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150+ “There is still so much work to be done”





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The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have worked for more than 150 years to build the Twin Cities into a place where concern for the common good is common place. The women started hospitals where there were none, provided healthcare to all, taught generations of children the values of service, and created nonprofits to work with the poor and marginalized.

At the dawn of the 21st Century sitting around a campfire one warm summer evening, a group of Sisters of St. Joseph dreamed together about creating a way for young women to soak in the mission of the CSJ community while living and working together. The vision was to spread the mission, build leaders for the future, and invigorate the communi-ty with energy and passion. That campfire conversation ignited the St. Joseph Worker Program. Since the program began in 2002, young women became St. Joseph Workers and have been changed, supported, and energized for lives of service.

The SJW community is growing!

There is still so much work to be done!






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Writers Mary Louise Menikheim

Andrea Pearson Tande

Editors Ralph Scorpio

Greg Zeglen

Contact Suzanne Herder, CSJ and Director

The St Joseph Worker Program

Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet

add 1884 Randolph Ave, St Paul, MN 55105-1747

tel 651.696.2762




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Service with a Twist 09

Jumping Through the Safety Net 10

Expanding Horizons 12

FOUR Alums Speak 14

Leadership is a Relationship 18

Social Justice 24

My Faith Was Sort of a Bully to Me 30

Welcoming the Strangers Among Us 34

A Partner’s Perspective 39






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SERVICE WITH A TWISTCertain moments of our lives can follow and change us forever.

The change can manifest when we make a declaration, begin a practice, or simply walk in a certain direction. For many women, their experience in the St. Joseph Worker (SJW) Program is one of these special moments.

The St. Joseph Worker Program is a year-long, full time volunteer program for young women supported by the Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet. It’s based on the values of social justice, leader-ship, spirituality, and community. The participants live together in intentional community and receive housing, food, insurance, monthly stipend, transportation to and from work. They also are provided with excellent training and development. Each woman is placed for work at a different site that addresses social issues. Some may be involved in the issues of domestic violence, home-lessness, education, and immigration. Others may be involved in helping to provide access to healthy food, health care for the uninsured, and affordable child care. Over the course of the year, these positions provide multiple opportunities for both personal and professional growth.

In this collection of essays and photos, you’ll hear about the St. Joseph Worker experience through the voices of the women who have lived it. Let them tell you about the moments in the SJW Program that changed their lives, for the better, forever.

Mary Louise MenikheimAndrea Pearson Tande






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In 2002, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) initiated the St. Joseph Worker Program to attract younger women to their mission of serving God and the dear neighbor. This initiative illustrates the CSJs’ openness to those who feel called to affiliate with the Sisters and Consociates to work toward justice, to carry the mission forward within the context of their lives.






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“In an age when fewer women are becoming Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, programs like SJWs engage young women to extend the CSJ mission and ministries,” said Sister Suzanne Herder, CSJ and SJW Director. “The SJWs expand our horizons into ministries with new partners for justice and plant seeds for tomorrow. We’re leveraging their work in agencies across the Twin Cities to engage more people in serving God and the dear neighbor. Whether or not a person has taken vows is not the issue. What counts is that society has leaders to help people address the problems of the times and help where there is need. That’s the reason we mentor these young women and why we’ve invested in this major program.”




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The SJWs’ work is direct service with a twist. The work challenges the women’s leadership capacity. It teaches them to creatively engage others and bring into their daily work the CSJ spirituality of “right rela-tionships.” It instills recognition of the dignity of each person and joins with them in mutually determined efforts. The twist in these relationships is those who participate are part of and joined to all others. In this reciprocal relationship, each person engages the dignity and gifts of the others without regard to their situation in life.






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What does it mean to dedicate a full year to learning about

justice, leadership, spirituality, and living simply in an intentional

community? According to four St. Joseph Worker alums, it means

their lives were deeply changed for the better, for good.

Donna Bonicatto


“I had the different experience of being on the street, and entering into their world,” said Donna Bonicatto. “I talked to people who may not have wanted to talk to me, or who were struggling with mental illness, and I met them exactly where they were. I learned from them the dynamics of their world. How could I enter respectfully? If I entered into one of their camps, I learned to say, ‘knock, knock,’ because it was their home.”

“You can read whatever you want in a text book and you can do simulations, but you don’t un-derstand people until you work with people,” says Donna. “I learned to see a client not through knowledge obtained from a textbook, but as a person to listen to and communicate with. This is not saying I understand, because I don’t; but I can listen. Often, they simply wanted me to listen.”

Before her SJW year, going to a Twins game and seeing a panhandler on the way was kind of scary to Donna, but it became her job to go up and talk with them. “I will never look at people on the street, homeless people, the same way again. Each one is a person with a story, no matter what they struggle with, they are a person. Instead of seeing them as ‘Oh, this poor man,’ I know there are stories behind them and that they are not scary.”




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Lauren Boleen

brought us vegetables from their gardens and helped us close the clinic at the end of the day.”

“I got to go home at the end of the day to a house with-out a lot of adversity,” Lauren related. “I had a warm meal; and although at the beginning, it didn’t seem too comfortable, it became home. And my patients at the end of their work day went home to something hard. Their reality was a barrier which I didn’t know how to cross over, and I didn’t know if I could. I’ve never been an immigrant being deported or had a family member deported, and I didn’t understand what that would be like. But no matter how different we are, we are all human, and I can put my hand on your shoulder. That means more than any words. I want to understand, but I can be supportive, even when I don’t understand. I can remember that you’re a human just like me, and you have rights and feelings like I do.”

“I remember before the program started I was driving through St. Paul and by the house where I ended up living. I realized how different it was from the safety where I grew up and from where I went to college,” said Lauren. “Now I drive around those places, and it doesn’t at all feel scary and dangerous. It doesn’t feel foreign to me anymore.”

“One thing that I learned in working with my patients at St. Mary’s Health Clinics is that my whole idea of reality was changed,” says Lauren. “Growing up as a white, upper middle class citizen, my life has given me a lot of opportunities and resources. I can’t pretend to know what it would feel like to have a family member be sick without health insurance, or to be in an abusive relationship. But my patients every day taught me what reality is; I don’t think I would have learned this any other way. They taught me that even with those struggles, they persevere.”

“We had a woman whose 18-year-old son was deport-ed to Honduras and then murdered a week after he arrived there,” Lauren recalls. “Seeing her coming in, being strong and being a role model for her other kids — that showed a lot of power to me and inspired me. When things are hard, I remember these patients and how they get through their hard times.”

“We go into these volunteer opportunities thinking we will be the giver, but a lot of days I felt as if I was the one being taught,” she said. “It was often simple things such as new Spanish phrases. Helping each other was a concrete way to have a mutual relationship. They knew things I didn’t, especially with Spanish, and they






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Elizabeth Fairbairn

“You could never anticipate what this type of experience is going to be like,” said Elizabeth. “It exceeded any expectations I had going into the year. What’s amazing is to find how inclusive and supportive the CSJs are to the SJWs.”

Elizabeth’s job with the Justice Commission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province, provided her with ample opportunity to grow in the SJW core values. “I had a very different kind of work site,” she said. “Unlike most of the other St. Joseph Workers, I didn’t work directly with people who were in poverty or in great visible need, but it was interesting for me to figure out how to work with people. The biggest learning was how to work collaboratively in groups. To discover how the process worked. To figure how to encourage everyone to participate. To have the intuition about what point to chime in, when to let the discussion meander. It was

a big learning process for me that everyone had something to share and that everyone’s input was needed.”

For Elizabeth, call it a year of growth — a year of understanding the world, the variety of people in it, and a year of empathy. “I learned that I might never truly know some-one else’s experience, but I desire to under-stand who that person is and what makes him or her tick,” she said. “It takes time to know people to be able to draw out their ideas. I must trust who I am and come to things authentically. People can see if I genuinely care.”

“What I love about this program is that everyone got to practice these skills in our homes and in our communities. Now I can work on how to transfer these skills to other parts of my life, now and into the future.”




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Sheila Otto

When you work among homeless people every day, you see two worlds collide. For Sheila, the experience of seeing busi-ness people shuffling to their offices alongside those trying to survive on the streets helped clue her in to the importance of dignity and respect.

“Learning how to work with and not for at people was a big part of my Jesuit education, but now I understand it more. I worked five blocks from our house. I remember the first cou-ple of days walking to work and realizing that I was walking with people from St. Stephen’s shelter who were coming for breakfast, but we were really doing the same thing. I went in through another door, but we were eating the same cereal.”

Sheila says that she learned how to communicate better and more effectively with all types of people, whether it’s the CEO of Catholic Charities, the guy who makes coffee every day, or the people who come to the Opportunity Center. “Before my SJW year, I thought I was fine at it,” she said. “The biggest change is me is recognizing who I am talking with, what they’re going through and being more present to each person.”

“I realize and appreciate the comfort and understand the comfort of the safety net of family and friends on which we rely. I understand that a lot of the people I interact with on a daily basis do not have family or friends,” acknowledged Sheila. “I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why I’ve been fortunate to have this safety net, and I’ll try to use it to the advantage of everyone.”







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Two St. Joseph Workers, Sheila Otto and Elizabeth Fairbairn,

along with their mothers, Katie Otto and Ann Fairbairn,

reflected on the leadership lessons they learned in the SJW

Program. Sheila spent 2011-2012 at a Catholic Charities

facility that offers resources and services to people in need,

especially those experiencing homelessness. After her SJW

year, she was hired full-time at her former placement site.

Elizabeth spent the same year working with the Sisters of

St. Joseph, St. Paul Province, Justice Commission, which is

dedicated to educating Sisters of St. Joseph and laypeople

and leading them to action on a host of justice issues. This

work fed and inspired the public policy calling inside of

Elizabeth and led to a position at the Office for Social Justice

at Catholic Charities, where she worked with people of faith

to advocate for people in poverty in the legislative system.






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Long before Sheila Otto became a St. Joseph Worker, her mother told her that if she was going to be a Catholic, she must hang out with the Je-suits and the CSJs. After graduating from a Jesuit university, Sheila did “hang out” with the Sisters of St. Joseph for a year. Now Sheila can attest that one of “the strongest qualities of the SJW Program is the relationship with the CSJ community. In my opinion, they are the best example of female leaders. Interacting with these amazing women was one of the greatest lessons in leadership and its many applications.”

And she’s not alone in her assessment. “Elizabeth had the opportunity to meet so many incredible people. She had the benefit of knowing CSJs, SJW alums, board members, and other community leaders,” says Ann Fairbairn. According to Ann, Elizabeth was able to ask the Sisters about their own journeys, and that helped give Elizabeth con-fidence that there is a path for her.

“As a proud mother, I wondered what the SJW Program could offer her that Elizabeth didn’t already have,” said Ann Fairbairn. “The women who come in are already leaders.   Elizabeth was pretty amazing and terrific before this.   But then I saw a huge growth in her over this year.  The SJWs attract women who are already on their journey to make the world a better place, and it makes them more passionate and more of a leader.”

“I kept a list of leadership attributes I saw in other people that I might like to emulate,” Elizabeth explains. “Lucy Knoll, CSJ, was on a commit-tee with me, and it was a tough committee. The teacher in her came out and she said to me, ‘You have a gift here, and I think you could help make this shine.’ This was an effective way of delegat-ing. To do that, it is necessary to have a relation-ship with someone, and Lucy is good at that.”

“It’s a whole person approach,” says Katie Otto.  “While Sheila has always been a confi-dent person, I would not have said that she was a reflective person.   I would say that now, and I attribute that to the program. Further, I think in the long run that will make Sheila a person who can continue to work in this difficult field and not be burned out or come to the end of her own rope. Now Sheila has the tool kit to sustain herself, and therefore sustain some of the folks who need her to keep doing what she’s doing.”

What I see in Elizabeth is that she is willing to go toe-to-toe with someone, respectfully, especially when it is the right thing to do.




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“The word is tenacity,” says Katie. “I so admire that quality in the CSJs. Everything they touch in small and large ways, those women by any means necessary have changed the world, the community for sure. They don’t take no for an answer. That’s hard to do, and yet I see that quality passing on to these SJW women in subtle ways. It will grow as they grow.”

Along with tenacity, the mothers mention the cour-age to speak up as a quality modeled so well in the SJW Program. This courage is observed in community, at work, in public, or in one-to-one encounters. They notice that having robust, respectful conversations is an ability the SJWs work at developing.

Ann touches on that critical aspect of leadership, “I see courage in Elizabeth that I don’t have as much as I wish. What I see in Elizabeth is that she is willing to go toe-to-toe with someone, respectfully, especially when it is the right thing to do.”

Connected to courage, Sheila adds the core value of intentionality. “Rooted in the pro-gram, intentionality is stressed in everything we do, prompting us to think about how we do it and who it will affect, no matter where we are,” she says. “Today, the word in-tentional goes through

my mind nearly every time I make a decision. I think it’s an important quality of leadership as well: what kind of effects do my actions and words have in the world?”

“Intention can lead to conviction,” adds Elizabeth. “When I think through an issue and believe it in my core, I am going to exhibit greater conviction when I have those courageous conversations. Intentional relationship building is based on understanding where people are coming from. It is different from hierarchical power. Relationships are key.”






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Sheila’s view of leadership is non-hierarchical as well. In her work, she tries to “blunt the edges of the power dynamic separating those who serve and those being served.” She says this takes a commit-ment to building real relationships. “And before I can invite someone to take action,” Sheila says, “I must first involve myself.”

Being courageous and confident is part of leadership, but that still doesn’t stop young leaders like Sheila from wondering how she appears to others. “Credibility is a concern,” Sheila says. “I am a leader, the supervisor of volunteers, who are older than me, and it can be awk-ward.  Guests are older than me.  At first, I had a hard time with how to get them to take me seriously.  I’m still working on it.  It starts with relationship.”

“Being young, what gives me credibility on a board with 40-50 year olds?” asks Elizabeth. “As a way of inviting people along, I must be willing to be young, passionate, and optimistic. People respond

to this. Many people in my work are feeling cyn-ical and pessimistic about the environment we are in. However, I’m excited for my job and have a lot of energy for it. I think it can be good for people to be around that kind of energy and can help them reconnect with the reasons they are working on these issues.”

Credibility within the SJW community is equal-ly important, and it begins by creating a strong base of relationships. Developing relationships in shared purpose is core to the SJW Program. Sheila




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I bring,” says Sheila. “One thing that has helped me a lot is physical exercise. It gives me personal time, to get away from my day, before I interact with others. I also dip into my SJW toolbox, reflect, and not get sucked up in the trials of the day.”

“For me,” Elizabeth says, “the challenge was main-taining my interior strength when not living in the SJW community. I no longer had the active SJW support system; however, it was helpful to meet other SJW alums, who have been down this path, and know that I was not alone.

learned that people have different modes, but first she learned to be generous in suspending judg-ment. Then she realized that, “Everyone in the house stepped up at different times to be a leader. A good leader recognizes when to step back and let other people lead.”

And trust is part of the relationship. “It is a trust that everyone has the best interests of the commu-nity in mind and is doing what they can to build up and support that community, even if it doesn’t look like it to us,” says Elizabeth.  “We can have faith and trust that we are all there for a similar purpose.  Leaders help create that sense of shared purpose and trust that people are living that out in the best way they can.”

The SJW year is a year of growth, a year of service, and a year of preparation. And when it ends, the big question is, “What’s next?”

“The challenge coming out of the SJW year was trying to find a job, trusting myself that I will find a place where someone wants me and the qualities

At first, I had a hard time with how to get them to take me seriously. I’m still working on it. It starts with relationship.






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Social justice … it’s social in the sense that it requires all of us to accomplish.

The day to day work of a St. Joseph Worker

can be incredibly fulfilling, meaningful, and

emotionally intense as she dives headfirst into a new

understanding of social justice issues. One placement

partner, Cornerstone, is an organization that provides

a range of services to people dealing with violence in

their lives. Willa Simmet (SJW 2012-2013) and Melissa

Andrie-Her (SJW 2008-2009) were both placed at

Cornerstone as St. Joseph Workers and continue to

work there. Willa works with legal services; Melissa

works in the emergency housing shelter.




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M: This IS social justice work, and I know that in the back of my mind. But that’s not something I think about every day. Social justice is so present in the work of reaching out to and providing ser-vices for those who might not otherwise get help, who have been disadvantaged for many different reasons. I get caught up in the clients we are work-ing with, helping them discover the opportunities they have, and realize their resilience and strength. I don’t stop and look at the bigger justice picture.

W: I think about social justice meaning equality. On a daily basis, I approach justice by not making assumptions about clients’ situations and what they’ve been through. I feel that people are often taken advantage of by the system and that’s not just. I want to see the person for who she is and give her a chance to speak for herself. The justice system is quite imperfect. I think an important part of my role is speaking up and advocating for people within the system and guiding them through the process that can be intimidating and difficult to navigate.

M: The idea of letting people speak for themselves is powerful. We often have women and men come into the shelter who will talk about how unfairly the legal system has treated them. Or how people have abused them and systems have made assump-tions or disadvantaged them by giving unequal treatment. At Cornerstone, we talk about not judging. If there is something we don’t understand we ask questions and encourage those we seek to help to ask questions too.

W: There is a hierarchy of roles in the justice sys-tem, and an advocate’s role is toward the bottom. In a criminal case, the victim’s input is extraordi-narily significant when the prosecutor is deciding how to proceed with the case; the advocate’s job is to convey the victim’s input. The most powerful thing we can do is to listen and let clients speak for themselves. When a client calls, upset because she has an order for protection, her abuser is violating it, and the police don’t seem to be doing anything about it, I don’t say, “Wow I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.” I try to add another voice and do what I can to talk to the police or my supervisor to make this person’s life a little bit easier and to hold her abuser accountable.








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So, listening can lead to empowerment?

M Yes, someone who has been living with abuse has had power taken away, in many ways: who they are going to see or spend time with, what their children are allowed to do, what they get to decide about their children, and how they can survive financially. Naturally, that leaves someone feeling less powerful. So, when we listen, we tell them that what they are saying has worth. That is fundamen-tal, basic, and it is a huge part of self-worth.

W: Clients are constantly asking me or the other advocates, “What should I do...what should I do?” Listening to them and asking questions based on what they say is one way of showing them that they do know what to do, they do know what’s right for them, but they simply haven’t had the space to think for themselves or to see themselves as worthy people.

M: One of our primary goals at Cornerstone is to make sure that people know their options, know the potential consequences of different decision options, and that they can make those decisions for themselves. That is part of taking their power back.

What have you learned about social justice?

W: I’ve realized that the justice system is not perfect. I didn’t know that until I started doing this work of going to court with people, writing orders for protection, seeing things go awry, and seeing people treated unfairly. The racism, sexism, ageism, and classism that exist within society as a whole certainly exist within the justice system as well.

M: Working with clients in the shelter, we see how things are connected. Many clients are healing from the abuse that brought them to Cor-nerstone. Often there is so much misogyny in their background, so much abuse in their family of origin, such a history of instability

in the education system, and so much struggling with the county to get benefits that they need. There are so many different circumstances in their lives that leave them unable to support themselves and their children financially. There are language barriers and cultural barriers. Further, because we have a disproportionate number of women of color in the shelter, there are huge racial barriers. Often, these barriers are a result of not having the support systems or financial resources in their lives to get help elsewhere.

W: And for a lot of people, their abuser is some-one they have been with for a long time. The abus-ers take control of all the money, or have all the




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earning potential. The abused can be left without a place to live, often with one or more children. Many times, the abuser leaves them in the home without means to pay the mortgage or rent, and that often leads to homelessness. When they come to the shelter, they can feel, “ok, this is really new, I’m scared, maybe I should just go back.”

How do you stay balanced?

M: Justice can be overwhelming if you think about the big picture all the time. One of the most important things for me is talking through things with my co-workers, checking in with each other, and leaving my work at work. Occasionally, there is a story that is more difficult, and I take it home with me. However, I try to remind myself that there are other staff people here who are compe-tent. This makes me better able to be here when I’m here.

W: I’m still figuring out how to create the right boundaries and not be overwhelmed by situa-tions. I’m naturally drawn to this work because I am passionate not only about equality for women but for all people. If I wasn’t doing this, I would probably be depressed. This kind of work feeds me. However, it’s great that at 5 o’clock, I’m done and I can go home.






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I would tell someone interested in the SJW Program that they should reflect and listen to their heart and ask why they are attracted to it. Because if they are interested in the program, it is probably for a good reason. Social justice isn’t something that’s outside of our experience; it is part of the everyday life in every single person. Everyone can be involved.

Willa Simmett




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M: I remind myself that there is a lot of hope in what we do. We see clients rebuilding their lives; we see moms reforming their families; we see clients moving into new places; we see success in clients finding a job, and it may be the first one in a long time. We see people going back to school. We see clients learning to trust themselves again, building their self-confidence, learning to trust other people. These things often occur because people learn to trust us. So there is a lot of hope.

W: I am still figuring out what it means to help people.

M: Sometimes, we don’t have the right informa-tion for people. Sometimes something goes the wrong way in court. These events can be terribly hard and frustrating. Sometimes, despite our efforts, the resources are not available to solve the problems that occur, and that is one of the hardest parts of the job for me … to see the need for some-thing, but not have the resources for them.

W: Because I’m not perfect, and I don’t have the answers all the time, it’s valuable to have the space to step back and be reflective. Just out of college, I wanted a place where I was in a supportive com-

munity, where everyone around me was motivated to “be the change they want to see in the world.” It’s great to go home to people who are passionate about the work they are doing.

M: One of the great things about the SJW Pro-gram is the people who are there. The program plans opportunities for conversations with other people in the SJW community, and it is easy to take that into my life. It creates a basis for my way of thinking, not only about the work that I do, but about other things in my life. There are alum Shar-ing of the Heart meetings, and other alum events, and even connecting on my own to my SJW rela-tionships. It’s powerful, fulfilling, sustaining and certainly important for me.

W: To work for social justice, I feel I must have a balanced life. The SJW Program is teaching me about this in a structured discipline of social justice, intentional community, spirituality, and leadership. It is all connected.






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The mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet

is “Moving always toward the love of God and love of

neighbor without distinction.”

Their wide open and loving understanding of God is the

bedrock of the St. Joseph Worker Program’s spiritual

life. Women come to the program from many different

spiritual homes – Catholic, Evangelical Christianity,

Buddhism, and Secular Humanism among others. As

long as they are interested in deepening their own

spirituality, they will find a welcoming spiritual home in

the SJW Program.

Here is the story of Anna Zaros, SJW 2008-2009.




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A big part of my spirituality is how I came to the SJW Program. I graduated from a Catholic university with a theology and religious studies degree that emphasized traditional Catholic values and social teachings. Growing up, I was grounded in a conservative church community filled with “should.” In college, while I enjoyed the academic setting, I found the Catholic setting not only raised a lot of questions for me, but did not provide me the space to work through them. I was torn be-tween believing in and doing one thing and think-ing on my own and doing something different.

The SJW Program gave me both opportunities. I could investigate my Catholic spirituality and perform community service at the same time. It was an incredible gift of a whole year to figure out who I am.

Upon first coming to the program and seeing the wide variety of Sisters’ practices and beliefs, I thought, “Whoa, I can explore who I am and what I think, and that will be ok.” It was clear that the Sisters didn’t all practice their spirituality in the same way. It was also clear that their practices were rooted in the same charism of loving God and neighbor without distinction. They worked together in community consensus that gave an incredible example to the world of how we can exist together. It made me think that I needed to work on finding an authentic spirituality because I was being torn up inside about what I “should” be feeling.

My spiritual mentor, Susan Oeffling, CSJ, was exactly who I needed. On our second meeting, I poured out what bothered me about the Church practices and beliefs, those I valued and those I struggled to accept. To help me understand my conflict, she drew a circle with a line through it. She told me that we are meant to be in the same circle with God, but that we create barriers between ourselves and God. Our role in life is to remove the barriers. I began to understand that this involved what I believed in my heart of hearts. I realized I can be in touch with God in a way that fits me as well as addressing the barriers I need to remove. Having someone give me permission to do that was immensely helpful.

And so the SJW year became a time of exploring my relationship with God and seeking my own path to be connected to God. The SJW Program gave me both the permission and tools to create my own discipline of spiritual practices. I worked to chip away the “should” and the whole world began to open for me. There were so many different spir-itual traditions to discover, and each had its own depth, meaning, and history. I discovered yoga and body movement meditation. These continue to be part of my spiritual practice today.

During the year, I joined a book club led by two Sisters of St Joseph, both retired St Catherine




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University professors. Our discussions created a theological space to confront personal faith issues of power and sexuality. I was able to explore theology from a more spiritual perspective. This allowed me to integrate the mission and charism of the CSJs. As I became able to love God and the dear neighbor without distinction, I became trans-formed. I saw how the charism flowed into both social justice and spirituality aspects, and how they were joined in my life.

Where we may find a church home is a continuing struggle for many of us SJW alums. Together, some of us have had church dates, visiting a new church, and then, reflecting over lunch together. I appreci-ate the space to experience different congregations. I realize too that the beautiful rituals and strong social justice tradition, that I love most about the Catholic Church, still tug at my heart.

In my studies at a Catholic graduate school, I realized that the SJW journey had been ground-ing for me. Grad school was a hard transition for me; I longed for the supportive community space of the SJW Program to explore my spirituality. I again began to feel stifled by the Catholicism represented at the university. However, the CSJ charism helped me keep my focus, gave me voice, my voice. I was able, during the course of my study in peace-building, to remain rooted in my passion for connecting peace initiatives to the divine and to the universe. My inspiration centered in the person of Jesus and radical change. While I haven’t answered the struggle within myself, I now have the tools to accept where I am on my journey.

Where do I go from here?

In year two of my marriage, my partner David and I are teaching English at the Unidad Academica Campesina in Carmen Pampa, Bolivia. At yet another Catholic university, I am able to apply my degree in peace-building and my SJW rootedness. I am again confronted with delving deep into my religious beliefs. I plan to use this time intention-ally, for further discernment and cultivation of meaningful spiritual practices.






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“As I packed and prepared to move into the Rita House in St. Paul,

I was most nervous about living in community. I was scared of the

unknown. Who are these people going to be? Will they like me?

How is this different from having roommates? I could not find a life

situation that was equivalent to moving in with four strangers and

living as a family unit.”

Elizabeth Fairbairn




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When a St. Joseph Worker alum looks back at her year — from moving in with five or six complete strangers to working in ministries across the Twin Cities —community building is what she often remembers as the hardest part. But ask any St. Joseph Worker, and you’ll hear that they formed community in the intentional, scheduled times as well as the impromptu hang out times — and it was all worth it. But difficult.

“Community is a very common word, especially if you are doing social justice or church work,” says Brie Jonna. “It has this happy, great feeling.  Peo-ple talk about it all the time.  However, it’s a vague thing ninety percent of the time.  If people are not committed to living in community, what does that actually mean?”

“We talk at church, especially in social justice circles, and use the words ‘creating the beloved community,’ a Martin Luther King Jr. statement,” says Laney Ohmans. “But there isn’t much said about doing the impossible work of building com-munity, which is very, very difficult and not always pleasant. The SJW experience of living with peo-ple who are externally similar to me but internally different was difficult!”

According to Brie, in spite of the fact that she lived with people in college and studied abroad, one of the biggest gifts she received from her St. Joseph Worker year was self-knowledge. The experience of intentional community required her to be self-reflective, and for the first time, she noticed how and why she did the things she did. She no-

ticed, too, that not everyone did those same things. She looks back on the way she and the other St. Joseph Workers lived together in ways that are closer and more vulnera-ble — including cooking for each other, cleaning each other’s

spaces, spending a lot of time together, and talking about their feelings.

“Coming into the SJW community was a whole different experience because to say ‘community’ actually meant something,” Brie adds. “Everyone in that house was committed to being there, being a part of that community, and acting on that.  To make community a real thing, in a way that I don’t think it usually is in the world.”






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“When you are choosing to be with people, no matter what you are doing, that has a whole new meaning as well,” says Meg KenKnight-Burman. “I had people in town that I wanted to see.  However, I felt committed to the program, so I made space for it even if it wasn’t the thing I wanted to be doing at the moment.”

“The fact is that we chose to be a part of that com-munity,” says Brie. “We spent a lot of time in the year we lived together being vulnerable, examining ourselves and each other, and learning about our communication styles, so our relationships are deeper and much more intimate than those with most other friends.”

“Today, I could describe the differences between my upbringing and Laney’s upbringing that might start to explain the differences in who we are and how we act in the world,” says Brie. “Before I was a St. Joseph Worker, I don’t think I would have been able to realize that difference.  It’s deeper than sim-ply our personal preferences.  Now, people often tell me that I’m very self-aware.”

“I think it was the first time that I experienced

myself doing things that I didn’t think were wrong, but I had to stop doing anyway,” says Laney. “The one thing that has been the most helpful in moving forward is understanding that just because I don’t think something is wrong or hurtful doesn’t mean that categorically it is NOT.”  

One of the big lessons Laney learned is that the way she communicated with another St. Joseph Worker was seen as extremely aggressive in that other Worker’s eyes. This taught her a lot about being more cognizant about how she listens to and communicates with other people.

“It was helpful to learn that people communicate in different ways,” says Laney. “I remember one of my community members saying, ‘If I mention something once, it is a big deal.’ I’m a huge extro-vert, and I remember thinking, ‘WHAT are you TALKING about?’   Because my initial reaction was, ‘You need to get over that,’ my learning was not to make a value judgment about her commu-nication style.”

“The experience of living in the SJW community has made a difference in how I now relate to my husband, too,” says Meg. “Even when we have a bad day, when I have a test, he is up late and the house is messy, and I want to snap, I can take a step back.  I think about how it’s unreasonable for me to expect that I will have a clean apartment ev-ery time I have a test.  I know he’s stressed, too.  I have a framework to think about where other people are coming from.”




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what I take away.  If someone says community to me, I don’t think, ‘Oh, Dread!’”  

“Being with people who shared my values was so exciting.  In my own specific denominational affil-iation, talking about spirituality with other people is not something you do,” says Laney. “My faith was something I didn’t talk about.  It was this sepa-rate part of my life that was mostly just for me. So it was amazing to be with people who had a spir-itual practice of their own.  It was an important period of growth for me to be able to talk about it.  I could have these friends that I could have fun with and have superficial conversations with, and then we could talk about spirituality.  That specific element was different.”

“Having been a part of an intentional community, I understand that the intention comes from within me,” says Brie.  “I have the intention, and I can bring that commitment to any communi-ty of which I am a part.  That intentionality piece might have been something that I wasn’t aware of before I was in the SJW Program.”

“I lived in a community in college, and we were kind of committed in the sense that we were all there, but we didn’t spend much time together,” says Brie. “We didn’t have good structures for working out disagreements.”

Ah, disagreements. What the St. Joseph Work-ers needed to find out for themselves was that every community has a moment when things go badly.  And unless those involved get to the point where there is disagreement and they have to work it out together, they are not truly engaging in community.

“The only community living situation that I had experienced before was when I studied abroad and lived with a bunch of people in a small place,” says Meg.  “It was awful because when bad things happened, they didn’t care.  However, living in the SJW community, challenges did occur. We all cared, and we worked it out.”

When needed, the St. Joseph Workers used a talking circle.

“It was well-intentioned,” says Meg, “but talking circles were difficult, challenging our ability to work through the issues.”

“There was a positive side to disagreements,” adds Brie. “We, as a community, without outside instruction, decided when something clearly was wrong and we wanted to fix it. Most people who are simply living together don’t decide to sit down and talk about issues among them.  We learned that living in a committed community meant that we don’t let an issue slide, sit in our rooms, and be mad at each other.  Because we had shared values, we had to think of a way to move on together. The result was that our relationships in the house grew deeper and stronger.”

At the end of the year, many of the young wom-en say that while creating real community was difficult, it was also the most rewarding aspect of the program.

“At the time, I would have said it was really hard,” says Brie.  “But looking back on it, what I remem-ber is not that feeling of disagreement and stress that was so horrible at the moment. That isn’t






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Each year, the SJW Program works with about twelve nonprofit

social justice organizations. Each of these placement sites is unique

and provides a supportive environment in which the SJW woman

gains concrete leadership experience, mentorship, and professional

confidence. The Minnesota Food Association at Big River Farms,

where SJW Kathleen Roche worked in 2012-2013, is one great

example from diverse placement opportunities.

In 2004, the Minnesota Food Association leased the old 1880s farm

that had become Wilder Forest of the Wilder Foundation. MFA

started from a movement in St. Paul in the early 1980s to preserve

the St. Paul farmers market and became an advocacy making a rural/

urban connection promoting healthy food. In 1999, MFA began

training immigrant farmers, at first, mostly Hmong. In the early

2000s, the board decided that they needed a site, and they found

the Wilder farm. The farmer training program went into operation in

2005 along with a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).







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Looking Back Over the Year

A Conversation with Joci Tilsen,

Glenn Hill, Kathleen Roche, and

Andrea Pearson-Tande.

Joci: We were looking for AmeriCorps folks, and we were advised to talk with the St. Joseph Worker Director.  When I connected with Suzanne Herder, CSJ, she asked me to be in a mentor relationship with some SJWs (including Caroline Martin) who were interested in farming and food justice is-sues.  I was trying to understand the SJW Program and see if it was a good fit for MFA, and Suzanne was doing the same.  

MFA is mission driven. The SJW pillars of lead-ership, spirituality, intentional community, and social justice lead to that mission.  When we have a good SJW placement at MFA, she sees that the MFA mission, the SJW mission and her personal path fit together. And that’s when it works.  The tasks here can be mundane.  Washing vegetables, pulling weeds, data entry - the mission has to be what keeps you excited.  In the winter, the longest part of the year, we don’t have a lot of contact with the farmers, an aspect most interesting for the SJWs.  So, the mission has to be foremost in the person’s mind and a motivating factor in the context of her work.

Glen: There is, however, a lot of farmer contact. Would you agree Kathleen?

Kathleen: Yes. Although, I definitely hear what Joci is saying. The mission does motivate me, and there are opportunities for it. I can help with classes, go into the greenhouse, and see the farmers there.

Andrea: I think what you are talking about is true for any position that a person might work in their lives.  There is simply stuff you have to wade through sometimes. That is when the big picture and the mission can sustain you.

Kathleen Roche




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skills tend to be better.  Without English skills, it can be hard to run a business in the United States.

Joci: There is no typical person, but many come from agrarian communities, and once here, they want to farm.  Many of the immigrants don’t care about the business part; they simply want to produce. However, it is a business.  We help them understand that they need to learn to market the produce and run it like a business.  In some of their countries of origin, the farming business works very differently than here.  For instance, in some countries, no matter how much a farmer produces, the government buys the entire prod-uct.  The farmer doesn’t have to market it.  This is similar to the agriculture subsidies in this coun-try.  Some people want to only grow vegetables for their families and sell the extras.  

Over the years, we have struggled with the classes and tried to modify them to fit what the farmers

Glen: I see that our missions do meet in providing a quality experience for a young person in an envi-ronment working with people who they would not have exposure to in any other setting. However, I think we can do more in justice work.

Andrea: Tell me more about the famers who come to you.

Joci:  There is no typical farmer experience.  Every situation is individual. One difference is how old people are and what their literacy skills are like.  In the Hmong community, they generally moved into the same area; often, they don’t have a need to speak much English.  That’s not true for the Somali or the Karen People (Tibetan).  They are more integrated into the community, and their language 41





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want.  For example, when we became certified organic, we thought it would help the farmers be a stronger and more viable business in the future. But it imposed a lot of recordkeeping. It is chal-lenging because of the literacy issue.

Andrea: The more I hear about your work here, the more I see lots of social justice issues collid-ing.  You have immigration, organic farming, food justice issues, urban/rural divide. The SJW Program has this going on, too.

Joci: Social justice issues are all related.  Eco-nomics, racism, race relations, relationship to the

land—when you are talking about justice, you can’t separate them.  You are talking on a human scale about human interaction with the community, the culture, and the world.  I think it’s all one thing. Because we are funded primarily by federal dollars, the emphasis on social justice has not been in our literature; however, it’s been in our practice.  This is a struggle.  Most of the staff see our work from a justice perspective, but our funders are interested in numbers and results, not what is happening to human beings.  Much of that is not quantifiable.

Kathleen: I agree that there are strong parallels between the MFA and SJW organizations.  Even if they are not explicit, they enhance one another. The things I learn in the SJW Program, I see at MFA in ways that I don’t think I would have if I hadn’t been here in my role as a SJW.   I have seen MFA from a justice standpoint.  I was interested in it because I wanted to work with immigrants and




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refugees, and I thought farming was a good avenue from which to do that.  I was excited to learn more about food production and where food actually comes from.  The two, working with immigrants and refugees and working with food, have been a good play.  It goes along with community and building right relationships.

The staff has made an effort to focus on antiracism; I have been to workshops on race and culture; and through the program, I’ve learned a lot about right relations.

Joci: Talking about race and racism for a lot of organizations creates guilt and stress; we don’t want that tension and stress here. We have intentionally designed and worked on a way to talk about race and learning to be comfortable raising the topic of racial justice.

Andrea: I notice, Kathleen, that you have more language and crystallized thoughts about race and racial justice than some other SJWs have had the opportunity to form. You bring that to the group in a way that I appreciate. I see that coming from MFA.

Kathleen: My experiences at MFA are a ben-efit to my SJW housemates.  They add a new perspective and create learning opportunities for everyone. There is overlapping commonality in the SJW placements and living in community. As I’ve brought justice issues to the table from MFA, Willa (Simmet) teaches me about domestic violence, and Megan (Andrews-Sharer) provides the urban side of race and food justice issues.

Glen: Another parallel between MFA and the

SJWs is creating opportunities.  We are trying to expose the farmers to new opportunities. Within the scope of vegetable farming, we are creating space for farmers to explore opportunities, exper-imenting, learning, and seeing the different ways and designs they can do in farming. Working with the SJW Program is similar.  It’s creating an op-portunity for exploring and learning.  I think that’s not a spoken commonality, but it’s a commonality.

Kathleen: I’ve appreciated having a balance and an array of experiences. MFA has created space for me to come up with ideas for training classes.  I’ve seen what leadership looks like as I do different things. I helped at the CSA fair.  It was great to represent the organization and being trusted to do so.  

From the farmers, I’ve learned perseverance, passion, and courage.  Thinking of starting my own farm business is daunting.  But a 75 year-old farmer, Mohammed, has a lot of drive and strength. Overcoming obstacles, he is pursuing his dream.  He is inspiring.   Another MFA farmer is a leader in his community.

There is a spirituality piece for me here, too.  I love being connected to the earth and to the food that I’m eating.  There is a spiritual connection

for me in getting dirty.  While there are definite bene-fits to living in the city, it has been huge for me to find some quiet in a big open space.

Kathleen Roche at Mn Food Association






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Placements• Social Services• Education• Health Care• Advocacy• Systemic Change

Opportunities• 36 hour work week• Retreats and personal development• Spiritual mentoring and support by Sisters of

St. Joseph• Potential for college courses• AmeriCorps Education Award possibility• Student loan deferment/forbearance options

Benefits• Room and Board• Health Insurance options• Transportation to and from work• Monthly Stipends

Women ages 21-30 to become St Joseph

Workers for one year August - June. Each

receives training in 4 key areas.


LeadershipDeveloping leadership styles as women.

SpiritualitySharing the spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph — loving God and neighbor without distinction.

Community and simplicityForming small intentional communities focusing on living simply and building respectful relation-ships.

JusticeServing the needs of the poor and marginalized in a variety of work sites.



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Berit Nelson:

“ I stumbled across the SJW Program as a college senior. While I was quite skeptical as to why a bunch of nuns would want anything to do with a Lutheran like myself, I quickly be-came amazed at the loving “take you as you are” openness, the tendency to birth visions into reality, and the ways that Sisters just seem to “get things done”. ”Elizabeth Ihde

“ Being connected to this amazing group of strong, wise, generous, hospitable, beautiful, energetic, and spiritual people is such a blessing. Sisters of St Joseph exude the love of dear neighbor in all they do. It’s contagious, and it’s why being a SJW means being surrounded by the warmth of God’s love. ”Alyssa Howells:

“ The encouragement and support I’ve received has, in turn, fueled me to be more compassionate, and to consider how I can give back to any community I’m a part of after this year is over. ”

Katy Brandes:

“ Although I’m sad to leave, I know the Program will never leave me. Once an SJW, always an SJW! ”Donna Bonnicatto:

“ Regardless of where God guides each of us next, we will take with us the growth and experiences this year has brought us. Thank you Sisters of St Joseph for allowing each of us the opportunity for growth! ”Tenzin Norzin Waleag:

“ It didn’t take much time for me to discover how these young wom-en would become my new family. As days, weeks, and months have gone by I have begun to realize how thankful I am to have joined the program. ”






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For more information and an application please visit our website:

For information on St. Joseph Worker Programs in other areas, please contact:

Albany, NY [email protected] Angeles, CA [email protected], KS [email protected]

St. Joseph Worker Program

Contact Suzanne Herder, CSJ and Director The St Joseph Worker Program Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet add 1884 Randolph Ave, St Paul, MN 55105-1747 tel 651.696.2762 web

Sponsored by Sisters of St. Joseph of Caro-ndelet, St. Paul Province