Sister Marilyn Kearns was intensely moved by the letter from the woman who had escaped a life of domestic violence. “Thank you,” the woman wrote to Sister Marilyn and her co-workers at a Montreal shelter for battered women. “Thank you for listening, for caring, for understanding, for helping me take control of my life.
“I’ve realized I’m not running away, but that I have made a positive and wise decision — I have indeed found myself again.”
Those words reinforced the decision Sister Marilyn made several years ago to become part of the healing process of women who had been victims of domestic abuse, a decision she made after much careful reflection.
After a rewarding and varied career in health care as a nurse, administrator and pastoral minister, she felt it was time for a change.
“I felt called to work with women,” says Sr. Marilyn. She found the answer to her call in a Montreal battered women’s shelter which cannot be identified for security reasons.
“Its approach was holistic, and there was a commitment to dealing with the spiritual aspects,” says Sister Marilyn. “You can’t just treat people in body. You have to look at the whole person to bring them forward in the healing process.”
She notes a central problem faced by battered women is the question, “Why me, how can this terrible thing happen to me?” The spiritual dimensions to this question, as well as emotional and behavorial aspects, are linked to a root cause.
“It’s all related to the fact that violence is cyclical,” says Sister Marilyn. “Power and control are major issues in violent relationships, and children learn that as they grow up in abusive homes.”
The Christian shelter offers compassionate care to women and their children who have been victimized by conjugal violence, providing temporary refuge, advocacy and counselling, as well as increasing community awareness, especially by educating those who want to respond more effectively to the issues of violence.
The shelter’s services are available to women, with or without children, who feel alone and helpless because they are living in a violent relationship, either physical or psychological. It allows women a space to reflect on their options in a structured, supportive community setting, assisted by trained professionals and other women living in similar situations.
Sister Marilyn’s most recent project has been leading a support group for women who are in the process of leaving or who have already left the shelter to begin their new lives. “It’s a very difficult time for them as they move into a new environment.”
The shelter’s support groups also include children. “It’s important to work with children in the home, so they don’t perpetuate the cycle of violence,” notes Sister Marilyn. “Violence is learned but it can also be unlearned.”
Sister Marilyn is also playing a leadership role in the newest congregational committee of the Sisters of Providence, The Healing Violence Against Women committee. The word “healing” is key to the group’s focus and refers in part to the desire to address violence at the level of root causes. The committee members stress that the healing process needs to include themselves, Sisters of Providence and society in general, as well as the victims and perpetrators of violence.
The formation of the committee is a direct result of directional statement number four from the Sisters of Providence’s General Chapter in 1994. It reads:
“Rooted in Gospel values and integrating our mission statement, we move to concrete actions to eradicate violence especially against women. In collaboration with both men and women, in awareness of violence and its underlying causes in our personal and family life, in our SP congregation and society at large, we choose actions and attitudes of compassionate solidarity, leading to healing and forgiveness.”