This episode is a continuation of our journey with Sr Rita Steinhagen, CSJ. In this episode, we follow her journey in Latin America and her activism against the School of the Americas.
It should be noted that Sr Rita also established the Stillwater House of Prayer, where other sisters can come relax, reflect, and re-energize their souls. Sr Rita along with Char Madigan helped found the St. Joseph’s House, now known as Hope Community.
“I came to see the cross was the greatest act of love.
It was the total gift of love; you not only give your goods, you give your life itself.
And it’s the greatest act of life - it’s the act where
life is most manifest.
Therefore the cross is life.
And here my meditation began to consider that life
can’t be measured in the number of days an existence lasts, but by the depth of commitment.’
-Father Miguel D’Escoto
In January 1985, Sr Rita Steinhagen traveled from Minnesota to El Paso, Texas to learn spanish. The language school that she applied to relocated her with Quica, an 82 year old Mexican woman who did not speak any English. Together, the two managed to build a relationship through broken Spanish, broken English, and playing cards.
After four months of language study, Sr Rita began volunteering with Annunciation House, a shelter for refugees from Central America. Annunciation House originally housed both American and non-American people, but disagreements between the guests often resulted in the US citizens reporting the non-American guests to the Immigration and Naturalization Service so the decision was made to only house refugees from Central America. The people that Annunciation House welcomed came from war torn countries, mostly El Salvador and Guatemala, where the US was supporting corrupt and cruel government regimes.
Sr Rita’s main task for the first few months was to take care of the pantry; purchasing 100 pound sacks of beans and rice and 25-pound boxes of lard. She also collected crates of unsellable fruits and vegetables from the neighboring warehouses. She helped coordinate dark clothes for people who were planning on hopping on a train to a different place. If they were planning on taking the bus or airplane, she would “dress them like college students in jeans and tennis shoes with a backpack.”
Besides volunteering at Annunciation House, Sr Rita also did laboratory work at a clinic in Juarez. In her book, Hooked by the Spirit, Sr Rita recalls, “At one o’clock all of the workers returned to the main building for lunch of beans, rice, and tortillas. Afterward, I helped distribute the food to the people who had worked... As the people were leaving, a man and woman knelt on the ground to pick up individual beans that had fallen in the dirt. Another woman and I knelt to help them gather the beans.
From the hill where I was gathering those individual beans, I could see tall buildings of El Paso, a city built in the land of plenty--a land that wastes enough food daily to feed all the people of Juarez and all the people in the surrounding hills and far beyond. Again I pondered the injustices of life.”
After volunteering at Annunciation House for two years, Sr Rita decided it was yet again time to move on. Intrigued by the stories of the people at Annunciation House, she wanted to experience Central America for herself and so she signed up for Witness for Peace. According to the Minnesota International NGO Network, “Witness for Peace (WFP) is a politically independent, nationwide grassroots organization of people committed to nonviolence and led by faith and conscience. Witness for Peace’s mission is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices that contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Sr Rita was relocated to Antigua, Guatemala where she took more spanish classes. It was here that she experienced a tense situation that will reshape her journey of activism. A large crowd had surrounded the government building, asking where their sons have gone. At the head of the crowd were soldiers with rifles. The previous night, soldiers in trucks went around town and picked up all the young men to join the army.
From Antigua, Sr Rita returned home to the states to attend to her sister, who had fallen ill. After the brief return home, Sr Rita was relocated to Nicaragua, where she officially began her work with Witness for Peace. There was a civil war in Nicaragua, stemming from the 20 year presence of US Marines. An uprising against the presence of US Marines occurred in 1912. In 1933, US Marines were recalled, but they had trained and armed native Nicaraguan National Guard with Antonio Somosa as the commander.
For 50 years, the Somosa family, backed by the US government ruled Nicaragua. “In 1979 a group of revolutionaries calling themselves Sandinistas overthrew the Somosa regime. Before fleeing to Honduras, the National Guard, following Somosa’s orders, massacred civilians, destroyed crops and factories, and bombed schools and hospitals.” In the 1980s, civil war erupted, when remnants of Somosa’s National Guard, and funded by the US government, the Contras, violently struggled to regain power.
As a result of the political tension, violent acts against government officials, students, teachers, and innocent people continued. In 1983, religious activists visiting a small fishing town, Jalapa, recorded that the presence of US citizens stopped the Contras from shelling the small town; resulting in the creation of Witness for Peace.
As members of Witness for Peace, volunteers live in war zones, document attacks from the Contra, host US delegations, and act as deterrent to the shellings of the villages where the volunteers live.
Sr Rita writes, “For the first time I felt the terror that the Nicaraguan people had lived with for years. The Contras were armed by US tax dollars. My country was the major contributor to the terrible suffering of these people… For the first time I was really feeling what it was like to live with the daily reality that one’s village, home, or family could be attacked at any time, day or night. There was scarcely any family in Nicaragua who hadn’t lost a family member or relative to the war.”
Managua, unnamed woman, lost three sons and her husband to the war.
Jalapa, family of five, lost their son to the war.
Rosa, an elderly woman, had only one son who was serving time. Three times a day, she would walk to the prison and bring food for her son.
Colon, ambushed government jeep. Two dead civilians. One badly beaten government official, no longer recognizable.
Hurricane Joan caused the destruction of 23,300 homes with 6,000 homes being damaged, 148 people dead, 184 people critically injured, and 100 people unaccounted for.
San Juan, ambushed vehicle. Seventeen passengers, nine dead one of them being a three year old boy, five injured with three in critical conditions, and three unharmed.
“I can’t ever remember being so deeply affected as I was by reading about the massive destruction from Hurricane Joan. The sadness of this tragedy settled deep in my soul, and I wrestled with God over the age-old problem of pain and suffering.
I struggled with the lines of scripture, ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me and you will find rest for your soul, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.’ I saw no light burden for the people of Nicaragua, and I heard no answer from God to uplift my spirits.”
After her time with Witness for Peace, Sr Rita returned to Minnesota, where she began volunteering at the Center for Victims of Torture. The Center for Victims of Torture is an international organization that provides care to victims of politically motivated torture and their families. The stories that victims and families shared to Sr Rita remained with her; for it is these stories and the stories and experiences in Nicaragua that will eventually lead Sr Rita to the Veterans for Peace.
The Veterans for Peace uses non-violent activism to educate others about the causes and cost of wars, to prevent more wars from happening, to restrain the US government from aiding in foreign wars, and more. They are a supporter of the School of the Americas Watch, an organization working to end the operation of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), more notably known as the School of the Americas (SOA). SOA is a combat training institution for Latin American soldiers funded by the US government and are known to be behind the various atrocities in war-torn Latin America.
It was with the Veterans for Peace that Sr Rita went to her first protest in November of 1996. She was 69 years old. On the bus ride to Fort Benning, the basecamp of SOA, she contemplated whether or not she should cross the line onto the base.
“After I arrived in Columbus, Georgia, when I heard the crowds, heard the songs, and speeches that stirred my soul and brought vividly to mind the atrocities committed by SOA graduates, I knew I had to act, and I was at peace with my decision. I crossed the foot-wide white line and entered Fort Benning with 59 other protestors.”
Once she crossed, she and the other protestors were escorted and driven into the base camp, where they were processed for violating the open base policy. Anyone can drive or walk through the base, but they cannot enter if they are against the training that the base is doing. Once processed, they were allowed to return home. As it was Sr Rita’s first offense, she thought that she would only be given a warning. However, she received a “ban and bar” letter on May 1st, 1997, excluding her from the Fort Benning Military Reservation for the next five years. Sr Rita returned to protest the following year and crossed the line with 601 other protestors.
“The walk into the base was a tremendously moving time for me. Each of us carried an 18-inch white cross bearing the name of a person who had been killed or “disappeared” in Latin America. My cross bore the name of Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline sister, one of the four US church women who had been murdered in El Salvador by SOA graduates in December 1980.”
Nine o’clock am, Tuesday January 20th, 1998:
Sr Rita and 21 protestors began the first day of their trial against the United States of America. After a two-day trial, they were sentenced to six months in prison and a $3,000 fine.
“Dear Ms. Steinhagen,
This is to advise you that we have received notification from the Bureau of Prisons of the location designated for you to begin service of your sentence. For service of this sentence, you are instructed to report to the Pekin, FPC, P.O. Box 7000, Pekin, IL. 6155-700, 309/346-8588 no later than 2:00 pm, on March 23rd, 1998.”.
Sr Rita, prisoner no. 88119-02, departed for Pekin with Sr Ann Walton, Maggie Kvasnicka, and Margaret Belanger. A large crowd gathered Sunday morning to send her off and she was greeted in Illinois with more people, including a reporter, Brad, from KARE-11. After a little singing and prayer, she was then driven into the prison and began her sentence.
Her arrival was anticipated by the inmates, who warmly welcomed her and her “companions in crime,” Sister Mary Kay Flanigan, a Sister of the Third Order of St. Francis (OSF) and Judith Williams. Sr Rita began her six months at the “bus stop,” a temporary stay before being moved into one of the four wings. Her room at the bus stop had six metal bunk beds, each fitted with a two-inch mattress. The beds were to be made in Military Style Type Fashion and counting of the inmates were conducted at 4pm, 10pm, midnight, 3am, and 5am with an additional count at 9am on the weekends. Breakfast was at 6am.
After six weeks in the bus stop, Sr Rita was moved to one of the wings, that housed 32 women. The rooms contained two metal cots, two short metal lockers, one small desk, and a metal folding chair. For her job, Sr Rita was assigned to a small room with 14 inmates who were studying word processing. She was to correct their spelling and punctuation. Everyday after work, mail would be delivered to the inmates. Sr Rita and Sr Mary Kay always got a lot of letters from around the world, encouraging their activisms. Eventually the letters became too much and Sr Rita could not properly reply to everyone so her community created “Rita Watch.” Sr Rita would send the address from the letters to the community, where they would compile a list of addresses to send out a monthly letter from Sr Rita.
“I had this overpowering realization that what one does is never done in isolation. We are one body. We give love, support, and encouragement to each other even though we might not know one another personally.”
After six months, Sr Rita was released and returned to Minnesota. Her title as an ex-convict gave way to many public speaking opportunities where she talked about the injustices of the SOA and the US prison system. Through her brave actions, she was awarded the Archbishop John Ireland Distinguished Service Award in 1972 and 1998; the Alexandrine Medal awarded by the College of St. Catherine in 1984; the Marvelous Minnesota Women in 1998; and the Witness for Peace Appreciation Award in 1998.
“Wars are caused by greed and lack of love for other human beings. People cause wars, and people must stop them. Natural disasters will continue to happen because our wonderful earth is not something static but forever changing.”
Sr Rita passed away peacefully on November 21st, 2006. She was 78 years old.
This marks the end on our two-part episode on Sr Rita Steinhagen, CSJ. For more information about Sr Rita Steinhagen, Witness for Peace, Center for Victims of Torture, or the School of the Americas please refer to the links in the description section.
For more information:
Sr Rita Steinhagen: http://www.soaw.org/about-us/pocs/153-court-statements/1435
Coverage of Hurricane Joan: http://articles.latimes.com/1988-10-23/news/mn-344_1_lake-nicaragua
Veterans for Peace: https://www.veteransforpeace.org/who-we-are/our-mission
School of the America Controversy: http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=81917&page=1
School of the America Watch: http://www.soaw.org/about-the-soawhinsec/what-is-the-soawhinsec
Hope Community: http://hope-community.org/about/mission-values-vision/