Karen Westberg

The Meaningful Life and Work of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the St. Joseph Worker Program

Our research began when Sister Marie Herbert Seiter, CSJ, coordinator of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Ministries, asked us to conduct an extensive program review of the St. Joseph Worker Program. This program is an outgrowth, strategic-planning process in which the sisters grappled with how to sustain the mission and work of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Historically, many sisters engaged with young people in educational settings and were able to teach their values of spirituality, leadership and community while instilling a desire to work for social justice. With the aging of the St. Joseph community, and with fewer women taking vows, the sisters envisioned a program in which young women would live simply in community, grow spiritually, provide meaningful service to those in need and become leaders for social change – the four values espoused by the program.

The vision of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province, became a reality when they developed the St. Joseph Worker Program in 2002. The young women (generally 21 to 25 years old) in the program spend a year in service, living in intentional community and working 36 hours each week at nonprofit organizations throughout the Twin Cities. St. Joseph Workers (SJWs) are provided with training opportunities and other growth experiences to develop the program’s four core values. In addition, they receive housing, a monthly food budget, a small stipend and health insurance. The nonprofit settings in which the workers are placed include sites that provide English language classes for immigrant populations, shelters for women experiencing domestic violence, housing for women and children who have nowhere to go, ministries for young adults, justice advocacy centers, free health care clinics and organic farms for helping children learn how to grow their own food.

This program review seemed like a straightforward task for us, a project that would capitalize on our expertise and experiences in program evaluation and service-learning as well as provide an opportunity for us to learn about a unique service-learning program in our community. Our methods for data gathering involved typical procedures for evaluation work. We learned relatively early in the process, however, that this project would exceed our expectations for learning new things about our community and have a significant impact on us.

First of all, an amazing aspect of our journey was witnessing the transformative power of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the SJWP on the individual and collective growth of the young women. The SJWP is a highly effective program for achieving its mission and serving the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet. We could hear the CSJ mission and values ring in the words of the SJWs. Current and former workers told us how the CSJ mission is reflected in their personal, professional, civic and spiritual lives today.

Before the SJW program I wasn’t civically involved, other than voting, and I didn’t really pay much attention to political issues. Now I follow politics and public policy closely and am conscious of their connection to social and moral issues. I often engage in discussions with people on these topics, send letters to my political representatives and attend rallies to support the vulnerable populations that are too often on the losing end of public policies.

Getting to know many of the Sisters of St. Joseph and seeing how they have made their charism – love of God and the dear neighbor without distinction – into a lifestyle has inspired me to do the same. The young women talked about being advocates for justice and for those in need; being more spiritual, reflective and aware of sacredness in life; being actively involved in their communities; and living intentionally and simply. We also were moved by how the young workers described the Sisters of St. Joseph. As a matter of fact, a highly animated discussion occurred when we asked the alumnae about the CSJs. When describing the sisters, one alumna said, “Phenomenal women, I’m so grateful to be connected to the community. Strong women, decades of commitment to justice; 80 year-olds still working for justice. Retirement to the sisters means closing one chapter and starting something new.” Another alumna said, “They provide a radical example of how to care for people, and they don’t apologize for it. They strengthen women. They meet people where they are and if you’re not there yet, they will help you by their example.” It should be noted that none of the alumnae with whom we spoke had previous associations with the CSJs before their involvement with the SJWP. They provided anecdotes about specific sisters, including comments about how joyful the sisters were (and we heard stories about singing and dancing with the sisters). The alumnae workers had a great deal of respect and affection for the CSJs, which was wonderful to observe. One cannot help but be awed when hearing stories about the sisters’ lives of service and some stories of how spunky they are.

We also found it heartening to validate the benefit the SJWP brings to nonprofit organizations. While it seems obvious that organizations enjoy the added workforce of volunteers, it also can be a drain on their resources and systems. Discovering the motivations of the nonprofits to partner with the SJWP and the value derived from the their participation provided great insight. The workplace supervisors explain that it is beneficial for nonprofits to partner with programs that share their mission and accept the responsibility and burden of recruiting, supporting and assisting in training young adults in yearlong commitments to serve. They describe how their organizations gain by educating others about their mission; building an educated, committed corps of allies for their cause; increasing their capacity to meet the needs of their clients; and reinforcing their relationship with the Sisters of St. Joseph. One supervisor explained, “They [workers] carry our work to other places that we don’t even know about, and the benefit to communities is immeasurable.” They also observe that the workers grow and mature in their worldviews. As one supervisor said, “After these experiences, the workers just don’t have an academic understanding of what it is like to work with disenfranchised populations; they learn what life is really like for them.”

Supervisors acknowledge the benefits of having an on-site worker in terms of their increased capacity to provide direct services to those they serve as well as enhanced advocacy efforts. They described the relationships the workers developed with clients that were so important. And, they shared how they saw the young women workers gain many vocational and life skills during the year. As one said, “It is a two-way street.”

These nonprofit organizations are dedicated to serving or partnering with the marginalized populations in our community. Seeing firsthand the individuals being served in these sites was very moving. We observed East African immigrants demonstrating appreciation for the opportunity to attend free English language classes taught by sisters and other volunteers. We witnessed immigrant, homeless women joyfully singing in a cafeteria as they prepared a community meal. We heard stories about the desperate circumstances of women of Africa who ended up in Minnesota after enduring physical atrocities and fleeing from their homeland. We met individuals who are working to make their communities safer and more economically vibrant.

Observing and learning more about these individuals and the people committed to making a difference in the lives of the marginalized in our community is awe-inspiring and increased our appreciation for the work being done in the Twin Cities. We are fortunate to experience these unexpected outcomes from the evaluation of the SJWP. Not only was it a two-way street for the workplace sites and St. Joseph workers, it was a two-way street for us in that, we hope, the program benefited from our evaluation work, and the evaluation work most certainly had an impact on us.

We are reminded of the dual role of researchers. We approach research projects not only as professionals but also as individuals who enter into relationships with those we interview. In this instance, it was with the SJWs who opened up to us and shared very personal, transformative stories about themselves. Similarly, the worksite supervisors described their thoughts and feelings about those they served – the students, clients, guests and patients. As a result, we as individuals were also transformed through new understandings. We became more critically aware of pressing social justice issues in our local community and developed a broader perspective of the lives of our sisters and brothers in need. We saw the potential to make positive change through the eyes and hearts of the committed individuals who are walking the walk.

Karen Westberg is professor at the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling. Susan Cipolle is adjunct professor at the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling.

 From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.