In a year of anguish, GSR offered stories of hope and courage

A screenshot of a recent GSR homepage gives a sense of the inspiring narratives told in our pages in 2018.

This past year was gut-wrenching on so many levels — emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. We found ourselves engulfed by the anguish of mass shootings, the despair of refugees treated as criminals as they crossed borders seeking safety, the shame and outrage of sex abuse scandals that revealed the pain of victims and exposed the extent of evil allowed to rot within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. 

Yet at Global Sisters Report, we took stock of 2018 on another level as well. We found courage and inspiration in the actions of Catholic women religious to live out the Gospel message to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, help the poor and build peace. In years past, we've revisited 10 noteworthy stories to mark the end of a year — but 2018 required a different approach. We polled our staff and include below links to some of our favorite or most noteworthy stories and columns of the past year. We've divided them into 10 topic areas — but you'll find many more stories and columns to re-read or that you may have missed in the links embedded below. As we ease into 2019, we invite you to spend some time with some highlights from the past year — and pray for a more peaceful year ahead.

Solace from a Homepage

One of my most memorable GSR moments of 2018 wasn't a story itself, but our website homepage during Nov. 12-14 as U.S. bishops met in Baltimore with the sex abuse issue high on the agenda. The bishops being told by the Vatican to hold off meaningful action until a February meeting of bishops worldwide I thought was a nadir in my lifetime for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. I couldn't explain this to no-longer-practicing or former Catholic family and friends, or even to myself. It only stoked my anger, rekindled by shocking grand jury reports and other revelations since the summer which forced me (and thousands of other Catholics) to again confront issues I foolishly thought had largely been resolved in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandals and coverage since the early 2000s.

My only solace in those dark days came from the GSR homepage and the examples of spiritual strength of women religious. Sr. Teresa Maya, past-president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, offered an address to the bishops that was both pointed and poignant, drawing on the image of a rotted oak tree and urging them to do the hard work necessary among themselves to cleanse the church. Sr. Patricia Fox's interview the day before she was to leave the Philippines underscored her courage in standing up for the poor and marginalized. After months of fighting a deportation order, she was forced to leave when the Bureau of Immigration refused to renew her visa, an action she believes was prompted by President Rodrigo Duterte — but vows to return when she can.

And the story of the canonization cause of Sr. Thea Bowman moving a step forward provided rich and wonderful details of her life and spirituality. Watching the video of her address to the bishops in 1989, who rose to their feet at her behest linking arms and joining in song, I couldn't help but think how different our church would be if the bishops had listened — truly listened — to her then. Perhaps they would have even had the courage to take action to prevent the sex abuse of children that National Catholic Reporter had started reporting about in 1985.

Seeking Refuge

The plight of refugees and migrants continued to dominate news coverage in 2018. While we publish many articles and columns about migration, we decided to focus our coverage in a special framework to convey the scope of the issue. Our multi-part series, Seeking Refuge, traced the journeys of refugees and Catholic women religious who assist them at every stage. From camps in Jordan and settlements in Uganda, to resettlement efforts in Italy and Greece, to agencies in Kansas and asylum shelters in Chicago, to raising awareness at the United Nations, Catholic sisters can be found assisting refugees. You can download an e-Book based on the series here:

In addition to the series, we also wrote about sisters helping at the southern U.S. border as the Trump administration's hardline "zero tolerance" stance separated families and complicated efforts of those seeking asylum. Sisters, including Sr. Sharlet Wagner, current president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, also serve as immigration attorneys. And we've carried dispatches from sisters who volunteered in the waning weeks of 2018 to help those in the caravans heading to the U.S. border. 

Racial Reconciliation

The role that Catholic sisters are playing in reconciliation in communities torn apart by anti-black racial violence and division was sensitively covered in three stories by GSR staff writer Dawn Araujo-Hawkins. Sisters have aided in healing efforts in Ferguson, Missouri; Cincinnati and Baltimore in very different ways.

Dawn also recounted for GSR readers how white sisters are responding to the history and patterns of racism within their own congregations. And she explored the richness of black spirituality and the traditions and influence in the Catholic Church and the pioneering role of the first black sisters. 

Abuse of Sisters

Sexual harassment, abuse and rape of Catholic sisters by clergy is an underreported issue only recently getting the attention it deserves. The International Union of Superiors General in November issued a statement condemning such abuse and the culture of secrecy, urging women religious who have suffered abuse to report it to their congregation and church and state authorities. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious issued a similar statement July 30, following a report by the Associated Press. 

Our contributors at Matters India reported extensively about the case in India, in which the Missionaries of Jesus congregation in India has been split by accusations by the former superior general of being repeatedly raped by Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who was arrested in September and later released on bail. He has denied the allegations, calling them a vendetta. Five sisters supporting the former superior general made a highly unusual public protest in September. Expect more on this important case — and the larger topic — in 2019. 

Ministering on the margins

Catholic sisters often minister to the marginalized and forgotten, so it's no surprise that their work takes them into difficult and challenging places. While there are many such stories in GSR's archives, here are some particularly notable ones from the past year: 

GSR writer Soli Salgado wrote of how amid other services provided in Cuba, sisters find their after school programs teach not only art, but reveal an aspect of government influence on children. 

In Nigeria, a Catholic sister and leading Muslim businesswoman created an interfaith network that has trained more than 10,000 women in peace-building initiatives. 

Months after devastating floods in India, Catholic sisters remained to help with aid and restoration, also playing a crucial role in bolstering people's spirits. In Vietnam, a ministry that provides wheelchairs frees people to be more independent. 

Countering Human Trafficking

Hundreds of sisters worldwide devote themselves to aiding victims of human trafficking or preventing them from being trafficked in the first place. Three GSR stories in 2018 illustrated the extent of these efforts. The Sisters of St. John the Evangelist have run a ministry for 22 years at the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, providing assistance to 500 children in 2017 in situations of unaccompanied deportation, trafficking and sexual violence. Along Kenya's coast, sisters work to counter the influence of sex tourism and the lure to parents to sell their children as a means to alleviate poverty. In Cleveland, the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking network brought together women religious throughout the Western Hemisphere to connect on their shared ministry

Battling Opioid Crisis

Catholic sisters are helping to battle the scourge of drug addiction devastating communities across the U.S. on several fronts. They are helping to put pressure on drug companies through involvement with Investors for Opioid Accountability, which includes congregations, faith-based organizations, city, state and labor funds and asset managers. 

Reporter Elizabeth Evans also told of efforts by two women religious, in the coal country of southwestern Virginia and Wisconsin, to aid addicts. "I stay strong by seeing people in recovery and getting better," Beth Davies, a Congregation of Notre Dame sister who has worked for decades in Appalachia, told Elizabeth. "When you see that, it gives you hope." 

Columns and The Life 

No recounting of 2018 GSR highlights would be complete without at least an attempt at the most difficult winnowing of all: favorite columns and segments of The Life. Reflections by sisters are the heart and soul of Global Sisters Report and we are glad to provide a forum for sisters to share across congregations, countries, charisms and ministries. We love all of our columns (and contributors!) but in the interest of this exercise, we chose a few particular favorites: 

Mom's pickles by Sr. Karen Zielinski recounted an experience in her relationship with her mother in a manner anyone in the globe will understand. 

You never know where light will be by Sr. Joan Sauro, whose writing is as much poetry as prose, penned a lovely reflection about seeing the "lights" around us.

To gain insight into how truly international and multicultural the "global sisterhood" is, read A glimpse of light in Mongolia by Sr. Lucilla Abemwe Munchi, originally from Cameroon, sent in 2000 to be a missionary in Outer Mongolia. 

Sr. Judith Best recounts a painful but necessary "inner journey" in her column Recognizing my own racism which reveals lessons and insights we can all learn from. 

We couldn't omit one of our Horizons columnists, Sr. Susan Francois, who decided in January 2017 that she would tweet a prayer and positive thought to President Donald Trump every day. She wrote about her campaign in Global Sisters Report last year and was interviewed by Dan Stockman about her efforts this year. Then the New York Times picked up on the story and Sister Susan has since been featured on National Public Radio and other media. 

The monthly feature "The Life" proved so popular last year, that we expanded our second round, which started in June, to include five more contributors to truly get a cross-section of countries, congregations, generations and ministries. While these short reflections on particular questions are always intriguing and insightful, we particularly noted the candor and resolve on the question about being politically active.

The 2018 Nuns on the Bus tour was also a great example of sisters getting involved with public policy issues, specifically the effects of the 2017 U.S. tax cuts on most U.S. taxpayers, especially the most vulnerable. Sr. Michele Morek, GSR's liaison to sisters, was on the first and last week of the pilgrimage of 21 states, 27 days and 54 events. Her wonderful blogs and those of other sisters on the bus enabled GSR readers to "travel along" as the Network lobby for Catholic social justice raised awareness of tax fairness. 

Intriguing Reads 

Then there were the stories that defy easy categorization but are just interesting reads. One favorite among GSR staffers we dubbed an "if only." Chris Herlinger, our international correspondent who covers the United Nations, wrote about how foreign policy would change if women were in charge

Melanie Lidman, GSR's Mideast-Africa correspondent, detailed a fascinating story about the Ecce Homo institute in Jerusalem, which teaches Catholic texts from a Jewish perspective. The Notre Dame de Sion sisters who run the institute also "have an intricate and layered history with Judaism," as Melanie wrote.

Sr. Joyce Meyer, one of GSR's liaisons to sisters, has traveled to more than 56 countries and writes often about women religious communities in remote areas, such as in Guatemala or a new order that she encountered in Cameroon. But one of her most profound experiences in 2018 was near her home in Los Angeles where she participated in a "virtual experience" of a being a desert border crosser between Mexico and the U.S. 

Dan Stockman's story of how neither fire, flood nor war has interrupted the 140 years of perpetual adoration practiced by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin, also recounted the power and strength of connection the sisters have with those who ask to be included in prayer. 

Finally, one of our all time favorite GSR stories is also among our most recent: the story of six-year-old Teagan and how her adoptive family in Tennessee found the orphanage run by sisters in China who rescued and raised her as an infant. The discovery was made through a story that Melanie Lidman wrote while visiting China for Global Sisters Report — truly an example of our mission in fostering connections between the world and sisters. 

It will be hard to top that and the other stories and columns noted above — but we look forward to more terrific stories and columns in 2019!