Sister Margaret Gannon, IHM Educator and Social Justice Advocate Retires
by: Sheryl Lynn Sochoka ’92
In 1955, in Brooklyn, NY, Marywood was the last thing on Margaret Gannon’s mind—and so was the call to religious life. Then a senior in high school, she had to choose schools for her college application.
Marywood was the only college, however, that offered the bright young woman from Brooklyn a full scholarship, including tuition, room, and board. Since her family had limited means, financial circumstances dictated that she take the Marywood scholarship, however, as she soon discovered, this was the best thing that could have happened.
“I had gone to all of these other colleges, and—eh—nothing special. At Marywood, they were so welcoming. I remember going into the (former Motherhouse) chapel and thinking, ‘I belong here.’ I wasn’t thinking about entering at all, but I knew I belonged at Marywood,” Sister Margaret stated.
What began as an accidental afterthought became a truly transformative experience, lasting more than 50 years, from her time as a student through her years as an educator. After earning her bachelor’s degree in history from Marywood in 1962, Sister Margaret went on to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees from St. John’s University. In January 1967, she returned to Marywood as she worked on her doctoral dissertation, and she began to teach. She’s been here ever since, and has made her life’s purpose that of both world history educator and social justice advocate.
Like her decision to attend Marywood, Sister Margaret’s choice of educational focus was initially imposed on her, but, as with most things in her life, she learned to respond with earnest joy, intellectual curiosity, and a bold passion to make a positive difference. She recalled how her experiences with Sister Nazarene Smith, IHM, who was then the Chair of Marywood’s History Department, directed the course of her life.
“I entered (the IHM Congregation) while I was in college...I was told—these were the days when you were told—that I was going to get a degree in history. Sister Nazarene was a very tough person—so scary, that when I was an undergraduate, I would not walk past her classroom,” Sister Margaret laughingly remembered. “Her classroom was Room 128 (in the Liberal Arts Center). I would walk upstairs, all along what was then the Human Ecology wing, and walk down the other stairs rather than walk past her. I didn’t even know her! Anyhow, when I was told I was going for history, I said to her, ‘I think I’ll do American history,’ because it was the centenary of the Civil War. She said, ‘No, you won’t. You will do the Non-Western World.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I had no choice…but she was dead right. She was absolutely right!”
That same summer, when a big conference was held at Marywood, including all the IHM branches—Philadelphia, Monroe, and Scranton—Sister Margaret received further clarification for her life’s direction.
“This sister got up—Sister Mary Emil, who was one of the stars of the Monroes—and she said, ‘There are this many thousand people who are homeless in such and such a country. Did you know that? Oh. Why didn’t you know that?’ Then it would be, ‘There are this many people suffering from a tropical disease. Did you know that? Why didn’t you know that?’ And she went on and on with all of these statistics, and then she said, ‘You’re the teachers. If you don’t know that, how is anyone else supposed to know that?’ What she did was give me the reason why I should focus on the developing world,” said Sister Margaret. “At that point, I was 28 years old, and right there, right then, I knew that’s what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life. It was like when I was becoming a Sister…at first there was fuzziness, and then—BAM!—the answer. For me, it was clear.”
This clear focus has been the beacon of a life that has educated countless students, empowered women religious in Africa, promoted cultural diversity, global justice, and world peace, and actively advocated for solutions to world hunger and the prevention of human trafficking. Indeed, Sister Margaret is a champion of the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten.
The key to a successful society, she said, is to educate as many students as possible with a values-based liberal arts education grounded in responsible social action and service.
“The liberal arts teach versatility and critical thinking and make us ask questions—why are we doing this? Service is the recognition of the dignity of the individual that you’re dealing with, their goodness, and the way God is there, within them,” Sister Margaret explained. “You have to be able to have another kind of life. It’s not just your professional life. It should be the development of the full person…and even if someone just crassly thinks, ‘I want to get a good job,’ it goes beyond that. You might be invited to a work-related social event in which it might be a good idea to know something about opera or art. To say, ‘I’m not going to use this,’ is to suggest that you have no other place in life, except at your desk. It’s not happening! You have to live a full life—even to keep your job!”
Recalling the curricular purpose that became the standard for Marywood during her tenure as Undergraduate Dean (1988-1993)—Living responsibly in an interdependent world—Sister Margaret said, “That’s what the world is now; it isn’t just about knowing about it. It doesn’t say ‘thinking responsibly’—it isn’t just about information. It’s about being active, in whatever way you can, in whatever actions you take, to speak from that perspective.” She continued, “When I would teach Hunger classes, I would tell the students, ‘You know much more now than most people; what are you going to do about it?’ You can’t make something impossible, but there are ways you can help, ways you can vote…always something you can do.”
Even in retirement, Sister Margaret continues to pursue her global vocation and to make an impact on others. In addition to remaining active with the African Sisters Education Collaborative, she recently started to work with refugees in Scranton, preparing an orientation course for the newly arrived. She teaches these groups what to do when they become ill and other basic life skills. “These people are refugees, some of whom have lived in these camps for years and years—some for 25 years—people from Nepal/Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan. There have been Iraqis, there will be Syrians,” she said.
In July, she and several other IHM Sisters traveled to El Paso, Texas, to give compassionate assistance to migrant children at the U.S./Mexico border. Sister Margaret emphasized that Marywood students must continue to be educated on global issues and take part in global service.
“Going with students and finding their lives changed—that’s probably the high point (of my career). Being in class with them is different from being with them as they discover,” Sister Margaret expressed. “There’s nothing like doing a service trip to open your life. I have done five. I did three in Tanzania, and those are the ones in which I had the most significant experience. I could be up there teaching, year in and year out, and never make the impact that is made on students when they do those trips. It changes lives like nothing else.”
Sister Margaret Gannon, IHM is living proof that the gateway to success is educational access. She is adamant that students who are poor, like she was, be granted this vital access to education—especially higher education—and given the priceless opportunity to learn.
“We have served immigrants, our founders (of the IHM Congregation) were immigrants,” Sister Margaret explained. “We have to keep remembering the immigrants and all first-generation students, as we traditionally have.”
“The liberal arts teach versatility and critical thinking and make us ask questions—why are we doing this? Service is the recognition of the dignity of the individual that you’re dealing with, their goodness, and the way God is there, within them. You have to be able to have another kind of life. It’s not just your professional life. It should be the development of the full person…and even if someone just crassly thinks, ‘I want to get a good job,’ it goes beyond that. You might be invited to a work-related social event in which it might be a good idea to know something about opera or art. To say, ‘I’m not going to use this,’ is to suggest that you have no other place in life, except at your desk. It’s not happening! You have to live a full life—even to keep your job!”