The Sisters of the Holy Cross in Los Angeles, California, and an elementary-middle school are embarking on something new together.
Led by the Congregation’s mission to address needs wherever they arise, the sisters are launching a nonviolence initiative right in their own backyard. The faculty and students at St. Agnes School are partners in the project, aimed at outfitting them with skills to promote nonviolence that they can carry into their neighborhoods and beyond.
The initiative took off in 2017, led by Sisters Eileen Dewsnup, Maryanne O’Neill and Mary Alice Bowler. Seeking ways to serve and minister with the people they encountered every day, the sisters began researching the social issues of the area, relying on the knowledge and experience of a local sociologist, advocacy agencies and social service institutions. Their inquiry pinpointed domestic violence as a key concern for the community.
Called to build communities of justice and love through right relationships—a directive underscored by the Congregation’s 2006 Corporate Stand on Nonviolence—the sisters set to work. On the advice of their sources, they focused their efforts on violence prevention, helping people avoid conflict and, when necessary, resolve it.
“We hoped to address this issue by empowering others through education,” shared Sister Mary Alice. Joined by Sisters Rita Godhino and Patricia Anne Clossey, the group began the West Adams District Nonviolent Communication Project.
Through an act of serendipity, the sisters were introduced to Reflective Educational Perspectives, LLC, a Ventura-based organization that teaches conflict resolution and nonviolent communication. After the sisters received consultation and coaching, they approached St. Agnes’ pastor and principal about partnering with them for the initiative. With their enthusiastic support, the sisters then met with the faculty. “The program we are using helps people understand the causes of conflict and violence and teaches conflict resolution through mutual understanding,” Sister Mary Alice said.
To arrive at that understanding, program participants step out on a quest of self-discovery. Exercises and lessons challenge them to consider what kind of world they want to live in and how to get there. At the same time, a personal assessment helps acquaint them with the qualities and strengths they possess to make it happen.
The program also provides tangible approaches—centered around respectful communication and empathic listening—for diffusing tensions or hostile situations. It’s especially vital for children to learn these practices, the sisters say, because as they apply them in their own lives, they will also be examples to others as they emerge into adulthood.
From the outset, said fifth-grade teacher Ana Jelenic, students were eager to learn more about the project, which has been well received. For instance, a student who tended to internalize feelings was able to find expression through the program, and “eventually communicate those feelings verbally to me,” she said.
In general, Ana added, “I think students really enjoyed sharing their feelings and just having a check in with themselves. Sometimes we get so caught up in the day and don’t really ask anyone why they are feeling the way they do.”
This fall, the Holy Cross sisters/Saint Agnes team will pick up right where it left off, continuing its joint work of building a safer and healthier community. Ultimately, says Sister Mary Alice, “We want the children to have a sense of their giftedness and the giftedness of others, and to appreciate and value themselves as persons who have important contributions to make in their world.”