Mankato nun an honored guest as pope speaks to Congress

A tour of memorabilia
Sister Alice Zachmann gave a tour of some memorabilia at the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

As Pope Francis Thursday morning becomes the first pontiff to address the U.S. Congress, an 89-year-old nun from Mankato who's taught and ministered to the vulnerable, will be there listening.

Sister Alice Zachmann has spent much of her life teaching school in Minnesota — and fighting for the poor in Guatemala. She'll be Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tim Walz's guest of honor during the pope's historic speech to a joint meeting of the House and Senate. In her hands she'll hold a copy of "Praise Be to You," the pope's recent encyclical on the environment and the global economic system.

"He's very courageous," Zachmann said. "He's very faith-filled. And he doesn't seem to have any fear to challenge, you know, people who have more than what they need. And he's very concerned about the poor."

That focus is particularly important to her. It mirrors her own dedication to working with the poor and fighting for human rights over seven decades.

Born and raised in St. Michael, Minn., Zachmann is the third of seven children. In 1946, at age 20, she was drawn to the School Sisters of Notre Dame, an apostolic women's order called to respond to those in need, particularly the poor, women and children. She took her first religious vows a few years later, in 1949 and for 33 years, she taught at elementary schools in Minnesota and Iowa.

"Even while I was teaching, I was already doing some of the political work," she recalled. "I was supportive of the United Farmworkers ... and then I also was supportive of ending the Vietnam War."

Sister Alice Zachmann
Sister Alice Zachmann talked about her work in Guatemala during an interview at the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

By age 55, Zachmann was ready to make human rights work her day job.

She'd met missionaries who'd returned from Guatemala, as well as Guatemalans who'd fled that country's civil war. After hearing stories of torture and violence, she decided to move to Washington, D.C., to start what would later become the non-profit Guatemalan Human Rights Commission USA.

"It was just unbelievable what was happening to the people," she said. "They just had no rights and if they protested, almost certainly they would be killed if there was too much. And it was a terrible time."

During that country's brutal, nearly four decade-long civil war, more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. Most of them were indigenous Mayan people. A truth commission found American training and policy had a "significant bearing on human rights violations."

Kelsey Alford-Jones, the commission's current executive director, described Zachmann as a tenacious yet cheerful advocate for vulnerable people.

For two decades, Zachmann was known for working long hours, sometimes sleeping in the office if there was an emergency, and alerting lawmakers, the news media and other advocates to events in Guatemala, Alford-Jones said, adding that support for the Central American country remains Zachmann's legacy.

"When I go to Guatemala, years and years after Alice has left, people continue to ask about her, they continue to send greetings," Alford-Jones said "She really, really had a huge heart and made an immense impact on people and they continue to remember her."

Zachmann says her dedication to human rights work included moments of second-guessing herself - "How much of this do I really want to put my energy into? How do I want to live? And what do I need and what do I want?" she recalled. "It's a task. And I can't force it onto anybody else. But I can personally can do something about it.

In the chapel
Sister Alice Zachmann posed for a portrait in the chapel at the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

After 30 years of doing something about human rights, Zachmann decided it was time to come home to Minnesota in 2010.

She still lives with the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She advocates now for affordable housing in the Mankato area, writes "urgent actions" to lawmakers, and holds weekly prayer vigils downtown. She says she's not ready to slow down any time soon.

"The time will come, health-wise, when I won't be able to do it. And I need to accept that," she said. "Even in retirement, when I won't be able to work, that's going to be difficult for me, but I can pray. And a person never knows. I always just live, you know, pretty much saying, well, 'Give me this day, and then we'll see what happens next'."

What's next is a chance to see Pope Francis in person. "It's a really big privilege," she said, "to actually hear him speak."

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