Advocating on behalf of SSND at the United Nations
As the SSND representative to the United Nations, Sister Eileen Reilly brings enthusiasm, wisdom, vision and compassion to her ministry as she advocates on issues of concern to the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
“I really believe this is what we are called to be about as School Sisters of Notre Dame,” Sister Eileen said. “I like being part of the bigger picture, examining structural issues, working to change things. This is part of what it means to be Catholic, to work for justice.”
That concern for social justice took root in her childhood and strengthened as Sister Eileen pursued ministries in education before focusing on justice work and transitioning to the post at the United Nations. The position is a natural fit for her energy for and dedication to affecting change and improving the lives of women, girls and marginalized persons throughout the world.
Continuing a foundation begun in 1993
Her efforts will continue to build on the significant foundation established by the two SSND U.N. representatives before her, Sister Ethel Howley, the first SSND representative to the United Nations from 1993-2002, and most recently Sister Ann Scholz, who served from 2002-2010.
In 1992, the SSND General Chapter voted unanimously to seek affiliation with the United Nations Department of Public Information as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). In 1998, SSND was granted special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC).
This status offers the congregation the opportunity to actively participate in the work of the United Nations by presenting written and oral testimony to ECOSOC and its commissions, particularly on issues related to the welfare and education of girls and women, economic justice, and sustainable development.
“There are a good number of other religious congregations with NGO status like the School Sisters of Notre Dame,” Sister Eileen said. “We find that we have a lot in common with groups like the Association of University Women, which also cares deeply about women’s and girls’ education, and the League of Woman Voters.”
The NGOs also share resources, and other congregations regularly look to SSND for those materials, including postings on the international Gerhardinger web site for special U.N. days for human rights, Earth and women, as well as the SSND-developed trafficking information packet and Earth Charter Study Guides.
“It is one of those moments when we claim our place as educators, and we do it very well,” Sister Eileen said. So many congregations use those resources. It is one of our gifts.”
Sister Eileen Reilly, director of the SSND UN-NGO office, discusses her work at the 2011 CSW to ensure that girls and education are included in the Commission on the Status of Women’s outcome document.
United Nations commissions and events
At the United Nations, Sister Eileen attends the four major commissions that meet each year: the CSW and the Commissions on Social Development, Sustainable Development and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. As soon as she began her ministry at the United Nations, one of Sister Eileen’s first responsibilities was to help organize the premier Girls Stand Up! Orientation for nearly 300 girls and young women attending the 2011 CSW.
The event was sponsored by The Working Group on Girls of the NGO Committee on UNICEF in partnership with Pace University. The two featured speakers were Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile and executive director of UN Women, the new entity that will oversee all of the U.N. programs that promote women’s rights, and Leymah Roberta Gbowee, executive director of Women, Peace and Security Network Africa and the subject of the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which chronicles the successful efforts of the women in Liberia to end their country’s civil war.
Celebrating SSND internationality
Within the congregation, Sister Eileen focuses on connecting with SSNDs throughout the world. With the conclusion the 2011 CSW in March, Sister Eileen immediately turned her attention to the SSND International Shalom meeting in Brazil, which brought together SSND Shalom branch representatives from Latin America, Oceania, Africa, Europe and North America. By familiarizing herself with SSND concerns and interests internationally, Sister Eileen said that she is better prepared to address related issues that come up at the United Nations.
“Our presence at the United Nations is important for several reasons,” Sister Eileen said. “One is that we say we want to celebrate and hold up our internationality. If we are going to do that, it has to mean something. Because we are in 34 countries, we have opportunities that other people don’t have. Those opportunities are to influence the bigger picture and make our voice heard.
“At the latest General Chapter in 2007, we said that internationality is important to us. Related to that, we take our experience in those 34 countries where we minister, and we mine it, reflect on it and what can we learn, and consider what can benefit other people. It makes it so much richer than if we stay in our cocoon in those individual countries.”
A particularly satisfying moment occurs each year, she said, after the SSND delegation completes their week at the CSW, and the young women whom she has been mentoring conduct a presentation for the sisters in Wilton, Conn.
“You realize just how much it impacted their lives,” Sister Eileen said. “It is always so powerful to hear them sharing what it meant to them to be with us at the CSW. Seeing our delegation claim that experience and seeing how it changed their position is very moving.”
Commitment to social justice
With a Bachelor’s Degree in Education from the College of Notre Dame of Wilton, Sister Eileen first served as an elementary and secondary school educator, primarily teaching math and religion to fourth through 12th grade students in suburban and inner-city schools. Her last teaching job at a Boston inner-city high school in the midst of the busing crisis was the impetus for her transition into campus ministry with a focus on peace and justice.
“It put me in touch with the need to look at the bigger structural issues,” Sister Eileen said. “We were dealing with injustice and all kinds of problems every day. It was a wake-up call to me that we need to be attentive to bigger issues – the justice and peace issues.”
From 1980-1987, Sister Eileen worked as a campus minister at an urban campus parish, primarily focusing on justice and peace concerns, and was a member and chair on the inter-denominational campus ministry team at Northeastern University, as well as serving as a resource for 12 other colleges and universities. In 1981, she earned a Master’s Degree in Peace and Justice Education from St. Mary College in Winona, Minn. She also notes the influence of her childhood, growing up with a father who was a sheet metal worker and very active in his union, dedicating his time and energy so that conditions could be better for other people. Family vacations often were used for union-related trips. As a young child, she understood her father’s commitment and credits that for shaping her own attitudes.
With such a deeply embedded commitment, Sister Eileen is well prepared to advocate at the United Nations. Sister Ann noted that working with international structures as complex as the United Nations can require the patience of Job, the tenacity of Mother Caroline and the faith of Blessed Theresa – all gifts that Sister Eileen brings to this ministry.