Story of Justice: Sister Ida Berresheim

By Mary Flick, CSJ, justice coordinator

The Sisters of St. Joseph were founded to do “whatever woman is capable of” as they seek to love God through their service of the dear neighbor. For Sister Ida Berresheim, this has taken many forms during her 70 years as a CSJ, serving as a teacher, a province and congregational administrator and a missionary in Peru, as well as serving immigrants at the U.S. southern border.

When she “retired” from her work in El Paso in 2011 at the age of 82, Sister Ida wondered how she might continue serving the dear neighbor from her home in Carondelet. She remembered an eight-week program that she had used with women in El Paso, called “Peace in the Family.” It was produced in English and Spanish by the Institute for Peace and Justice in St. Louis. Founded by Kathy McGinnis, a graduate of the CSJ-sponsored Fontbonne University, and her late husband, Jim, the Institute’s programs on peace-making and family life have been well received around the world.

“When I was moving back to St. Louis, I knew I wanted to continue my involvement in Pax Christi,” S. Ida recalls. “There I met Kathy. We connected and Kathy told me about Solving Our Situations.” Solving Our Situations, a program for women who are ex-offenders, provides learning experiences, advocacy and resources for effecting alternatives to violence.

“Working with the program in such a group really appealed to me as one from which I could learn much,” says S. Ida. “And the program has known a very good record of non-recidivism among its participants.”

Created by the Institute for Peace and Justice, this 10-week program, affectionately called “SOS,” offers residents at Schirmer House in the Carondelet neighborhood tools for positive change to help them move forward in life. Schirmer House is managed by the Center for Women in Transition (CWIT), which works to reintegrate women who are ex-offenders into society. CWIT originated as a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph and is now under contract with the Missouri Department of Corrections. It provides safe and supervised housing and a host of services to women who do not otherwise have housing. Among CWIT participants is a 93 percent success rate of women who remain out of the penal system.

The 10-week program means that S. Ida has a standing “date” on Wednesday evenings. She is picked up at 5:45 by Kathy McGinnis, and they make the short journey to Schirmer House. “For the evening,” S. Ida explains, “I’m part of this circle of women.”

Weekly, each participant describes a problem situation she has faced and identifies the kind of thinking that drove her to resolve it at the time she confronted the situation. She names her emotions and behaviors and looks to identify the real issue behind the situation. She then considers how she successfully handled it or could have better handled it. This process involves individual and group work. It also involves frequent reference to the booklet each has received at the beginning of the program, which includes the principles and practices that can assist in resolving situations.

Emotions, ways of thinking and reacting, manners of addressing problem situations—all of these are ways of approaching difficulties, which assist the participants to grow in self-knowledge. Recognition of and guidance toward effective ways of resolving situations are constantly voiced and gradually become part of the guidance toward personal growth. When the women consider their emotions and the issues underlying the problem situations, self-awareness emerges.

In addition to Kathy McGinnis’s facilitation, the program is also facilitated by a former program participant. “We start each meeting by asking and responding to the question, ‘What was the weather like in your life today?’” S. Ida tells. Other important questions raised each week are, “How did you do on last week’s goal?” and “What will you work on next week?” The women also consider, “What did we learn by listening to each other?” and “What did another do that made me think about what I am doing in a particular situation?”

This sort of consistency and accountability to one another pays huge dividends for the women. And for S. Ida. “It’s a good place for me to be involved,” she says. “These are women in need of compassion who have so many gifts which they share generously. Everyone, at one time or another, realizes she needs help in solving problematic situations. In hindsight, she might find herself saying, ‘I could have handled that situation better.’ Such self-reflection, however, does not come naturally for all.”

Compassion has motivated S. Ida most of her life. She recalls a visit she and her sister made with their father to St. Louis’ Hooverville, during the worst of the Great Depression. As many as 5,000 of St. Louis’ homeless settled in shacks along the Mississippi River. “It was a cold day, and the kids I saw there didn’t have anything at all,” S. Ida tells. “My family was poor, but we had a house and food on the table.”

One might say S. Ida’s responding to the need of others is in her DNA. “When I heard about the SOS program,” S. Ida recalls, “I said, here is an opportunity that is nearby. I have the energy to do it. My presence might be able to do something.” She has attended several of the 10-week SOS programs over the past two years.

“A Sister of St. Joseph goes where there’s a need and does whatever a woman is capable of,” S. Ida says. “I know I can be a presence there for these women.”

But she’s not alone. “How many wonderful choices our sisters are making,” she notes, speaking of other sisters in their retirement years who are doing whatever they are capable of doing. “They are not sitting home, watching the walls!”

As S. Ida reflects on her experience with SOS, she notes, “When I hear the women’s stories, I know I don’t have any problems.” And, she notes with a smile, “I learn a lot!”

Solving Our Solutions received a $3,000 Tabitha Grant from the Sisters of St. Joseph St. Louis Province last spring.

June 2017