Sister Jo Anne Depweg
“Our ministry is the day-to-day living and needs of the people.”
Nearly every morning after prayers, Sister Jo Anne Depweg meets a small group of men from her impoverished neighborhood at her kitchen door. There, she actually shares with them her daily bread. Sister Jo creates relationships with people. Relationships, she says, get people to say “yes” to helping each other. Sister Jo helps people in her neighborhood say “yes” to caring for the sick. She finds doctors to say “yes” to pro bono services to the poor. She encourages mothers to say “yes” to helping care for undernourished infants.
Fit and fast-talking with a thoroughly modern point of view, Sister Jo was one of the original five sisters who “got off the boat” in 1962 when SNDdeN began its ministries in Brazil. She celebrated her 60th jubilee in 2011 and shows no signs of slowing down.
Sister Jo runs a “Ministry of Hospitality” in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Brazilian city of Belém. There, she tends to the finances of the SNDdeN Province House, a hub for the growing religious communities of Anapu, Ceara, São Luis and Marajo. In this role, she hosts frequent visitors and helps train younger sisters. She is involved in her parish church and serves on the Conference of Religious of Brazil for the state of Para.
Perhaps nearest and dearest to her heart is her involvement “Comité Dorothy,” a group carrying on the work of her martyred friend, Sister Dorothy Stang. Sister Dorothy was an advocate for sustainable farming in the Amazon rain forest, fighting to protect the rights of rural workers and the poor against loggers, land speculators and agribusiness. Sister Jo meets regularly with the Dorothy Committee and every summer participates in a 55-kilometer walk between Anapu and Boa Esperanca, where Sister Dorothy lived and was murdered in 2005. “We try to keep up with all the issues we know Dot would have been interested in,” she says. “We work with local volunteers, we try to promote our presence at meetings and we take a bus down to Anapu and work with the community there. People want to maintain Dot’s memory. Dorothy’s life stands for the struggle of many people.”
Raising awareness of the trafficking of young Brazilian girls into human slavery is another issue high on the list of concerns of the sisters in Brazil. “Trafficking is a serious problem all over Brazil,” she says. “They get these girls and tell them they’re going to send them away to be models. Then, once the girls get involved, once they go to Spain, once they go to France or wherever it is they are going, their passports are taken away from them. Without any kind of identification, they’re dead. Dead by the way of having no documents. They cease to exist. We keep trying to get churches and schools and organizations to help by letting girls know what they’re getting into.”
She and the other sisters in the Province House sacrifice a portion of their personal funds to help poor families make ends meet. They often pay bus fares for volunteers and personally support the Pastoral of the Child, an organization which makes and distributes a protein powder for undernourished children. “Our ministry is the day-to-day living and needs of the people,” she says.