Sisters Celebrate 50th Anniversary by Addressing Human Rights

sisters20160721The United States Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph (SSJ) celebrated 50 years of advocating for the dignity of the human person, made in the image of God, with a four day conference in Orlando, July 9-12.  The Federation seeks to be an influence for positive change in the world while living out their vocation in their everyday ministries. They are fiercely committed to improving the lives of victims of labor trafficking– a work which began five years ago in St Louis. Florida is listed as third in the United States in human trafficking, behind New York and California.

Over 700 individuals participated in the conference, including college students attending SSJ schools, lay ministers, volunteers and members and associates of their 16 communities. The Federation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph is a union of all the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the United States who claim a common origin in the foundation at Le Puy, France in 1650. This includes 4,465 sisters, 2,919 associates and 16 Congregations throughout the United States. They strive to embody a vision of all people united in one community of love and unity through collaborative programs, interaction, prayer and ministry.

The theme for this year’s conference was, “Our Emerging Story of Being ONE… God’s Love Unfolding.” It reflects the community’s charism: to love God and to love their “dear neighbor.”  Presentations focused on raising awareness of labor trafficking and the exploitation of farmworkers. The presentations also showed the participants how to advocate for victims.

Conference leaders gave participants a call to action: to urge the Wendy’s restaurant chain to join the Fair Food Program launched by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in 2011. The Fair Food Program is a partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions as basic as shade and water, for workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms. It gives farmworkers a voice in the decisions that affect their lives and helps eliminate the abuses that have plagued agriculture for generations. Developed by the CIW, it has been called “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” in the Washington Post, and has won widespread recognition for its unique effectiveness

Keynote speaker, Professor Terry Coonan, founding Executive Director of the Florida State University (FSU) Center for the Advancement of Human Rights and a practicing human rights and immigration attorney, poignantly illustrated the indignities of human trafficking through stories of Florida cases he has prosecuted, pro bono, and how programs like Fair Food can help. He indicated that due to Florida’s tourism and large agricultural industry, the state is a prime target for traffickers.

According to the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report put out by the Department of State, “… the risk (of human trafficking) is more pronounced in industries that rely upon low-skilled or unskilled labor. This includes jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and difficult—those that are typically low-paying and undervalued by society and are often filled by socially marginalized groups including migrants, people with disabilities, or minorities.”

Coonan, who attributes his passion for human rights to his Catholic education, applauded the efforts of the Sisters of St. Joseph and their work with the CIW. He suggested that one way to help fight the situation of labor trafficking is through corporate governance. “Corporate governance,” he explained is, “acting as responsible investors, demanding accountability from the kinds of places where our communities, our religious organizations have investments.” Coonan added, “Catholic religious sisters have led the way in this area of accountability.” He was referring to the fact that the sisters sponsor an office at the United Nations and have consultative status there, the highest status that a non-government organization can have. More specifically, he acknowledged the Wendy’s stock purchased by a congregation of SSJ last year.

The SSJ have purchased stock in Wendy’s this year “as a basis for a working relationship with the company,” said Sister Mary Ellen Gondeck, the congregation’s Justice Coordinator “It is really key that we and the Immokalee workers have a place at the table to speak about our concerns and that happens when we are co-owners with companies through holding shares,” she said. During the conference, sisters signed letters and postcards to send to Wendy’s CEO and members were provided talking points to encourage dialogue with the restaurant’s leadership.

Emphasizing the need for communities to get involved in this way, Lupe Gonzalo, a farmworker member of the CIW spoke on behalf of her co-workers and their cause. “Bad and abusive conditions continue to persist in agricultural industry,” she said. “There is still a lot of work to be done, but the important thing is to continue working together as consumers and farmworkers to be able to win the changes that are necessary in the fields. We have our voice and our truth.” She reminded guests that these efforts have been championed through the cooperation of corporations and consumers like themselves.

Acknowledging how one person can make a difference, Sister of St. Joseph of St. Augustine Kathleen Power, assistant vocations director for the Diocese of Orlando, said “I had a strong experience of life exploding in the congregation. At my table, we had two young people, still in college, so excited about uniting love and the dear neighbor. Then we had sisters who were in their 70s and 80s asking, ‘Who are some of the dear neighbors I haven’t noticed yet?’ Some of these even had physical disabilities… It made me feel so aware of the new life springing everywhere—in the young, middle aged and old, all coming to learn, pray and take the fire back to the dear neighbor.”

For more information on human trafficking and how to help stop it, visit

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