Sister Mary Claire Kennedy, Social Justice Coordinator for the Sisters of St. Joseph (SSJ) of Northwestern Pennsylvania, will receive the 22nd Archbishop Oscar Romero award presented by Mercyhurst University and the Religious Studies department for her work against human trafficking.
Kennedy will receive the award during an open ceremony held this evening at 7 p.m. in the Mercy Heritage Room. She will talk about her work in issues of human trafficking and the set of programs she has developed with the Sisters of Saint Joseph on the issue.
“For the past three years we’ve been bringing awareness to the Erie community on the issue, and advocating for better laws and the enforcement of the prosecution for traffickers, as well as trying to probe laws that come to the assistance of the victims,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy has also worked on various issues that look to assist the poor. She organizes the SSJ Thanksgiving dinner to feed the homeless during the holiday season.
In response to the murders and acts of violence that have been committed in the city of Erie and Millcreek district, Kennedy coordinates the “Take Back the Site” vigils with the SSJ, which are prayer services held at the sites where homicides have taken place.
“We work on everything from the death penalty to immigration to the environment. There are very pertinent social justice issues that are calling for a response and we try to do a lot to bring education and advocacy,” said Kennedy. “Much of it also depends on what the issue of the day is.”
Although Kennedy possesses a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Duquesne University and has taught science for most her life, she has always had a calling for social justice.
“My professional career has been in science most of my life, but when I was in college, I became aware of the Catholic social justice encyclicals and they just resonated with me as well as the call of the Gospel to serve those in need and try to be a voice for the voiceless. I looked at it as a religious call in a sense,” said Kennedy. “No matter my years in science, I was always doing peace and justice on the side.”
According to Daniel McFee, Ph.D., Chair of the Religious Studies Department, the recipient for the award is chosen unanimously by the department and given to somebody who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to live a life of peace and justice, and protect people who are innocent and vulnerable.
The award is given to someone worthy, but is also able to come to Mercyhurst to give a talk. In this sense, it is very pragmatic, because only candidates that are able to come receive the award, said McFee. The department chose Kennedy in particular, because she is a Sister of Saint Joseph and they had never chosen a sister of Saint Joseph before.
“Her life and her work are extraordinary. Just her resume itself jumps off the page at you when you look at it,” McFee said.
McFee said he hopes many students will attend the award ceremony to learn from Kennedy’s journey as a social justice advocate, highlighting that a figure like her is hard to come across.
“She is over 80 and she has a long history with working with the poor and the marginalized. She has wisdom to share with us and I think it’s important for people to share that kind of wisdom,” McFee said.
Kennedy said she is humbled to receive this award, but also views it as an affirmation of what she has been trying to do with people that have accompanied her along the way.
Besides doing service projects, students should work for systemic change, according to Kennedy. This means getting involved in the political process to change the systems that contributes to poverty.
“[Students] get turned off by politics, but it’s essential that they become aware; that they work for the changes that are necessary for the common good,” said Kennedy. “From my point of view there is a greater need to become advocates of change for the good on the political and civics point of view.”