There was no better place for Sister of Charity Peggy O’Neill, Marquette University’s 2015 Commencement keynote speaker, to end her visit to Milwaukee than at the St. Joan of Arc Chapel in the heart of Marquette’s campus.
Sr. Peggy’s work at El Centro Arte Para la Paz, the center she founded in El Salvador, has provided a safe space for thousands of local impoverished children, and it models how it is possible to combat violence with peace. In her reflection after Communion in the chapel, just hours after Marquette’s commencement, Sr. Peggy said: “I feel connected to (St.) Joan in some way. I stand in deep time in this place. The time between when it was built and when this Mass is happening is no different – it is simply a place of love.”
Sr. Peggy said she feels a personal connection with the St. Joan of Arc Chapel, in part because she was a student at Marquette when its stones were first being laid in 1965. She was studying for a master’s degree in theology.
She returned Sunday, May 17, to receive her second degree from Marquette – an honorary degree as Doctor of Humane Letters, recognition for her mission of peace and social justice in El Salvador.
Sr. Peggy described her time at Marquette as formational, calling the 1960s “really happy years” that were a turning point for her and the nation. From the civil rights movement to the Second Vatican Council, ideas and faiths were changing, and she embraced the changes as a vehicle through which the suffering world could improve.
“I’ve been living under what’s been planted, those seeds,” she said of her time at Marquette. “It never stopped awakening me.”
She left Marquette with the philosophy that faith is a constant process of searching for more and asking questions, an attitude she brought to her work in El Salvador.
After moving to El Salvador 30 years ago during the country’s civil war, she cared for refugees and other victims of violence. It eventually became clear to Sr. Peggy and another sister that a healing space had to be created for youth.
In 2006, they revived a building that Dominican sisters had abandoned after Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination in 1980. It took extensive process rebuilding, but she said it was important for the Salvadorans to see reconstruction. The entire country was in shambles; seeing a visible sign of progress through her center was a cause for hope.
Sr. Peggy said her own “glimpses of the promised land” are what motivate her to continue working in Suchitoto,El Salvador. Many of the children with whom she works have encountered profound suffering, but there are moments in which she finds hope.
She explained how she watched a Salvadoran boy pick up a banana that fell off of a bus. Smiling, he peeled it, excited to eat what was most likely his first meal of the day. But then the boy turned to an old man nearby, gave him the fruit, and began to chew on the peel. The boy told Sr. Peggy that the man was not his father or grandfather, but simply said: “I think he was hungrier than I was.”
“I looked into his face, still chewing on the banana peel, and saw the face of God,” Sr. Peggy said.
She spoke of the boy’s selflessness as the kind of compassion that motivates her, but Sr. Peggy herself offers the same kind of altruism for hundreds of Salvadoran children daily.
More than 450 children take music and art classes weekly, from harp and saxophone to sculpture and dance. Their lessons culminate with performances for the local community. Sr. Peggy is in constant need of volunteers and donations, and numerous students from Marquette and other schools spend summers doing service work at the center.
A center like this may not seem to combat violence directly, but Sr. Peggy believes the creation of a healing space for youth can do enormous things for the promotion of peace. The simple creation of a positive environment combats children’s exposure to violence and suffering.
In her keynote speech at the commencement, she spoke of how she requested that two of her teachers receive the same pay as two soldiers would receive.
“Violins against violence,” she said, “do more than guns against anything.”
The recognition at commencement was not the only honor Sr. Peggy has received. In 2008, she was given the Peacemaker Award of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace for her work in Suchitoto, and she has received numerous other honors and awards in the past few years. Of such honors, she said she sees them as not for her, but for “all of the people that helped me become me.”
She teaches at the Casa de Solidaridad, or House of Solidarity, in El Salvador; the concept of solidarity, of connectedness, is important to her. As she said during a reflection at Mass: “As a species, we’re separable, but as persons, it’s impossible.”
Sr. Peggy sat in the front pew of the St. Joan of Arc chapel, surrounded by Marquette students. Quick to hug and quick to smile, Sr. Peggy lives her life for others.
“The older I get, the surer I am that each day I want to be a better version of myself,” she said. “Coming back to Marquette, I am reminded that a lot in me started here, and I’m still being called to let all that flower. To be a better Peggy.”
Jacob Scobey Polacheck