February 1, 2024 at 7:00 a.m.
DRCC collaborates with Catholic schools to bring change to the world
Sister Sue Zemgulis, OP, (l.), and Dr. Joy Galarneau help SMS kindergarteners put the quilt together, which was comprised of squares written with ways students can show love in action and held together with Band-Aids as a symbol for healing
through compassion. (Photos provided)
Across the Diocese, Catholic schools have always strived to be proponents of peace. Now, St. Madeleine Sophie and St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish Schools are going a step further by becoming “peacebuilders,” with a little help from the Dominican Retreat and Conference Center (DRCC).
The “Peacebuilders” program — designed and led by DRCC administrator Sister Sue Zemgulis, OP, and Dr. Joy Galarneau, program director, with help from other members of the center’s ministry team — works with students and faculty to help cultivate the skills and values needed to practice peaceful, self-care and build peace in the world.
Sister Sue and Galarneau spend one day a week visiting each classroom in the two schools, offering various lesson plans packed with songs, stories, activities and tangible strategies students can take with them to find peace in themselves and promote peace in each other.
“Even though we can’t control other people and what’s going on around us, we can control what’s going on inside of ourselves,” said Kelly Sloan, principal at SMS. “Do we choose to be peacebuilders or are we people who don’t build peace?”
Fifth-graders at St. Madeline Sophie School stand around the completed “Love-in-Action” quilt. (Provided photo)
Sister Sue and Galarneau came up with the idea while trying to brainstorm ways to get younger families involved with the DRCC. “In terms of our retreats, most are older folks who are retired, so our ongoing question is how do you get younger folks involved?” said Sister Sue.
“Another piece of it is that we are a sponsored ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Peace so anything we can do going forward to help build peace with kids in our area is a great thing,” she added.
The program was made possible by a grant from the Koch Foundation, a Catholic nonprofit organization. The program runs for nine sessions across the two schools; SMS started in October/November, while St. Kateri began in early December.
Sister Sue and Galarneau said the students have really taken to the program over the past few weeks.
“We walk in and the kids are like, ‘It’s the peace people!’ ” laughed Sister Sue. “So they seem to be looking forward to it.”
Each lesson offers a different takeaway on peacebuilding. In the first session, Sister Sue and Galarneau asked students to imagine a world, called “Planet Peace,” and what it would look like. In the next lesson, the duo discussed how “peacebuilders make friends with their feelings and show compassion.”
Sister Sue — who writes and performs a song for each lesson — adapted a song she had previously written, titled, “I Growl When I’m Mad,” to help students get in touch with their emotions. She originally composed the song while working as a children’s counselor at Unity House for families in a crisis, domestic-violence shelter.
Classes read and discuss peacebuilding books, such as “The Little Book of Joy,” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. With the older students, Sister Sue and Galarneau opened up discussions about the author’s lives: what it means to be exiled, what is apartheid, and how despite everything, they strived to find joy and peace.
Sister Sue added that each lesson always starts with an opening prayer and closing prayer: “The opening prayer reminds students of how loved they are by God, and the closing prayer is when students put their hands to their hearts and say, ‘Breathe in Jesus, breathe out peace,’ ” while taking three slow, meditative breaths.
A SMS student practices "Breath in Jesus, breath out peace," during the session's closing prayer. (Provided photo)
“I am kind of blown away with how much these children trust us with their hearts and how deep they can go,” Sister Sue said. “Some folks are dealing with living in really difficult situations, or have really heavy hearts, and … they share what they have. They’re willing to really enter into this to the extent that they can, and it gives me hope for the future. But also what an honor and privilege that they trust us and will go deep with us.”
Added Sister Sue: “Whatever small way this makes a difference, it’s absolutely worth it.”