Lifetime of fighting for human rights earns sister a place in history

| Doug Hovelson | March 28, 2019 | 0 Comments

Sister Alice Zachmann thinks of herself as being more of a peacemaker than a history maker.

She is both, according to the National Women’s History Alliance, a California-based organization that promotes greater understanding of women’s contributions to American society.

Sister Alice Zachmann

Sister Alice Zachmann

The NWHA selected Sister Zachmann as a 2019 honoree, and the 92-year-old religious sister, Minnesota native and Mankato resident, plans to attend the March 30 awards luncheon in Washington.

Sister Zachmann is among 11 NWHA honorees named this year; six are living, and five are deceased. The award honors Sister Zachmann for her lifelong commitment in support of peace and human rights — issues that she began publicly advocating for in the 1960s and ‘70s while working as a teacher at various parish schools within the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Then, in 1975, while serving as a pastoral minister at St. Stanislaus in St. Paul, she traveled to Guatemala to visit a friend and fellow sister in her religious order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

The terrible poverty and suffering she witnessed in Guatemala, in contrast to the epic beauty of the landscape, left her feeling desperate to help. After returning to Minnesota, she started making up care packages and sending them with people traveling to the country. She wanted to do more, but she didn’t know how to proceed.

In 1981, she called a time-out.

“I felt I had to do a retreat,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. At the end of the retreat, I got a call from a friend in Washington. She wanted me to come to Washington after the retreat.”

Her friend wanted her to start the Guatemala Human Rights Commission USA. The idea seemed absurd on the face of it.

“I spoke no Spanish — none,” she said. “I had no money.”

Sister Alice Zachmann attends a peace vigil in Mankato in this undated photo. Courtesy School Sisters of Notre Dame

Sister Alice Zachmann attends a peace vigil in Mankato in this undated photo. Courtesy School Sisters of Notre Dame

Still, she decided she wanted to do it — if her sisters in Mankato gave her their blessing. “I took a bus down to Mankato, and met with the Provincial Council,” she recalled. “They said they would support me but were unable to give me any money.”

She assembled a small stake of cash — about $1,000 — to get herself and the fledgling organization established. The Catholic University of America in Washington agreed to let her set up shop, but her small office, she recalled, was in a campus building slated to be torn down in the near future.

By June 1982, she had obtained IRS-approved nonprofit status for the organization, which meant she could start fundraising. She also began calling on members of Congress to inform them of the dire situation with respect to human rights in Guatemala.  She started visiting the Guatemalan embassy too, “to tell them what we knew.”

The Guatemalan government officials she contacted might have thought that by ignoring her, Sister Zachmann would eventually give up and go home to Minnesota.

If so, they couldn’t have been more wrong in their assessment.

Sister Zachmann’s character was put to the test even as a child. Her family endured grinding poverty as her parents struggled to make ends meet while operating the family farm in the 1930s and ‘40s — years marked by the Great Depression, drought and world war. “We were poor,” she said simply.

But her “wonderful parents” taught her a great lesson about not giving up, no matter how hard the going. It was a lesson she would put to the test in her own work advocating on behalf of the oppressed and abused people of Guatemala.

Her parents also saw to it that she attended the local Catholic school at St. Michael Catholic Church, then a cornerstone of the strong German-Catholic community that settled in and around the rural town of St. Michael beginning in the 1800s.

One day she walked up to the church choir loft for some reason, and “it just came to me” to become a nun, she recalled. Her teacher at St. Michael helped her clarify her choices. Following her heart, Sister Zachmann applied to attend high school at Our Lady of Good Counsel, the Catholic girls school ran by the School Sisters in Mankato. The school accepted her, but Sister Zachmann had her studies interrupted twice, for two years at a time, because her help was needed on the family farm. In 1949, she professed her vows with the School Sisters.

Sister Zachmann was neither the first nor the last girl from St. Michael to take vows with that community; 52 women from St. Michael have joined over the years, she said.

The sisters originated in Bavaria, Germany, in 1833, with the mission of spreading the good news about the reign of Jesus Christ. Their educational thrust led them to establish schools in communities throughout Europe, and in 1847, the organization planted itself for the first time in the U.S.

After graduating from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Sister Zachmann taught in grade schools from the mid-1950s up until 1971. Locally, she taught at St. Stanislaus, Project Discovery and Sacred Heart, all in St. Paul; St. Philip and Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Minneapolis; St. Nicholas in New Market; St. Francis Xavier in Buffalo and St. Albert in Albertville. She also taught at Assumption School in Cresco, Iowa, from 1954 to 1959.

After founding GHRC, she ran it for 20 years until 2002. She stayed in Washington, voluntarily working to help establish the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition. She stayed on at the TASSC until she retired in 2012.

“After 30 years of hearing nothing but tragedy I found myself becoming negative — not seeing improvement, seeing worsening conditions for human rights in many parts of the world,” she said.

Letting go was not easy. “I had to really pray to the Holy Spirit,” she said. “Finally, it felt it was time to let go.”

Now retired and living at her Good Counsel motherhouse in Mankato, Sister Zachmann still promotes peace and justice issues in the world. She participates in a weekly prayer vigil, held every Wednesday at noon in Mankato’s Jackson Park and regularly writes letters to apprise elected federal officials of their responsibilities to help victims of human rights abuses.

Her life may be one for the history books, as the NWHA suggests with its award. But Sister Zachmann, who celebrates her 70th year as a School Sister this year, knows that the work to build more just societies around the world remains unfinished.

“I am getting an award for what I did,” she said.  “But I think of all the suffering people in Guatemala, people who have suffered and continue to suffer.”

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