Sister Peggy O’Neill

“The people hold me: their light, their hope.  These people have learned to live in the dark; they have developed a night vision.  The light comes from within the darkness.  Nothing outside is going to throw light that resolves anything.  It comes from within together.  It is emerging, analyzing, trying.  It is really the Advent story.”

Editor’s Note: This is one of a plethora of wise and poignant adages from the well-respected local sage – Sister Peggy.  Her candid wisdom abounds across El Salvador, and I finally had the privilege of meeting this often spirited and humorous comic, always insightful and provocative thinker, forever honest and genuine pragmatist.  She is a firm believer in using the arts to bring peace to heal the traumas of God’s people in this country.

Ever the clever teacher, Sister Peggy explores and utilizes a  myriad of techniques to be effective in challenging her students.  Designed around the theme “prevention,” the program in which she immerses herself is designed to offer non-violent strategies to “at risk” youth.  Seeing the brightest youth with the most potential take the risks to emigrate the country, she works tirelessly to create job opportunities in an effort to entice them to remain within their own community; this ultimately maintains the family structure and energizes the country.  At her side is a constant companion – her faithful dog, Luna, who sensing her need for daily prayer and reflection, obediently lies still beside her during those quiet times of solitude.  Relaxing to her can be 20 minutes in the hammock.

We interviewed Sister Peggy at the Centro Arte para la Paz, a non-profit organization, in Suchitoto.  Formerly the Santa Imelda School and Convent from 1917-1980, the property was abandoned during the country’s civil war.  In 1995 the Sisters of Charity established it as an alternative space for the community for the purpose of building a culture of peace.  It is not a static place.  Art exhibits in the museum are constantly changing.  New groups of students are moving in and out of various training programs.  Its hostel is always in demand.  Its building program expands to meet the community needs and popularity of Suchitoto’s tourists.  64,000 people have been served in its programs over the past four years.  The potential for this “vision- become- reality” seems endless.

I actually consider myself as having two kinds of DNA.  The biological kind came, of course, from my parents.  They were both precious people.  My mother, deeply spiritual in every sense of the word, was an extraordinary person.  She cultivated my dad’s spirituality.  My dad, a respected organizer and president of his local union, could be characterized as a “plumber philosopher.”  He knew how to talk to people at all levels from President Truman at the Inaugural Ball to his men on the job. 

My parents had both been baptized and married at our local parish in Jersey City in Hudson County, New Jersey.  The church was deeply entrenched in the lives of my family of seven children.  I was born three days before 1938 closed – December 28th making me 72 1/2 now.

I’ve been a Sister of Charity, my other DNA, for 55 years.  As a young child I was taught by the sisters of Charity nuns in the local parish school. Even as a youngster I had great admiration for those women who were my teachers, and I began to emulate them.  In the seventh grade I made the conscious decision to explore that lifestyle for myself and spoke with my parents about it.  I have an indelible memory of discussing it with my dad over the card game of gin rummy.  He was eating a smelly liver and onion sandwich on Jewish rye bread and drinking a Schafer beer when I made the announcement.  “Daddy, I want to be a WAC [Women’s Army Corps], WAVE [Women Voluntary Emergency Services], or a nun.  He didn’t seem at all shocked.  He simply responded, “Do you like uniforms?” to which I said, “Oh yes, Daddy,” and went on explaining what I considered to be the benefits of each group.  He assured me that he would be available for any questions I may have during my process of discernment.  Then he offered me half his sandwich and a little of his beer.  I consider that my first holy communion.

My family supported my decision to attend a boarding high school that prepared women for the life leading to the convent.  There were few career options in those days, but I was drawn to the Sisters of Charity.  For me it was the only life, and I chose well.  As a nun I chose not to marry or have children even though I’d had boyfriends when I was younger.  Every time I would get my monthly period, I would tease, “Well, there goes another baby.”  But I chose to give birth in a different way and chose to be a wonderful aunt to many, many children.  I think this will be a form of life that will not continue into the future.  For example, that high school I attended no longer exists.  We sisters of that order are getting older and dying.  But we have served well, and we will die with smiles on our faces because we have done much.

Some of the sisters in this order were teachers, some were in nursing, others in elder care, while still others cared for unwed mothers.  My aim was to be a teacher like the teachers I had in school.  I always thought I would teach and have done so all my life.  I first taught grammar school for three years followed by high school for six years.  I taught all undergrad classes that were in the area of Christianity in Iona College in New York for 25 years. 

In San Salvador I continue to teach at UCA (University of Central America) where I teach North American students for four months, as well as students who come as part of their Center for Global Education for one intensive month of education.  These students know who they are and who they belong to and cling to one another through the social networks.  They don’t miss their lives at home which I thought they might.  I realize the students and visitors I come in contact with from North America are self-selecting.  My students choose my course.  I find that those young people find ways of pouring their generosity in ways of service and accompaniment so that when they return home, they do some very creative things in their lives.  Their experience here marks their lives forever.  I have served as spiritual director for CRISPAZ’s (Christians for Peace in El Salvador) long-term volunteers.

I hope my teaching was and continues to always be challenging to my students.  I urge my students never to limit our understanding of God.  In fact, I prefer to use “the g word” because I feel we have trespassed on the fullness of God and locked Him in a box.  To me at this point in time, God is the sap of life of everything.  That has changed for me because I used to feel that God was love and now I think that is faulty because that still makes God a noun.  John sees God as a verb, the MOVEMENT of love.  The students often need to legitimate their own questioning about God and nourish their souls.  They will ask how to do that.  Lest they get too serious too soon, in an effort to lighten them up, I remind them, “You don’t get a soul til you’re 30 anyway, so relax.”  My teaching was always rooted in the justice issues.  Even when I attended the convent as a young student/novice, I was interested in justice and traveled to Mississippi to protest during the civil rights movement.

My own education includes receiving my Masters of Theology degree from Marquette University with an emphasis in Sacramental Studies.  I was teaching scripture, and I made sure to get my PhD from NYU because I wanted to add a broader base to the area of religious education with a concentration in the area of religious expression and form; I focused my area on ritual.  This took me to Bolivia to study an indigenous Indian group whose rituals are key in their culture.

The feminist movement in the Catholic Church was born as a result of Vatican II during 1962-69.  I ended up in Chile lecturing there on feminist theology to English-speaking women from Australia, the U.S., and Canada who were working with poor women.  I absolutely fell in love with that work.  These women were actually DOING the work with the poor that I was URGING people to do in my teaching back home.  I was so fascinated by the work they were doing that I ended up designing a sabbatical at Iona College in order to return to Chile for six months in order to write about it.  While I was there, I met a couple of other sisters who were hoping to live closer to the U.S. than Chile because of their own aging parents and their need to be closer to them to communicate regularly with them.  (This was a time prior to cell phones.)  They would return to the U.S. every three or four years. 

The four of us toured throughout Central America during 1982.  We stayed for three weeks in each area:  Chiapas, Mexico; Honduras; Guatemala; Nicaragua, and El Salvador.  Two of them decided to serve in Guatemala.  That was not an option for me because it would require my needing to be fluent in both Spanish and in the local indigenous language.  I came to El Salvador in the midst of their civil war because we wanted to see where we could serve.  What drew me personally to El Salvador was the church.  The bishop who replaced Romero after he was assassinated continued Romero’s same philosophy, and its posture was so open to the poor.  The people themselves had a strong identity.  They knew who they were.  They were in it for the long haul.  They were deeply rooted in the church.  They were engaging people who were easy to befriend.  The Guatemalan folks are less engaging and warm.

Once during the war the army was approaching, and three of us women quickly jumped onto the back of a flatbed truck to get away.  It was dark, but the driver needed to turn off the lights to remain undetected.  The one woman had the foresight to bring along a few tortillas.  Now I’m a nervous eater and was just ready to grab one to calm my fear when the woman who brought them offered one to the nursing woman saying, “Take these to keep up your strength.”  I’m glad she spoke up first BEFORE I reached which could have been very embarrassing.  This humble nursing mother simply replied, “No, no, today we will all share tortillas; tomorrow we share our hunger.”  This example of generosity is a reason why I stayed.

Another reason has to do with music.  One night I was listening to the radio and asked the person I was with, “Do you have a classical radio station in this country?” and the man said, “Yes” and I said, “I’m coming!”  That was last on the list, but I knew I could even survive a war if there was music to heal my soul.  My being drawn to want to accompany the people as a U.S. citizen sealed the deal on my staying in El Salvador.  I was going to learn what I could do here with what I had.  I didn’t have the language.  What I could offer were the skills of a theological background, sensitivity to women in new ways, and experience in living in community.  There were 1800 sisters in our New Jersey Sisters of Charity community so I KNEW community.

War is such an impossible choice.  Everybody loses in a war.  What is it like to give a decapitated head to a mother?  What is it like to walk with a woman to find her son in a shallow grave and see her pick up half a face and kiss his lips?  I’ve accompanied both these women.  The decapitated head came from the military.  The half face came from the guerrillas.  You walk in the middle of each side fighting against the other and say it can’t be.  Before and during the war, because persons representing the church were so often targeted and killed, I was always very careful in what I said, unless it was a value for me to do so, so I wasn’t ejected from the country.

Someone knocked on my door and a man announced that there was a fresh head outside that had just been cut.  I grabbed some towels and went outside to find it and recognized who it belonged to and took it to his mother.  It was a whole dramatic scene.  One of my favorite Biblical stories happens to be a John the Baptist story of the visitation of Elizabeth by Mary, and I have a painting of it.  I was asked to explain the painting in a group of people and began to do so when I glanced out into the crowd and spied the mother whose head I had delivered.  I hesitated not sure whether to continue the story or what to do, but continued.  When I was finished, this mother began chanting, “Someone knows my pain; SOMEONE KNOWS MY PAIN” over and over getting louder and louder each time.  Hearing the story actually consoled this woman in her grief.  You ask if I believe in the communion of the saints?  You bet I do!

In the beginning our role as sisters was addressing emergencies.  We spent the first year in Calle Real Refugee Camp doing only that.  In 1987 the refugees from Mesa Grande Refugee Camp were returning from Honduras, and we were re-settling thousands of people who had been displaced from the war.  The area had been saturation bombed, and it was a matter of concentrating our efforts on social development.  We needed to totally re-build houses and re-configure a water system.  It was 12-15 years of social re-building with no time to even consider economy.  Eventually we worked with the parish and began to build women’s groups, and schools, to do nursing, and to initiate pastoral groups.  We trained lay people.  In gratitude the people built me my own little house in one of the communities which I go to stay in from time to time.

Eventually we five sisters made a painful decision to move away from the parish.  Some priests did not choose to work together as a team.  With the help of friends, former students, and sister parishes, we purchased this property for $350,000 to fulfill a need we saw in the community.  The level of trauma produced by the war is one of the many reasons for initiating this place [Centro Arte para la Paz].  Other society traumas we address here include no options for our youth, the disintegration of the family due to migration, and the enormous complexity of agriculture in the world and how it effects the small farmer here in El Salvador maintain his family.  All these traumas need to be realized, named, and not let lie dormant nor paralyze us.  We need to somehow go deep within ourselves and touch them gently so that we can then go outside of us more gently. 

That is this place.  It is a place where we deal with all those things in a healing way through the arts.  I’m not an artist.  I’m not a musician.  The limit of my musical performance was taking accordion lessons as a child.  However, I had exposure to the arts living so close to Manhattan, New York.  My sister and I visited all the museums and went to the opera.  I worked in drama to the extent I participated in one-act plays and Shakespeare.  I know the arts can heal.  We use art and music to express our feelings.  As you walk through here, often you can hear guitar, flutes, drums, and see dance taking place.

A particularly exciting program for me has been watching the Celtic harp program for children take hold and evolve.  We have a harp teacher from Canada who starts beginners on lessons and then follows up by teaching them via Skype.  She returns every twelve weeks.  These little kids are integrated from homes where pigs and chickens live.  When they sit behind those harps, they sit so erect and are so focused, you would think they come from castles!  They are introduced to wonderful music, but imagine what it does to their self-esteem when people applaud for them!  We had the opportunity to take them and their parents to Guatemala to perform, giving them the status of an international cultural experience.  Those people in Guatemala had never seen a harp before and now are coming here to visit us.

I am absolutely engaged in prevention and in being a peace activist, always bent on looking for effective non-violent methods to achieve this. Here at our center in Suchitoto we provide alternatives to violence for kids at risk by working with psychologists to teach them techniques to deal with fear and resistance.  There have been 18 adults as facilitators and 100 youth participate in one of our programs.  Part of the program involves these youth making videos of situations and then returning to their communities to replicate the situations.  As an aside, some of our youth have gotten professional jobs in mass media as a result of some of the video documentary work and technology skills they gleaned here at this center. We teach cooperative games with our children rather than competitive ones.  The crux of our work with our parents is creative parenting where they learn to discipline with love and dignity and do much networking to prevent violent behavior. Even our preschoolers use conflict mediation to resolve their issues.

It is always a sad thing to witness the phenomenon of the migration to the North.  It is so risky for these bright kids to try to go to the U.S., and many never make it.  The ones who do manage to do so are considered heroes because of the money they send back.  However, when they return home, they are nobodies.  There are far-reaching ramifications of this whole emigration issue.  Entire families and communities are devastated as the family structure changes.  I’ve seen mis-handling of money.  Recently, for example, there was a Quinceanera party [traditionally big cultural celebration for a girl’s 15th birthday] where a cow was slaughtered and a $500 cake was ordered for that one day.  This raises questions and sets precedents for other families who clearly cannot begin to compete with such extravagance.  We are addressing our trauma of limited job options for youth and migration to the North using a multi-pronged approach.  First, we want to create in our kids a love for their culture resulting in a self-identity that makes them WANT to stay here.  One of those ways is in an ongoing project of preserving our historical memory where we try to capture the stories of our history through our elders.  This complements your project.  In it we want to highlight Suchitoto’s history before and after the Spanish and remember all who worked for justice in order for things to change for the rights of the majority. 

Our kids need to learn English for many reasons, one of which happens to be that our town is a popular tourist spot for North Americans that visit here, so we are providing ESL.  They also need to be versed on the computer.  We are also providing scholarships for youth and right now have 70 kids at the university level.  There is a technical school in town.  With all the current building and renovations happening at this center, we are choosing to employ our local youth in every area with the exception of the electrical work. Examples include their rehabbing the windows, working on the drains, and doing the woodwork.  This all ties in with another program that we have in place out of Ames, Iowa, called Tools for Opportunity, a nonprofit group that provides tools to deserving underprivileged craftsmen in developing countries.  In it each participating student/craftsman signs a pledge agreeing that in exchange for receiving a set of tools, he will promise to do 40 hours of community service using them.

There are 33 associates on our center’s board; I am one of them.  Our aim is always to be self-sustaining at this center, so we are charging a small admission for our museum as we change our exhibits periodically.  We now have a cafeteria.  Our hostel generates an income.  Because of the proximity of Copapayo Massacre site, our youth have received permission to build a boat and be part of the tour launches on the lake there.  This will be another way to generate income.  We are currently adding a conference center, two apartments, new bathrooms, storage space, a new kitchen for the cafeteria.  We hope to repair the chapel built in the 1830s.  This is a difficult project because of working under the cultural guidelines of its adobe structure.

One of my favorite projects over the years was our library program in the schools because it taught organization.  We never had a late book in any library in any zone, and we never had a book destroyed other than from use.  We noticed the women would take out library cards, but not the men; so we began putting tools in the library, and suddenly they too got library cards.

When I came to El Salvador, I had a PhD in religion theory, but these people taught me a more visceral view on God than I ever knew from all my studies.  I was supposed to be in the business of taking DOWN crosses.  Instead I found myself asking the question “How am I complicit in BUILDING crosses for others?”  Crosses are built of steel in the form of bombs which can be determined by which way I vote as a U.S. citizen.  We need to make peace our primary focus.  Recently I was made aware that El Salvador is in The Hague right now being sued for millions of dollars because there is a clause within the free trade agreement whereby if you did not permit the Pacific Rim Mining Co. to begin, they have the right to sue you for all the money they initially invested.  That is because Pacific Rim Mining, who is not a member of CAFTA, bought a U.S. subsidiary in order to sue El Salvador under CAFTA.  Never mind that people who protest their destroying the environment here are being mysteriously killed.  I have not turned in my U.S. passport even though I am very unhappy with lots of stuff the U.S. is engaged in.  I do my best to find a most respectful way to present myself so that I am not just written off.  I vote in the U.S. except on local issues, unless a sister writes and asks me to support a specific local issue.  Within the church I also feel the same way, and if I disagree with something, I will find a way to disagree respectfully and take responsibility for expressing why I disagree.  I will always tell the truth as I see it from my deepest center.  I apologize if the truth offends, but the truth will emerge through the ears of the audience.

I do use my passport to return to the States annually for up to two weeks to visit my family and every other year for a family reunion.  This past year I spent time with a friend who is dying of cancer. 

Violence is so pervasive and the fear that lives in these peoples’ hearts is palpable.  They are more fearful now than they were during the war because at least during the war they knew the face of the enemy.  Now they don’t their faces.  Gangs are penetrating the schools, and this seems connected to drug trafficking and mafia.  The government is proud of a new big highway being built.  However, that road will bring everything up and down its path both good and bad.  Recently we buried an 18 -year old pregnant girl who was killed.  I had given her asylum when she was threatened but ultimately was unable to protect her.  When I spoke at her wake, I spoke the words of a Muslim saying, “God is the doctor and God is the medicine,” meaning allow Him to heal.

The people here hold me in their hope, in their communal spirit.  These people have learned to live in the dark.  Theyhave developed a night vision.  The light comes from within the darkness.  Nothing outside is going to throw light that resolves anything.  It comes from within together.  It is emerging, analyzing, trying.  It is really the Advent story.  The light emerges from within.  Whereas after 9/11 we Americans did NOT take the time to stay in the dark as a people to ask the questions: Why don’t they like us?  Who is it that doesn’t like us?  Here it is different.  The people together communally hope and go about social change.  It is not so individualistic in thinking like “I hope my dad gets a raise” or one person protesting at an embassy on a given day.  I saw a glimpse of communal spirit in Joplin, MO, during the recent flooding, but I am wondering if they will be able to sustain that spirit after six months or a year.  These people in this country have learned that the government is not going to be their hope.  The Pope is not going to change things for them.  They have to band together and do it themselves as a community.  A friend and I attended a very long meeting on water privatization.  I came out of it exhausted, whereas my friend’s attitude was almost refreshed:  “Now we at least know what’s killing us,” implying now we know what we have to do. 

The reason I remain in El Salvador is I see glimpses of the promised land.  There is truth and goodness here.  There may not be answers, but people are willing to join hands, speak the truth, make mistakes, and carry on always reflecting on the truths of their faith, not their beliefs, but their faith. 

In the nearly thirty years I’ve been here, I am still astounded by a family of five who may have lost four family members and yet will profess steadfastly, “God is grand” for the remaining survivor.  God is very close and very present to these people.  Families like this have taken the Christian revolution seriously, not just to look in the sky for God.  Examples like this make me glad to be a Catholic because Mary was such a drummer girl of the Christian revolution as she ushered it in saying in effect, “Don’t look up at the sky, look right HERE.”  It is the sense where we are all vessels of God the Trinity, of God within, which is born out of knowing the new creation story.  If there really was this marvelous explosion of love of creativity and it’s a bang, how do I choose to echo that creative echo of God?  Spanish is a much more poetic language than English.  For example, in English we say, “Hi, how are ya?”  In Spanish, we say, “How did the dawn break for you?”  It is full of care, joy, and hope.

At my funeral it is my desire that someone says, “She died on the last day of her life; no sooner.  She continued to struggle and grow.”  I continue to struggle with the real issues.  However, many people die long before the last day of their lives.  They just live in a rut.

Although we did not need a translator for this interview, we thought our new friend and translator, Christian, who himself makes his living as an artist, would enjoy meeting Sister Peggy so asked him to join us today.  Unbeknownst to any of us, Sister Peggy and Christian’s mother had worked together after the war to help re-settle the Mesa Grande refugees where he lived as a child.  As you see, they were happy to be re-connected.

Editor’s Note:She never mentions it, but we congratulated Sister Peggy on her recent recognition as the 2011 Christians for Peace Award recipient celebrating her 26 years of accompanying the Salvadorans in their struggles and challenges.  She richly deserves it. 

Read more about the center’s activities and how to donate at


    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.