By Father Joseph Brown, SJ
The Covenant by which we are bound was completed—from its proclamation, in Exodus: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan…”—by the rendering spoken by Jesus, as He reordered our very identities: “… you shall love your neighbor as yourself….”
Long before I could analyze and breathe in this liberating reality, I knew the truth of this new covenant, by the witness and labor of the women who created a community of love and learning at St. Augustine and St. Mary’s Catholic grade schools, during my enrollment in those schools between 1950 and 1956.
Most especially I knew it through my time of true “learning for liberation,” under the guidance and no-nonsense instruction of Sister Mary Rose Schleeper, OP. From the third grade to the sixth—when my family moved from East St. Louis to Beloit, Wisc.—she taught me how to navigate the pathway to the highest academic achievement, while also calling me to caring, communal involvement with my classmates. There was no “us vs. them,” no missionizing condescension, using us as objects of charity. One defining moment stands out for me, from those days—used, frequently—to explain how my life was forever graced by my education so long ago.
A restless (and therefore often disruptive) fourth grader was pulled aside during one recess period and pushed into an unimaginable world of intellectual adventures. “Joseph,” she said, “you’ve read all the books on the bookshelf in the room and I want you to get a library card for the library downtown.” With no idea what any of that meant, I knew it was not a matter of choice. So I maneuvered my way through the East St. Louis children’s library, from the shelves nearest the entrance, around the room, until, two years later, I had devoured the books in every section of the collection.
There were no “advanced placement classes,” no Honor Societies—only a dedicated servant of learning who saw something inside me that was a light she was determined to keep burning, for my fullness and for the benefit of many. How can I keep from singing…a praise song for her and for all of the Springfield Dominican Sisters who changed so many lives for the long-lasting benefit of us all.
Father Joseph is a professor and administrator at
Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.