Sr. Callista Robinson has committed her life to service. A Franciscan Sister of Little Falls, Minn., she is dedicated to the Franciscan values of conversion, contemplation, poverty and minority. 

Callista02Franciscan Sr. Callista Robinson, recently honored with the Claver Legacy Award, poses in front of a mural at the Adult Learning Center in Milwaukee on Monday, March 12. The mural quotes the early 20th century African-American poet Langston Hughes. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)Her tireless efforts as coordinator of the Brother Booker Ashe Lay Ministry Program and as assistant administrator of the Adult Learning Center, are among the reasons she recently received the Claver Legacy Award from the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary. Sr. Callista also chairs the Black Religious and Clergy of Wisconsin and is a member of the National Black Sisters Conference. At her parish, St. Martin de Porres, she serves as lector and chairperson of the prayer and worship committee.

According to Antoinette Mensah, member of St. Martin de Porres Parish and the Knights of Peter Claver and the Ladies Auxiliary, Sr. Callista is a “force to be reckoned with.” 

“She has been around forever in my life,” said Mensah. “We go to church together and I serve on boards with her. She is a role model and inspires all of us around her in faith and formation. She is a champion for education and I admire all that she has done – and still does – for kids and adults. She is a professional educator and passionate for helping people with all educational types of activities.”

Honor bestowed at Mardi Gras event

Sr. Callista received the Claver Legacy Award at the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary annual Mardi Gras Scholarship Ball on Feb. 18, at the Italian Conference Center, Milwaukee. The award is presented annually to an individual dedicated to the tenants of Claverism – a charge to work together in friendship, love and Christian charity. The award recognizes devotion to the development of future leaders through mentoring, service and teaching.

As a member of the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary, Annette Frink explained that since Sr. Callista has helped to educate the community and has touched lives, from small children through senior citizens, she deserved the award.

“She has been a pillar in our community in regards to the education of our children and the spirituality of Black Catholics,” said Frink. “It was important that we recognize her and award her the Claver Legacy Award. Sr. Callista believes and charges every one of us with this message, ‘We as educators cannot give up. We still must teach children that they are somebody, that learning and education is important for their future, that no one can take their education from them.’ It is through Sr. Callista’s tireless work in improving the minds of Milwaukee’s citizens that will eventually unlock that golden door of freedom and open it wide.”

Knights founded in 1909

Founded in 1909 in Mobile, Ala., The Knights of Peter Claver was the answer of black churchgoers to racist practices at the time, as African Americans were not allowed to join the Knights of Columbus.

The order is named after St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest from Spain who ministered to African slaves in Cartenga, Columbia, and South America in the 17th century. Peter Claver is said to have converted more than 300,000 slaves to Catholicism.

The group’s mission is: “To render service to God and his holy church, faithful to its doctrines, sensitive to the needs of the church, family, our fellow brothers and sisters in the community, to portray by example the deed and higher principles of Christian life, provide mutual aid and assistance to it’s members and promote friendship, unity and Christian clarity.”

This mission is carried out locally and nationally with scholarships to youth to further their education. Milwaukee has four courts and councils in the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary based out of St. Michael, St. Francis, All Saints and St. Martin de Porres parishes. The courts are open to Catholics of all races and professions, and include courts for Junior Knights and Daughters. The organization’s mission coincides with Sr. Callista’s lifelong efforts in educating youth and adults as a teacher, principal, and chief executive administrator at Harambe Community School.

‘Passionate about people’

Mensah explained that, like St. Peter Claver, who improved the quality medical and educational care for slaves, Sr. Callista, one of several candidates considered for the award, has worked to give back what she received growing up as a young black student learning from Catholic Sisters.

“She really wanted to teach children in the African-American community and does all she can to help them get the education they need to pursue whatever profession they choose,” said Mensah. “She is passionate about people and the right way to do things. She provides an opportunity to question, challenge and engage in discussions and I suspect it is the same way at the Adult Learning Center. She definitely deserved this award.”

Close friends and members of the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary, Minnie Linyear and Lilli Holloman explained that Sr. Callista is a role model for the African-American community and is willing to extend herself if she believes in a cause.

“She is quiet spoken and doesn’t raise her voice for anything,” said Linyear, adding, “She sticks up for what she believes in and is great with children and wants the best for them and for them to believe in themselves, have goals and dreams.”

Holloman agreed, and added that the nun is very organized and pays attention to detail, especially regarding her parish ministry.

“She is always at the 8 a.m. Mass and comes back to the 10:30 Mass to make sure all the liturgical ministers are in place,” she said. “She is dependable and demonstrates this by being present for special events like Stations of the Cross, or just to lend a hand.”

Work with GED program ‘rewarding’

Surprised, but delighted to receive the award, Sr. Callista was touched that the organization remembered her contributions to education, but credits the Lord for putting the desire into her heart to make a difference.

“Service just motivates me because it has all been done in the name of service to the Lord and God’s people,” she said. “I always wanted to give back to the community, especially to the African- American community, and am blessed to be able to do so.”

As assistant administrator of the Adult Learning Center, located on the campus of St. Francis Parish, Sr. Callista is at work by 7 o’clock every morning, except Friday, registering students for placement tests, collecting monthly fees, purchasing bus tickets for the students, and preparing coffee and snacks for the students and tutors.

The rewards of her efforts and the success of the Adult Learning Center provide her with an enthusiasm that seems to override any fatigue.

“It is rewarding to work in this GED program and see the students come in at a certain level, making strides and gains throughout the year, and to see them graduate,” she said. “We have a good record for graduation and there have been quite a few who have gone on to higher education. We have some who have gone into nursing, trades and media technology. They come every day and it is really quite an achievement because they all have lives besides this. Seeing how their lives are touched and changed really helps my faith to grow.”