I invite you to join us for an evening of sharing stories about Sister Jean Abbott (1943-2021), who was the founder of the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma here in Saint Louis. You don’t have to have known Jean to show up; she led a remarkable life of caring, serving, and healing, and was an inspiration and lifeline for many people.
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Sunday 31 January
7:00 p.m. Central Time
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The following obituary appeared in the Post-Dispatch.
Sister Jean Abbott, dedicated advocate for St. Louis war refugees, dies at 7
Erin Heffernan Jan 11, 2021
ST. LOUIS — Sister Jean Abbott, a longtime advocate for St. Louis refugees recovering from the trauma of war, died recently at age 77.
Sister Abbott, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet St. Louis Province and founder of the St. Louis Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma, became a central figure in the St. Louis refugee services community through her work providing sanctuary and counseling to immigrants.
She died unexpectedly Thursday (Jan. 7, 2021). The cause of death was not known by Monday, according to friends and a spokesperson for her Catholic order.
Born in St. Louis in 1943, Sister Abbott took a vow of poverty and entered religious life in 1961. She worked for several years as a Catholic school teacher, with stints at St. Catherine of Siena Grade School in Denver, Our Lady of Lourdes Grade School in St. Louis and Compton Heights School, before she decided to obtain her master’s degree in social work at St. Louis University.
Sister Abbott found her passion for aiding people suffering from trauma during the more than a year she spent living and working in ministry in Jalapa, Nicaragua, and Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Angie O’Gorman met Sister Abbott when they worked together in Guatemala escorting members of the country’s Mutual Support Group, dissidents who had protested the disappearance of hundreds of people thought to have been kidnapped by the government. The women stayed with members of the group, hoping that the presence of Americans would prevent their assassinations.
Sister Abbott and O’Gorman were eventually ousted from the country by the government, according to a December 1985 interview with Sister Abbott in the Post-Dispatch.
“I’m very concerned about their well-being,” Sister Abbott told the paper after her ouster. “We had assurances from Guatemalans, saying, ‘You’re the reason we’re alive.’”
When Sister Abbott returned to St. Louis, both she and O’Gorman became involved in St. Louis’ budding sanctuary movement, an effort to provide faith-based havens for refugees to prevent deportation.
In the late 1980s, the pair opened a sanctuary house for predominantly South American immigrants, the Casa Arco Iris, meaning the rainbow house, at Arco and Newstead avenues in what is today known as The Grove.
The home connected dozens of immigrants with legal representation, counseling and a path to permanent residence.
“Jean was a unique example of a woman who took her faith seriously and lived it out in action,” O’Gorman said Monday.
Sister Abbott also served as a counselor at the Center for Psychological Growth, Provident Counseling and at the Haven of Grace Shelter.
After several years running Casa Arco Iris, she shifted her work in the house, where she also lived for decades with O’Gorman. In that same building in 2001, Sister Abbott founded the St. Louis Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma.
The center served waves of Bosnian, African and Afghan refugees who had come to St. Louis fleeing war.
“So many of them come here saying, ‘I am destroyed,’” Sister Abbott told the Post-Dispatch in a 2004 story on the center. “Part of the center’s job is to change that sentence, to find a seed, so they’ll say ‘I am alive.’”
After more than 10 years of providing group services to refugees as clinical director of the the center, Sister Abbott retired. A few years later, in 2016, the center merged with Bilingual International Assistant Services.
“We do not lay claim to Sister Jean Abbott’s legacy, but we strive to prove worthy of it,” Bilingual International said in a statement. “Sister Jean was selfless with her time and seemingly limitless in her compassion.”
The organization said that without Sister Abbott, “the service landscape in the St. Louis area would look radically different, and would certainly not be as committed to the holistic care model that she championed for the most vulnerable newcomers to our region.”
Sister Abbott continued to help people suffering from trauma into her later years, including traveling several times with her order to Gulu, Uganda, to counsel children on coping mechanisms and help villages as they recovered from a brutal 20-year civil war, according to another member of her order, Sister Jo Ann Geary.
“When Jean told about her time in Gulu,” Geary said by email, “what she didn’t say is how difficult the work of listening repeatedly to horror stories is and how she came home totally exhausted. What she did say is that they completely captured her heart.”