entrance, believes that St. Augustine’s was the only elementary school in the Archdiocese of Boston to accept a student with Down syndrome.

She told CNA that in Abby’s time at public school, her parents observed her in the corner of the classroom with a special education teacher, “not really being included in anything in the classroom.”

When Abby first arrived at the school, O’Dea said the school decided that, in order to properly live out its Catholic mission, it needed to find ways to support any student who wanted to attend. 

The school partnered with local Merrimack College to hire a student studying moderate disabilities as a subsidized, full-time teacher to support Abby. O’Dea said the school’s decision was a success, because it was affordable and effective for Abby. St. Augustine continues to have a “Merrimack Fellow” today.

O’Dea said that hiring the Merrimack Fellow was “a very small investment financially for us to have such a great outcome in the end.” She says she would recommend it as an alternative to hiring a full-time special education teacher for the classroom. 

Abby’s parents said that they stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the administration and staff throughout Abby’s schooling. They encouraged teachers at every grade level to gain more professional development and experience with special needs through local conferences and workshops. 

While working full time, both of Abby’s parents spent much of their time at St. Augustine’s volunteering at Kindergarten centers, the lunchroom, as a chaperone on numerous field trips, and as active guild members helping to run events and fundraisers.

Wendy Agudelo said that partnering and collaborating with the school “every step of the way” bore amazing results.  

“In my opinion,” Agudelo said, “it’s not about available resources as much as it is a willingness to start with ‘yes’ and work together towards a shared goal.” 

“We’re not alone and believe that the more families know, the more armed with opportunity they become,” she said. “We’re very, very fortunate to have found such great academic partners for our children, but pepper in some serious faith and a sprinkling of compassion, and nothing is impossible!” 

“Abby’s achievement is very impressive,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, to CNA. “But the biggest impact is the effect she had on the entire school community.  They all were blessed to have her as a classmate or student.”

Sharp-eyed grandmothers combat looting and crime in South Africa

Thomas, Evelyne and Mpho pose for a photo in Bertrams in Johannesburg, South Africa. July 5, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG, – As looters ran through the streets of Johannesburg, South African grandmother Evelyne turned off her lights, stood by her window and carefully lifted her curtain, surveying the chaos as gunshots and screams filled the night air.

The 72-year-old was guarding her property, but she was also gathering information to share with her neighbourhood watch team, made up of a few male patrollers and about a dozen grandmothers in the inner city’s Bertrams neighbourhood.

“I was scared to go outside, but I heard that there were gunshots coming from a nearby shop and groups of men running through the streets,” said Evelyne, who relayed her observations to her team who then alerted police.

“One man tried to jump over my wall but I shouted through the window and he ran away,” Evelyne, whose full name is being withheld to protect her identity, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

South Africa’s worst violence in years broke out after last week’s arrest of former president, Jacob Zuma, with soldiers deployed to stop crowds looting everything from washing machines to fridges and groceries.

The unrest comes at a time of frustration with COVID-19 restrictions, government corruption scandals and inequality that persists 27 years after the end of white minority rule, with unemployment hitting a new high of 32.6% this year.

One of the most unequal countries in the world, South Africa saw its highest murder rate in a decade in 2020, with 21,000 homicides, or 58 a day, a figure five times higher than the global average, according to government statistics.

Residents say rising unemployment fuels drug use and crime, as more than a year of COVID-19 lockdowns has triggered major job losses, particularly in construction, the informal sector and private homes.

The grandmother lookout team – who generally patrol from the safety of their patios – have become more valuable than ever, said Thomas Makama, founder of the neighbourhood watch scheme.

“About two shops were looted, but we managed to stop up to 10 shops from being attacked because we were on the lookout and called police for urgent backup,” said Makama, who called and visited the grandmothers to gather information.

“It’s dangerous work,” said 61-year-old Makama, who never carries a weapon and relies on his people skills to engage with criminals and police and dissipate danger.


Makama founded the Bertrams Residents Movement in 2015, after the community helped him get back his home when he was evicted and forced on to the streets by “hijackers” who were trying to illegally take over the site where he lived.

Makama, who was working as a panel beater and unable to afford rent for his family of six, had been given permission to build a shack on the land by its owners, who lived in Canada.

“The community realised what had happened and protested my eviction. We got legal support and eventually returned,” said Makama, sitting alongside his corrugated iron shelter. “The community saved my life, so now I dedicate mine to them.”

Makama patrols the streets at night on foot to make sure residents are safe, while the grandmothers act as extra eyes, quickly phoning Makama if they hear or witness crime.

Residents say Makama comes quickly at any hour to calm people down as they wait for the police to arrive.

“It takes two to fight crime: we need the community involved because they are there 24 hours and they know what is happening in their environment,” said Bertrams police captain Richard Munyai, cautioning residents not to approach criminals.

“They mustn’t be heroes, just informers.”

Criminologist Anine Kriegler said the grandmothers sitting on their porches and looking out their windows are using a tried-and-tested method known as natural surveillance, which deters criminals by increasing the number of eyes on them.

“Grandmothers have been playing an important role in looking after young people for most of human history,” said Kriegler of the University of Cape Town.

Such surveillance tools, which also include keeping entrances well-lit and cutting down bushes to eliminate hiding spots, offer a low-cost alternative to barricading yourself behind high walls and electric fences, she said.

“The wealthy buy themselves … fortification that harms natural surveillance,” she said. “We can’t look out for each other if we live in fortresses.”

Although many South Africans have lost faith in the police, with some even resorting to vigilantism, communities can work together to improve their security through neighbourhood watches, she said.

Makama is a firm believer in non-violent crime prevention, citing how one grandmother called him to stop a drug dealer beating his daughter. The police rushed to the scene and arrested the man who is still in prison today.

“There are a lot of problems but we do something to protect one another instead of waiting for things to get better,” agreed Evelyne.

The group, made up of just 18 regular volunteers, also helps the community respond to illegal evictions, contact the government over water or electricity cuts, escorts children safely to school and runs a soup kitchen.

“We play an important role, even though we do it free – we do it because we care,” said Elizabeth, a 60-year-old volunteer.

Uncertain whether looting would continue as darkness fell, Makama was preparing for another sleepless night, determined to give back to neighbours who have helped him over the years.

He described how he nearly cried at Christmas when he was short of food and 72-year-old Evelyne delivered a trolley filled with groceries to his door.

“If you love and protect your community, they will love and protect you too,” he said.

Monday Starter: Sr. Dorothy Stang’s legacy lives on in newly discovered owl

A wooden cross marks the spot in June 2012 where U.S. Sr. Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was killed Feb. 12, 2005, on an isolated road near the Brazilian town of Anapu. (CNS/Reuters/Lunae Parracho)

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have announced that a newly discovered screech owl in the Amazon rainforest has been named after the martyred Sr. Dorothy Stang.

Stang, a longtime champion of farmers’ land rights in rural Brazil, was assassinated in 2005 in the northern Brazilian state of Pará in the Amazon Basin. A native of the United States, Stang became a naturalized citizen of Brazil. Her death led to the creation of a reserve of more than 1 million hectares devoted to sustainable use of rainforest land by the local population, whose rights she championed.

Earlier this year, researchers from Brazil, Finland and the United States discovered, or “described,” two new species of screech owl in Brazil, and one of those species, the Xingu screech owl, received a scientific name in honor of Stang. The name, Megascops stangiae, honors Stang’s work “on behalf of poor farmers and the environment in the Brazilian Amazon region,” the congregation’s Ohio Province said in a statement.

The common name, Xingu screech owl, is a reference to an area where the new species is found, the statement said. That area is located between the Tapajós and Xingu rivers, the area where Stang worked and was killed.

Congregational leader Sr. Teresita Weind said biologist Therese Catanach, a member of the research team, contacted the congregation about naming the owl for Stang, as the team was moved by Stang’s life story.

“Sister Dorothy’s murder left a big impression on me, especially when I started research in tropical forests,” Catanach said.

Two other researchers, Brazilian biologists Sidnei Dantas and Alex Alexio, discussed what to name the owl. Dantas had visited Stang’s gravesite, and Alexio suggested one of the owls be named after Stang as “a way to raise awareness about the Amazon, being the ‘lungs of the planet,’ and home of tropical medicinal plants, birds, animals, and human lives,” the congregation said.

Good Shepherd ministry wins anti-slavery award

A ministry of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd in the Democratic Republic of the Congo recently won the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Stop Slavery Award. The award is one of several awards by the foundation that recognize companies and grassroots organizations that have “an impact in the fight to end modern slavery and human trafficking.”

Bon Pasteur Kolwezi received the award in a ceremony in February. In accepting the honors, Sr. Jane Wainoi Kabui, the program’s director, noted the role of the organization’s staff, fellow congregational members and the Good Shepherd International Foundation and their “unremitting support to our communities and shared commitment to fight modern slavery in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The ministry has its roots in an initiative that began in 2012, when the congregation’s Province of Eastern Central Africa established a community development program “to combat child labor, human rights violations, and modern slavery in the copper and cobalt mining region around the city of Kolwezi in the DRC,” the congregation said in an announcement of the award.

The ministry now works in eight communities where cobalt mining is dominant.

“It has helped more than 3,000 children quit the mines and attend school, 500 families to secure alternative and sustainable livelihoods, 300 girls and women to gain new skills and make a decent living away from the mines, and educated more than 20,000 people on how to campaign for better working conditions,” the congregation said.

The project inaugurated a new Bon Pasteur Center in Kolwezi in 2019 in an initiative that includes 14 classrooms to instruct roughly 1,000 children whose families live in the nearby mining communities. The demand for that schooling has been so great, Kabui said, that “the biggest challenge has been that the center can only accommodate a given number of children, and so sometimes we have to turn children away.”

Advocacy is also part of the ministry’s work, and Kabui said in the congregational announcement that she hopes more people will “become conscious of the dehumanizing conditions the artisanal miners have to go through.”

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of the global news and information company Thomson Reuters. The foundation’s focus includes promoting media freedom, human rights, and more inclusive economies.

Sisters set troubled Filipino teens on course to self-sufficiency

Smiling Jane Ollivier with another younger girl
Jane Ollivier, pictured at left in 2015, entered the School of Life at age 15 after being orphaned and passed around various relatives. While living at the School of Life, she earned an education degree, taught school and now works as a home life officer for ACAY to help other teen girls. (Courtesy of the Missionaries of Mary)

Quezon City, Philippines — Jane Ollivier lost her parents by the age of 10. For five years, she bounced around between various relatives before she entered the School of Life, a residential program for teenage girls in metropolitan Manila run by the Missionaries of Mary.

“I wasn’t treated as a child who needed help, but as a member of a family,” she said. “I found the care of a family that I was looking for.”

In her three years in the program, Ollivier earned an education degree. She taught school for a year before returning to the School of Life as the home life officer to help other girls learn to be self-sustaining.

The sisters “gave me a foundation of what real life was like,” said Ollivier, now 30.

The School of Life is one of the central programs of Association Compassion Asian Youth, or ACAY. For more than 20 years, the association has focused on providing the support, skills and structure to change the lives of troubled teens and young adults in the Philippines.

The School of Life, founded in 2000, provides a home for around 20 girls between the ages of 14 and 21, many of whom were abused. The program helps them with school or vocational training and teaches practical life skills to help the girls become self-sustaining, such as budgeting and managing a house, planning meals and shopping. The girls also can earn money by doing administrative tasks for the program and making and selling crafts.

The Second Chance program for teen boys who are in detention centers began in 2002 and also emphasizes personal development, such as through anger-management classes, and vocational training to enable participants to get jobs in construction and other skilled trades once they are released from detention.

ACAY is the brainchild of Sr. Sophie Renoux, who prefers to be known as Sr. Sophie de Jésus. In 1995, the French sister heard a call to help children in the Philippines after she participated in World Youth Day in Manila as a member of the Community of the Beatitudes. She moved to the Philippines from France two years later.

There, she found few programs to help teens, so she and Sr. Edith Fabian, a Hungarian sister Sister Sophie knew through the Community of the Beatitudes, founded Association Compassion Asian Youth in 1997. Over the years, they were joined by Sr. Laetitia Gorczyca from Poland and Sr. Rachel Myriam Luxford from New Zealand, who were also members of the Community of the Beatitudes. Together, they founded the Missionaries of Mary, a diocesan community, in 2007.

Now, the programs are models for other organizations in the Philippines as well as similar programs in other countries. A Second Chance program began in Marseille, France, in 2014. Members of a nongovernmental organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo have welcomed ACAY staff in Kinshasa for training and have gone to the Philippines to find aspects of the School of Life to incorporate into its program for teenage and young women.

Girls are referred by nongovernmental organizations and detention centers or after they age out of other social service programs; boys are referred through social workers, counselors and other staff at the detention centers. After they leave the program, the women tend to work at offices or as teachers or nurses, and the men become carpenters or entrepreneurs or work in the field of social development. Most alumni return to speak with the young men and women still active in the program.

A caring, family-like atmosphere is fundamental for the teenagers, Sister Sophie said. The sisters, staff and volunteers offer encouragement, counseling and support.

“Emotionally, I had people I could lean on,” Ollivier said. “The sisters gave me that motherly care I was looking for. They’re not just there to give you the basic needs, but they are there to give you everything that you need to empower you as a woman.”

Raymart Montinola credits the sisters with helping him change his life. He was in a detention center at age 18 when a social worker referred him to the Second Chance program.

“I felt hopeless,” he said. “I had no skills. I couldn’t get a job.”

The sisters helped him get an apprenticeship in furniture-making. When he was inspired to start his own business, the sisters loaned him money for machinery and helped him find clients. Now in business for more than a year, he is supporting his wife, who was in the School of Life program, and their two children.

“I learned a lot, and I’m thankful because they’re still there, even if I’m not in any program now,” said Montinola, now 30. The sisters “continued to give me opportunities, give me wings so I could fly.”

Football star Thierry Henry to quit social media over racism

The former Arsenal and Barcelona striker Henry, who has 15 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter [File: AFP]
The former Arsenal and Barcelona striker Henry, who has 15 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter [File: AFP]

Former France international Thierry Henry said on Friday he will be disabling his social media accounts to protest against the platforms for not taking action over anonymous account holders who are guilty of racism and bullying online.

Former Arsenal and Barcelona striker Henry, who has 15 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, said the platforms needed to tackle these issues with the same effort they put into taking down material that infringes copyright.

“From tomorrow morning I will be removing myself from social media until the people in power are able to regulate their platforms with the same vigour and ferocity that they currently do when you infringe copyright,” Henry said in a statement.

“The sheer volume of racism, bullying and resulting mental torture to individuals is too toxic to ignore. There HAS to be some accountability.

“It is far too easy to create an account, use it to bully and harass without consequence and still remain anonymous. Until this changes, I will be disabling my accounts across all social platforms. I’m hoping this happens soon.”

Last month English football’s governing bodies said that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were “havens for abuse” and urged the social media companies to tackle the problem in the wake of racist messages aimed at players.

Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), said nobody should be forced to disable their social media accounts due to abuse.

“Social media firms must do more to tackle this and we are introducing new laws to hold platforms to account,” he said.

“This is complex and we must get it right, but I’m absolutely determined to tackle racist abuse online.”

Instagram last month announced a series of measures to tackle online abuse, including removing accounts of people who send abusive messages, and developing new controls to help reduce the abuse people see.

Twitter said in 2019 that “vile content has no place on our service” after it took action on more than 700 cases of “abuse and hateful conduct” related to football in Britain in two weeks and promised to continue its efforts to curb the problem.

Report: Catholic nuns join protests against Burma’s military coup

Credit: Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition Myanmar Facebook page
Credit: Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition Myanmar Facebook page

Washington D.C., – Catholic nuns in Burma have joined widespread protests against the recent military coup, Asian Catholic websites have reported. 

According to UCA News, Catholic nuns from a variety of communities in Burma have marched the streets, praying for the protestors and offering them food. Amid protests in the city of Myitkyina, the capital of the state of Kachin, nuns hung signs saying “No to dictatorship” and “Listen to the voices of people” outside of their convent. 

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a country in Southeast Asia with a population of 54 million people. Both the democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint were detained by members of the military in the early hours of Feb. 1, after the military disputed the results of the 2020 election. The army general Min Aung Hlaing now leads the country.

Protests in Burma have been ongoing since the coup. Catholic priests and nuns have joined the protests in the majority-Buddhist country, where Christians make up only around 6% of the population. 

On February 11, Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition Myanmar went to pray and protest outside of the Chinese embassy in Mandalay. Pictures posted to the order’s Facebook page showed sisters displaying the “three-finger salute” and praying outside of the Chinese embassy in Yangon. 

The hand gesture displayed by the nuns is a symbol of resistance and has been used by various pro-democracy movements. 

Besides the visible presence of nuns and priests on the streets of Burma, other Catholic figures have issued statements of support for the protests and against the military rule. 

In a Feb. 3 statement, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon asked the military to release “the voice of our people” Aung San Suu Kyi, and called the coup “shocking.”

Cardinal Bo is a longtime supporter of democratic rule in Burma. In his statement, he urged the country’s military to avoid the use of violence against civilians. 

“Sadly, the elected representatives of our people belonging to NLD are under arrest. So are many writers, activists and youth,” he said. The NLD is Burma’s political party National League for Democracy, which outperformed the military-backed party in November’s elections.

“I urge you, respect their rights and release them at the earliest,” Cardinal Bo urged the military. “They are not prisoners of war; they are prisoners of a democratic process. You promise democracy; start with releasing them.”

The Holy See’s permanent observer to the UN Human Rights Council, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, said on Friday that the Vatican was praying for the people of Burma.

He asked those in power to serve “the common good of fundamental human and civil rights, of promoting social justice and national stability, for a harmonious, democratic and peaceful coexistence.”

In his Nov., 2017 visit to Burma, Pope Francis stressed the importance of the country’s religions in bringing about reconciliation and unity. He praised the work of those building “a just, reconciled and inclusive social order” in Burma, in a speech to Aung San Suu Kyi, civil authorities and the diplomatic corps.

Cardinal Turkson delivers face masks, care packages to Romani families

Cardinal Turkson visits a Romani camp in Castel Romano June 13, 2020. Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, – Cardinal Peter Turkson delivered face masks and care packages over the weekend to Romani families in need on the outskirts of Rome on behalf of Pope Francis.

“We are here today to witness the support for all those who experience situations of suffering and vulnerability, and who are often forgotten, especially in this time of health, social and economic emergency,” Cardinal Turkson said following the visit June 13.

“As Pope Francis often repeats, no one should be left behind,” he said.

Cardinal Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, met with volunteers of a non-profit association that provides 200-300 weekly food packages for the children who live in Romani camps and slums. The cardinal then visited a Romani camp outside of Rome in Castel Romano to help deliver some of the food packages. 

The Romani, often called “gypsies” and known as “travelers” in much of Europe, form a marginal and minority people present in countries across the continent. 

Pope Francis has met with members of Rome’s Romani community on several occasions, continuing a tradition of Pope Paul VI who visited a Romani camp near Rome in 1965.

The risk of malnutrition among the Romani children in the camps was heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, a statement from the Dicastery for the Integral Human Development said.

Turkson distributed 300 vinyl gloves, 600 surgical masks, 200 fabric masks, and 500 packs of acetaminophen donated by the Vatican Pharmacy as a part of the dicastery’s Vatican commission for COVID-19.

The Vatican commission for COVID-19, created at the request of Pope Francis, was formed “to express the concern and love of the Church for the whole human family in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, above all through the analysis and reflection on the socio-economic and cultural challenges of the future and the proposal of guidelines to face them.”

During his visit to the Romani community, Cardinal Turkson communicated Pope Francis’ feeling of spiritual closeness and paternal embrace in this difficult time to all of the volunteers, families, and children at the camp, acccording to a June 13 press statement issued by the Dicastery.