Harrisburg, PA – When Sister Janice McLaughlin, MM, president of Maryknoll Sisters, was honored by the Governor of Pennsylvania, becoming a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania at a special ceremony held October 15, 2014, at his residence in Harrisburg, thoughts of her youth in Pittsburgh, and the trail of her life, founded on principles learned as a child, were uppermost in her thoughts.
“I have worked on the African continent for most of my adult life – almost 40 years – and have visited at least a dozen countries on all five continents in the past six years as President of the Maryknoll Sisters. Although I have this vast international experience – Pittsburgh will always be my home. It has shaped me and formed my vision of a world where no one is hungry, homeless or jobless and where all have enough,” Sister Janice told Governor Tom Corbett, his wife, Susan Manbeck Corbett, the eight other women being honored that day, and others in attendance. With Michele Ridge, president of the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania, looking on, Pennsylvania’s First Lady (at far right in photo) presented the award medal to Sister Janice (center).
“Pittsburgh has undergone a radical transformation from the smoky steel capital of my childhood to the cultural, medical and educational center that it has become today but its ethnic diversity and working class pride have endured. The values instilled in me then continue to guide and excite me many years later,” she remarked.
“My parents, Paul McLaughlin and Mary Louise Schaub, taught me and my sister Mary Ellen to treat all people as equals – from a street cleaner to the President,” Sister Janice, who attended St. Lawrence O’Toole Church and School for 12 years. “This has served me well as I have worked in refugee camps, poor townships and in the office of the President of Zimbabwe. As you heard, I also spent some time in prison in Rhodesia, where I made friends with my guards as well as with the other prisoners.
“This was a lesson I learned early in life – to respect all people and treat them the same. It was no wonder that I became involved in the civil rights movement here at home and went on to support liberation from colonial rule in Southern Africa.
“The Dominican Sisters from Columbus, Ohio, now Dominican Sisters of Peace, who taught me for 13 years, instilled in me a strong sense of justice and concern for the weak and vulnerable in society. In high school, we helped out several afternoons a week at the home for the elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor that was directly across from our school. I learned then that poverty and inequality were right in my own backyard.
“The Thomas Merton Center (that nominated me for this award) was also right in my own backyard (on Penn Avenue). The staff connected with me when I was deported from Rhodesia in 1977 and we have remained kindred spirits ever since – together with the Association of Pittsburgh Priests. They are the missionaries here at home, bringing the message of peace, justice and equality for all to the people of Pittsburgh, while I carry the message to the African continent as a Maryknoll Sister.
“Sometimes this message can be unsettling and make people uncomfortable. When I supported majority rule in Southern Africa, it made the government of Ian Smith so uncomfortable that they deported me – back to Pittsburgh.
“When I was home again, I lobbied against steel companies in Pittsburgh that were violating international sanctions against Rhodesia by doing business there. I began to get hate mail and threatening phone messages. One day my mother looked at me and said, “You better go back to Africa. When you speak out against injustice there, you are a hero. When you speak out against injustice here, you are just a troublemaker!” A mother’s wisdom spoke deep truth.
“Here in the United States, we see so many frightening and depressing images of Africa. The media captures stories and photos of the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, the kidnapping of school girls in northern Nigeria, and the hijacking of freighters by pirates off the coast of Somalia. These tragedies make headlines but are only a small sliver of the reality.
“There is another face of Africa that we rarely see – a dynamic continent of creative and resilient people who are full of faith in God and hope in the future,” she noted. “They are empowered by a belief in ‘ubuntu,’ a philosophy of life that holds that all people are connected with one another and that your destiny is related to mine. Relationships and a sense of family are at the heart of their joy and their ability to overcome problems.
“I lived through many changes on the African continent – from the oppression of colonialism, through liberation wars that have left behind a legacy of violence, to the heady days of independence when it seemed that anything was possible. Today the continent struggles to find a new identity that honors the past while embracing a better future for all.
“The Shona people of Zimbabwe have many names for God. My favorite is Chipindikure – The One Who Turns Things Upside Down. It sums up my experience. This transformation, and sometimes uncomfortable uprooting from the familiar, has been the essence of my life. I think I have been able to embrace many changes because I am rooted in the love of family, friends and my Maryknoll community. Maryknoll opened the doors of the world to me – but no matter how far I have wandered, I knew I could always come home to Pittsburgh and find a loving welcome.
“I accept this award on behalf of all the wonderful people who have loved me, formed me and encouraged me – in Pittsburgh, Kenya, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and around the world. Thank you.”
Since its establishment in 1949, the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania has annually honored outstanding women for extraordinary service and contributions to the Commonwealth. Only a few such women are named by the Governor each year. Almost 500 women have been honored since the award was first bestowed. Their ranks include women of high achievement in education, science, law, medicine, business, public service, philanthropy, humanities and the arts.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Sister Janice has been president of Maryknoll Sisters since 2008. Prior to her presidency, she spent nearly 40 years living and working as a missioner in Africa.
During her first posting in Kenya in 1969 as the communications coordinator for the Catholic Church there, she took on the training of journalists and broadcasters, and helped spread the Gospel through mass media. For her second assignment, she was sent in 1977 to Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe), where she was press secretary of the Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice, again working in the areas of mass media, education and advocacy. As the political situation in Rhodesia deteriorated, Sister Janice’s straightforward reports documenting war crimes in the government of Ian Smith, led to her arrest, imprisonment and deportation. After deportation, Sister Janice worked with the Washington Office on Africa, a church-based lobby group that helped to educate the American public and Congress about African affairs. She became project officer, in 1979, for a new initiative created by a consortium of Catholic donors to assist refugees from the war in Rhodesia. Based in Mozambique for two years, she raised funds to aid Zimbabwean refugees and taught journalism in the schools in the camps that were set up by the liberation movements.
In 1980, Sister Janice returned to an independent Zimbabwe at the request of the new government to work as an education consultant to the President’s Office. With great perseverance, she helped to build nine schools for former refugees and war veterans, and developed a new system of education linking academic subjects with technical training. After seven years in New York as communications coordinator for the Maryknoll Sisters, she returned to Zimbabwe to become training coordinator for Silveira House, a leadership training and education center run by Jesuits for the poor and marginalized. A lifelong advocate for the education of young girls, she set up a scholarship fund to help girls attend school. She continued to live in Zimbabwe until 2009.
Sister Janice holds a B.A. in theology, anthropology and sociology from Marquette University, and a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Zimbabwe. In 2010, Marquette honored Sister Janice with the honorary degree of Doctor of Religious Studies.
Founded in 1912, Maryknoll Sisters is the first US-based congregation of women religious dedicated to foreign mission. Working primarily among the poor and marginalized in 24 countries around the world, they now number 459 members from both the US and overseas.