Loving the ‘dear neighbor’

Teaching is an inherently spiritual exercise, sharpening students’ minds as it elevates their sense of worth. That’s how Sister Agnes Foley, CSJ, sees it. Education is central to her charism to always move toward a “profound love of God and dear neighbor without distinction.”

These days, at 81 and in semi-retirement, the dear neighbor is the American-Somali student at an after-school program in Minneapolis, home of the nation’s largest Somali population, where Sister Agnes volunteers. The program was founded by a woman Sister Agnes taught at Learning In Style, a program she founded in 1994 to educate and empower adult immigrants. When asked to help at this new after-school program, Sister Agnes couldn’t say no. She has since enlisted a local university and multiple Catholic high schools to get involved, providing vital support to the the much-needed program.

“Education is looking at the needs of the neighbor and responding,” she says. “Teaching is an act of love. It’s so much a response to the person in front of you.”

Teaching was an early interest for Sister Agnes, who was taught by Catholic sisters at Minnesota’s oldest Catholic school, St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Paul. Its origins trace back to 1851, when the Sisters of St. Joseph opened a school for girls in a log cabin, an enduring symbol of the leading role women religious assumed in educating children on the American frontier.

As a girl, Sister Agnes wanted to be a teacher and a Catholic sister, two positions that seemed like one in the same. Over the course of six decades in religious life, she has served in a number of capacities: a math teacher, a principal, a college administrator, founder of Learning In Style and now, an active volunteer who helps immigrant children as she also educates her peers and friends about the social-justice dimensions of immigration.

As a first-generation American whose parents were from Ireland, Sister Agnes feels grateful to help other immigrants. “It’s all been providential,” she said. “By the grace of God, that’s where I am. It’s a perfect fit.”

Meanwhile, she remains a voracious reader and life-long learner, always working through a hefty reading stack in her sunny St. Paul apartment. “Learning keeps you alive,” she says. “It keeps you connected.”

About Christina Capecchi

Christina Capecchi is an award-winning journalist from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She is the author of the nationally syndicated column “Twenty Something,” which appears in more than 50 Catholic newspapers across the country. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, America, The Chicago Tribune, The Star Tribune and The Pioneer Press. She also provides contracted editing and writing services. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a bachelor’s from Mount Mercy University.