Sr. Mary Evelyn Jegen, Pax Christi USA co-founder, dies

Sr. Mary Evelyn Jegen, one of the co-founders of Pax Christi USA and the group's first national coordinator, died July 4 after a long illness. She was 86.

A funeral Mass for Sr. Jegen, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur for 66 years, was scheduled for July 11 in the chapel at her community's motherhouse in Cincinnati.

In 1982, she became the third recipient of Pax Christi USA's Pope John XXIII Teacher of Peace Award.

During her tenure as national coordinator, from 1979 to 1982, Pax Christi USA's membership grew from less than 1,000 to more than 5,500 members, including 46 U.S. bishops.

"Mary Evelyn Jegen was teacher and mentor for an entire generation of Catholic peace activists like me," reads a July 7 statement form Tom Cordaro, Pax Christi USA's "ambassador of peace" and an author and lay minister. "She had that rare combination of gifts that set her apart from many others in the movement.

"She was an excellent theologian, a gifted writer and, most importantly, she was a strategic thinker and visionary. Everything Mary Evelyn did as a leader in the Catholic peace movement was strategically focused on her vision of making nonviolence and peacemaking an integral part of Catholic social teaching and practice at all levels of the church."

Jegen taught history at the University of Dayton in Ohio from 1967 to 1971. She also worked with students who were struggling with their response to the war in Vietnam and considering conscientious objection. This experience changed her, and over time she became a pacifist.

In 1984, Jegen was elected vice president of Pax Christi International. She represented Pax Christi International at the United Nations from 1991 to 2000; Pax Christi has special consultative status at the U.N. as a nongovernmental organization.

Among her books are How You Can Be a Peacemaker: Catholic Teachings and Practical Suggestions (1985) and Just Peacemakers: An Introduction to Peace and Justice (2005).

Jegen was arrested several times and jailed overnight for nonviolent resistance, including a 2006 action in which she and three others occupied the office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and read names of victims of the war in Iraq, both Iraqis and members of the U.S. military.

She lamented U.S. involvement in both the 1991 and 2003 wars in Iraq.

In 1991, at a panel discussion marking the 100th anniversary of the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, Jegen asserted that modern warfare results in civilians making up 85 percent of all casualties. She added that Catholic teaching on just-war principles may have had one effect on the home front. "We don't have a lot of flag-raising and praying for victory," she said. "We have a lot of sorrowing and praying for an end" to the war.

In 2003, one month before the United States launched its second war against Iraq, Jegen said the language of war needs to be changed by those who wish to promote peace. It's not "use of force" but "use of weapons that kill," she said, not "collateral damage" but people killed, "brothers and sisters killed. Whose brothers and sisters? Ours."

She added that peace activists must continue to be guided by Jesus' teaching to "love our enemies, to do good to those who hurt us. Victory is not the objective. Reconciliation is the goal of an active nonviolent position."

Editor's note - Pax Christi USA has set up a memorial page where you can read more tributes to her, see photos and comment.