She was back where her life’s calling began, in the Anacostia neighborhood of southeast Washington. As a newly vowed member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an international teaching order founded in France in 1804, Sister Katherine Corr taught from 1957 to 1964 in the school of a Catholic parish that served some of the capital’s poorest black families. Now, more than 50 years later and cresting on a wave of achievements that a whole convent of nuns would strain to match, Sister Katherine had returned. At an Anacostia community center, she was co-hosting a recent mid-morning event honoring 22 AmeriCorps volunteers who had each completed 1,700 hours of service.
Sister Katherine’s ties to AmeriCorps, a program within the Corporation for National and Community Service, is worth knowing about. First, it dispels suspicion--mostly from the political left--that faith-based groups are agenda-driven operations grabbing easy federal money. Second, AmeriCorps itself is blessed to be partnered with someone like Sister Katherine who has no doubts about the existence of God but has ample doubts about a government that overfunds the works of war but underfunds the works of peace.
In 1994, Sister Katherine’s order assigned her to direct the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, based in Baltimore. Her ideals were as high as her budget was low. By coincidence, or Providence, as Sister Katherine would say, AmeriCorps had begun the year before. “We had common values,” she says:“A focus on the economically poor, education as a way to empowerment, working towards a culturally diverse and an ethic of service which focuses on working alongside the people we serve.”
The co-host at the Anacostia awards ceremony was John Gomperts, the AmeriCorps director. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, he came to AmeriCorps after working in Congress for service-minded senators such as Harris Wofford, John Kerry and Tom Daschle, and several social justice organizations. He was effusive in praising Sister Katherine for being “the creative and spiritual force that she is.” Asked how the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers have kept receiving grants year after year, and currently when well less than half the applications are funded, Gomperts explained it was the quality of its work: “The program takes on some of the biggest and knottiest challenges in our society, and it takes them on with optimism and a real belief in the people served and the possibility of progress.”
Sister Katherine, the fourth of 10 children whose father was a milkman in Ardmore, Pa., joined her order as an 18-year-old in 1959. After earning two degrees in education, she was assigned to teach in Atlanta from 1967 to 1970. After school and on weekends, she was a volunteer in the voter registration campaign of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She came to know, and be inspired by, its first president, Martin Luther King., Jr., as well as forming what would be a lifelong friendship with John Lewis, now in his 24th year in Congress. Because of King and Lewis, she says, “I came to see the intimate connections between racism, poverty and war.” It led to her founding- and running from 1981 to 1991- Jobs With Peace, a Baltimore non-profit.
Known to her friends as Sissy, Sister Katherine says that “a typical day at the office is an organized chaos of phone calls, meetings and e-mails. I am smart at finding good people who can make things happen.”
AmeriCorps has also been smart: in bonding with what John Gomperts calls “SissyCorps.”
Colman McCarthy, a former Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace and teaches courses on nonviolence at four Washington area universities and two high schools.
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