Activism is Opportunity for Sister Mary Jo McDonald


“It was an opportunity,” began almost any sentence uttered by Butte’s Sister Mary Jo McDonald as she recalled her varied paths through her 76-year life full of opportunities—each  offering  some  sort  of  service to  others.

Although retired from her duties as a Pastoral Minister and Administrator for St. Ann’s Church in Butte, she has not stopped participating—she just allows herself more for more opportunities, like serving on Butte’s Natural Resources Damage Council. A strong, determined  advocate  for  what  is  right  for the environment and for the community, Mary Jo’s absolute focus is on the people of the community.

Baptized in Walkerville, raised in Anaconda, and now living in Butte, she is an example of the best of her environment and her upbringing. Before her family settled in Anaconda, she recalled her youngest days as the family moved from place to place along the high line, following her father’s work as a phone company lineman.

“We were called the trailer tramps,” she said with a bit of a giggle.

Despite Anaconda’s smoke from the smelter stack’s operation, Mary Jo remembered good times.

“It was nothing short of an opportunity to gain friends for a lifetime,” she said, remembering her mother sharing what little they had with a neighbor who had even less and her father supporting the men in his union.

Mary Jo remembered riding her bike, playing outside until dark, and fishing with her father and brothers—and winning a Warm Spring Creek fishing derby. “I had that pole forever,” she recalled. A very good softball player, Mary Jo was on a women’s team that won the state championship one year.

When she was a senior, her high school principal insisted she apply to St. Mary’s in Leavenworth Kansas because “she was a Catholic girl,” even though she was determined to attend MSU in Bozeman and play softball with her friends. However, when the scholarship from St. Mary’s came, she decided to accept it. That decision changed the direction of her life.

“I met our sisters, came home at Christmas time, and told my parents what I was thinking,” she said.

After only a few months in Leavenworth, she was thinking she wanted to join the Sisters of Charity, a big decision for the 19-year-old. Even though her parents encouraged her to wait until she finished her degree, Mary Jo filled out the application.

“If it’s meant to be, I’ll be accepted; if it isn’t, then it isn’t,” she recalled. She joined the order the following August.

Teaching was her first career after graduation, and she eventually earned master’s degrees in Counseling and Administration and in Pastoral Ministry. Meanwhile, she taught junior high math, science, and religion for 21 years in Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas. During those years, she lived in dangerous neighborhoods, experienced the challenges of Civil Rights up close, coached softball and volleyball, and served as a principal.

When there was an opportunity to come back to Butte, Sister Mary Jo accepted it and taught for three years before the Parish pastoral opportunity at St. Ann’s.

“Parish work is people work. Liturgy work—the whole gamut—it’s where you meet the people, and it’s also where you meet the poor,” she explained. “It’s also an opportunity to be involved in the community.”

Sister Mary Jo was definitely in her element, not only because she was a member of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth with their focus on Vincent DePaul’s 400-year-old teachings regarding social justice issues, but because that is Sister Mary Jo’s passion.

“It allows us to be activists simply because we are members of a religious community,” she  said.  “What  are  they  going  to  do  to a  nun?”

So she jumped in. The first big project she initiated was a 1990 class action that eventually—after six years of litigation—allowed Butte to own the Butte Water Company. It was a time when Butte’s water was considered hazardous.

“The one that really ticked me off was when they turned off the water fountains in the schools and told the children to drink pop and juice,” she said.

One day, when she was in a women’s prayer group, they were talking about the water situation.

“Somebody needs to bring a class-action law suit,” she recalled saying. That night she got a phone call—an opportunity. “That was the beginning.” They gathered a group of people—a lot of them the poor themselves—and they stuck it out and eventually won.

Meanwhile, Sister Mary Jo was busy doing her day job as St. Ann’s Pastoral Minister. She began serving on the boards of the Butte Food Bank and the Lady of the Rockies.

She continued her photography hobby—begun years before in Kansas City. Here in Montana, her focus has been mostly scenery and animals—elk, wolves, sheep, and eagles.

“I think with most animals, if you’re quiet and very peaceful, you can get good pictures,” she said. “If you sit and watch them long enough, there are some interesting stories that are worth sharing with others.” Sister Mary Jo has captured many stories in her photographs, which she mounts, frames, and donates to different organizations to sell as fundraisers.

To raise money to take a group of students to Mexico to help build houses, another Sister and Mary Jo decided to sell some of the photos at Anaconda’s Art in the Park—but it was a juried event.

“We did get accepted; I think simply because we were the nuns,” she said with a laugh. They raised enough to fund their charitable trip to Mexico.

While Sister Mary Jo was taking pictures and leading young people and others at St. Ann’s Parish, life and conflict continued in Butte’s Superfund activities, and of course, she was right in there, determined to do what is best for her community.

“In 2010, three of us sued on behalf of Silver Bow Creek to make sure it was legally a creek and not just a drainage area,” she declared as she chuckled. “I’m sure people were scratching their heads, wondering why we were suing for the creek.”

As  usual,  however,  Sister  Mary  Jo knew what  she  was  doing.  Since  a  creek  is  a  state  waterway,  it  has  to  be  cleaned  to  state standards.

“In order to do that, the Parrott tailings have to be removed,” Mary Jo explained. Now  a  Restore  Our  Creek  group  has  been established, and the complex and challenging work  begun  by  Sister  Mary  Jo  and  two  others continues.

“That’s a good focus for me in my retirement,” she said with a gleam in her eye.

Sister Mary Jo continues to help in St. Ann’s Parish, serve on Butte Food Bank and Lady of the Rockies boards, and serve as an on-call Chaplin for St. James Hospital. And she has decided to dust off her cameras start taking pictures again.

However, she readily admitted, “Political action has always been who I am.”

No one knows what other retirement opportunities God has in store for Sister Mary Jo McDonald, but whatever they are; they will be meaningful and active. MSN

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