St. Joseph sister with entrepreneurial spirit works with victims of human trafficking

by Camille D'Arienzo

NCR Contributor

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

St. Joseph Sr. Margaret Nacke
Who she is:
Founder and coordinator of Bakhita Initiative
Lives in: Belleville, Kansas

Sr. Camille: Margaret, a mutual friend and member of your religious community, Sr. Ann Strizek, speaks highly of you and the work you do from your home base in rural Kansas. She describes you as active in the efforts to reach those caught in the web of human trafficking. She said you also provide help for sisters in Europe.

I'd like to begin by asking how you got involved in human trafficking and what it is you are able to do in this arena.

Nacke: I have no clear statement for how I became involved in human trafficking other than that one day, I decided to self-educate about this issue. Friends say it was the Holy Spirit. It wasn't long before I was invited to give talks to various groups on human trafficking, including classes at the community college in Concordia, Kansas. At the college, I began working with four faculty members, and these meetings turned into organizing a successful conference, Human Trafficking: 21st Century Slavery. We have continued to meet and are now assembling a group of students who will examine the Code of Conduct for campus and educate other students about various abuses of the dignity of people.

This sounds like a continuing project. Is there any connection between this and your efforts for sisters in Europe?

Yes. A couple of years ago, I began a research project, Bakhita Initiative: U.S. Catholic Sisters United Against Human Trafficking. My intent was to establish a data bank consisting of resources from sisters throughout the U.S. who are focused on this issue, resources that could be shared by all. I called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious with this idea, and Ann Scholz, a School Sister of Notre Dame, brought the information to the LCWR leadership. The result was a green light to proceed.

Sister Ann sent word about the project to all justice and peace offices on her list. I immediately began hearing from sisters throughout the U.S. who wanted to participate. Since Bakhita Initiative was to be a resource, I needed to gather resources, so I developed a survey tool in which I asked for sisters' involvements in education and conferences, legislative action, corporate advocacy, residences, prayers, research and coalitions. There's a coalition map showing where sisters are involved throughout the country.

As an educator, my efforts are to inform as many as possible about this multibillion-dollar criminal business.

Where do you find support for your efforts?

In the small community where I live, ecumenical church women are supportive. In addition, I count on friends, faculty at the college, and our core group for U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking and people on the state committee, of which I am a member.

What information would you like to share about this?

Bakhita Initiative gave rise to U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking. There's a new website,, that has much updated material. This, along with, provides ample resources about the works of sisters and others on the anti-trafficking scene.

What is the connection that enables you to help the sisters in Europe?

In 1992, the U.S. bishops sent a representative to the LCWR meeting asking for volunteers to go to Eastern Europe to help the church after the fall of communism. A colleague and I, two of the 200 who responded to that call, were assigned Romania to work in curriculum development for the first Catholic school of nursing, St. Joseph. We made multiple trips to Romania and, while there, heard stories from sisters about life under communism. We began to wonder who was gathering these stories for the archive of the church, so we went to Rome and visited a dozen generalates whose members served in Eastern Europe during communism. There was no hesitancy in their saying there was a need, and every sister with whom we spoke was grateful that someone was collecting the information. Branching out to other former communist countries and interviewing sisters generated data and photographs that were used for a PowerPoint presentation.

"Where was I? Why did I not know about this?" were common questions from sisters as we presented information. In order to bring it into the "public square," we hired New Group Media to produce a documentary, "Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters under European Communism."

Keeping communication alive with sisters in Eastern Europe has strengthened networking.

What work does that involve?

Giving workshops, fundraising, and making connections. St. Joseph Sr. Mary Savoie and I two years ago gave a conference to over 100 sisters in Slovakia, and several years prior to this, we collaborated with the Institute of Church History, a department of the Ukrainian Catholic University, in organizing a conference for sisters who lived under communism. Funds I raised for this conference allowed us to hire a sister professor from Heythrop College in London to give major input. In Romania, we funded a home, a central house, to be used by all congregations. We also raised funds for computers so that the sisters could connect with one another and the world, and we introduced the sisters to grant writing.

Are you still involved in this effort?

In the past year, I've raised funds for much-needed renovations and the creation of an infirmary for the monastery of the Benedictine sisters in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Currently, I am working with a sister filmmaker from Slovakia who is producing a documentary about the anti-trafficking work of European sisters. My congregation, through funding that Sister Mary and I raised for Eastern European sisters, funded two documentaries produced by this filmmaker. We have supported the research of a sister in Poland, a researcher at the Catholic University of Lublin who wrote about congregations in Poland during communism.

Is there a center for your findings?

Catholic Theological Union in Chicago is the archive for the research that we have generated from congregations in Eastern Europe. As sisters send us their research materials, we add them to this archive.

When did you enter the Sisters of St. Joseph?


What drew you to them?

I attended the college, Marymount, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas.

What ministries did you have before you began your current work?

If one lives long enough, there are many ministries in which a person may be engaged. I suppose you might place me in the category of an entrepreneur, but these are a few of my ministries: I have been chair of the art department at the former Marymount College of Kansas, where a colleague and I established the continuing education department. I created a life planning and resource service in Concordia, Missouri, giving workshops across this country to sisters leaving nursing and classroom teaching. I established a Pallotti Center in Kansas City, Missouri, for the purpose of promoting volunteerism among college postgraduates and gave talks in parishes in many parts of the country. I was also a fundraiser for an international sponsorship organization  – I traveled to many countries in which this organization had sponsored children and elderly and also had U.S. volunteers working in these projects.

Besides my anti-trafficking work in Belleville, I also visit sick and elderly parishioners.

And I don't dare ask what you do in your spare time! Where and with whom did you spend your childhood?

I grew up in Hebron, Nebraska.

Did you have heroes, heroines or role models?

My parents were role models for many reasons, but basically, they were terrific examples of good Christian living. They reached out to others. This was especially true of my father, who was on boards and committees and gave himself generously to others, but always seemed to have time to listen to us.

What drew you to religious life?

I was taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and I think these sisters tried to the best of their abilities to expose us to missionary endeavors. We always seemed to be raising funds for some worthy cause. I think it was their example that planted the seed to think about a religious vocation when I was in sixth grade. Attending a women's college, where most of the faculty were sisters and where we lived in one building with the sisters, also provided an opportunity to become acquainted with their lives. I would say that the college experience solidified my vocation.

Has it turned out the way you thought it would?

I am not sure I have thought of it this way. As a young sister, I was given many excellent and growth-producing experiences; for example, I was sent shortly after formation to study with Sr. Corita Kent, the famous artist at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. I had a year's sabbatical while at the college to study the art centers of Europe. As a young sister, recently changed into lay clothing and traveling alone, this was quite an experience. It certainly enriched the classes I taught in art history, which was what the travel was meant to do. Little did I realize that as I was visiting the art museums in Western Europe, some sisters in Eastern Europe were imprisoned, and all were oppressed in some way by communist governments.

I also spent a summer at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, the Bethlehem, Connecticut, Benedictine contemplative monastery where the film "Come to the Stable" was shot. While there, the sisters arranged for a glass-making course. They prepared my lunch each day and gave me a car, and I was off to work with the glass-maker.

What would you say to young women finishing high school and having their life choices to consider?

Life happens quickly. Have some experiences that include giving to others and at the same time growing you, providing you with insights about people while learning about yourself. Life is always in process, but the choices you make are all the difference.

What work engages you in Kansas?

Mainly my work in anti-trafficking. Speaking, connecting, but also helping sisters in Eastern Europe as I become acquainted with their needs.

With whom do you minister?

Basically, I am a connector, and I connect with many people in this country and abroad, sharing resources or whatever they need. I am working now to update the Bakhita website that will include sisters worldwide who are involved with anti-trafficking. I am communicating with the director of Talitha Kum ("Little girl, arise"), the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons. This is a global network under the aegis of the International Union of Superiors General committed to stop human trafficking. We are urged on by the Gospel imperative to uphold, promote and protect the dignity of people.

What satisfactions do you experience?

I have been satisfied with my life and the many opportunities for growth throughout that have been given to me. In the winter of my life, it has been a gift to live in a rural community and to share in the joys and sorrows of the people; of course, I realize I have thought this way in every place that I have had the privilege to live.

How and with whom do you pray?

I live with one sister in a very small town. My prayer each morning centers on the Gospel for the day (we have Mass only twice a week, including Sunday) and the meaning of the words for my life. I pray to keep open to whatever God brings for the day. I especially pray each day in gratitude for parents, faith, siblings, teachers, etc. Being grateful is important to me, especially since I have had firsthand experience visiting slums around the world, seeing horrific needs. Seldom do I drink a glass of water or brush my teeth without thinking of women who might have to walk a mile to get water and then carry a heavy jug back.

I pray also for our parishioners and the many intentions that our community sends via emails. I belong to a circle in my congregation, and we pray during circle meetings.

What makes you happy?

Personality-wise, I think I am happy most of the time, but if you specifically asked what it is, it is probably being free: free to read; free to make choices; free to be with friends and laugh and share.

What saddens you?

I have a special sensitivity to single mothers. It saddens me to see single moms with basic needs. I was in a store the other day, and the woman waiting on me was sick but had to work to make the money. She apologized for not smiling. She had four children, one ill at home. It was also apparent that she needed a lot of dental work. I think of these women. When I wake up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., I always say a prayer for the women who are being trafficked and abused. This may be my angel nudging me to say the prayer and remember what is happening to some girls and women.

How do you relax?

I come from a family of readers, so I love to read. I also like to listen to music, work crossword puzzles, and engage in conversations that generate new ideas.

Is there anything you would like us to know about you and your commitments?

I am passionate about my work with human trafficking. The core group of 15 people in the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking group are great partners, supporters and resources. If something is needed, they are on deck, sharing. I communicate also with some of the sisters on the Bakhita list who are women "out there" working to make this a better world by addressing in various ways the criminal activity of human trafficking. I especially admire those sisters who are working in shelters or residences that house victims of trafficking.

And you, Margaret, are worthy of our admiration. Thank you.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]