Social Work for the common good

Social Work for the common good
Mary Ann Brenden with a painting of Mother St. John Fontbonne that hangs in Fontbonne Hall, the St. Catherine home of the joint St. Catherine University/University of St. Thomas School of Social Work. Photo by Julie Michener.

St. Catherine University’s Master Academic Plan brings together three of the institution’s most recognized programs — education, social work, and library and information science — into a single School of Professional Studies.

Each program is praised for collaborative and innovative faculty, and its graduates are highly sought as practitioners and leaders.

“All of these programs have national reputations,” says Associate Professor Mary Ann Brenden. Her department, she says, brings a distinct spirit to the School with its efforts to align curriculum with the University’s mission.

“We bring to the table the idea of teaching to mission,” says Brenden, who has been on the St. Kate’s faculty since 1980. “I’m looking forward to sharing that with colleagues and having them share their work with us.”

The past several years have found Brenden exploring the convergence of Catholic Social Teaching, the mission of St. Kate’s and the spirit — called charism — of the University’s founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

It has been both a personal and professional passage.

Discovery and creation
The journey began in 2006 with a curriculum project she co-authored with Barbara Shank, chair of the joint St. Catherine University/University of St. Thomas School of Social Work, called “Social Work for Social Justice: Strengthening Social Work Practice Through the Integration of Catholic Social Teaching.”

The project articulated how social work faculty at both institutions had integrated their university mission with Catholic Social Teaching and social work’s practice principles and code of ethics into their joint curriculum.

A key outcome of that work was the creation of mission and vision statements for the joint School of Social Work. “We laid out the St. Thomas mission, the St. Kate’s mission and the School Work Profession mission and looked for the intersections,” Brenden says. The resulting mission statement references the “Judeo-Christian traditions of social caring,” as well as promoting social justice and human rights.

Social Work for Social Justice continues to draw national attention from other Catholic and other Christian institutions of higher education.

“A lot of the Catholic social teachings are scripturally based so it’s really germane to the Christian tradition,” says Brenden. “But it’s also about helping faculty look at their own faith tradition and how they can teach to mission, not only in terms of institutional mission but also to their identity and how they engage students.

“All faith traditions contain social justice,” she explains. “There’s a lot of common ground when you look for it.”

In November, Brenden and Shank will present the School of Social Work’s principles that show the integration of mission and identity and how they “teach to mission” to a national meeting of social work educators.

“It’s the leading edge of a national model of social work for social justice principles,” says Brenden. Social work faculty collaborated with them in creating the ten principles.

A life-changing journey
St. Catherine University recognized Brenden’s accomplishments in 2007 with the prestigious Joan and Bonnie Jean Kelly Faculty Award, which carries a $10,000 cash prize. The award gave Brenden the opportunity to inquire more deeply into Catholic identity during a semester-long sabbatical in spring 2008.

Brenden wanted to expand her knowledge of Catholic Social Teaching, global human rights, social justice as it’s addressed in social work literature, and Catholic identity from personal, professional and institutional perspectives.

Her sabbatical travels took her to the North American Association of Christians in Social Work annual conference, two Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities higher education meetings and the 52nd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. She also visited several Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet ministries in Minnesota.

Her travels concluded with a directed retreat at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartes, France, and research into CSJ and St. Kate’s historical sites in Le Puy, Arles and Lyons.

She came to know the story of Mother St. John Fontbonne, who re-established the community following the French revolution and was responsible for sending the first sisters to the United States in 1836.

Brenden also visited and photographed the Church of St. Trophime, near Arles. The former cathedral was the model for Our Lady of Victoria Chapel, built during the productive presidency of Mother Antonia McHugh, CSJ, and dedicated in 1924.

The sabbatical inspired Brenden to become a CSJ consociate — someone who makes a commitment to live the values of the Sisters in the context of her or his own life. “What that means for me, in the context of my work here, and in the context of my community work, is how I resonate with what the Sisters of St. Joseph stand for,” says Brenden. “What brings it all together is the charism of the Sisters.”

Her admiration for the CSJs is evident when Brenden recounts their stories and contributions to St. Kate’s. Even though the number of Sisters on the University’s faculty and staff has diminished, she feels their spiritual presence.

Spirit of the Sisters
Standing next to a portrait of Mother St. John Fontbonne that she commissioned and that hangs outside the Department of Social Work in Fontbonne Hall, Brenden describes the connection between the CSJs and social workers today.

“It’s about responding to the needs of the time in a community, looking around in the community and in our country and discerning what we need to do. Do we need services? Do we need agencies? Do we need policy? We examine it from the micro to the macro.”

Mother Fontbonne did that also, she explains. “But where most orders just focus on one area — healthcare, education or social services­ — the CSJs are involved in all of them, at all levels, and they’ve done that historically.”

Brenden sees St. Kate’s as a leader among social work educators in articulating how social workers can also be advocates for social justice.

“I’m really proud of our integrative approach at the micro, mezzo and macro levels,” she says. “We have students working with clients and families providing services. We have students in community agencies building programs to meet the needs of individuals and families. And we have students at the macro level, working on policy and systems to support the community.

“We take students across that spectrum and link them together,” she concludes. “It’s not just services but advocating for change and more just systems. At St. Kate’s, it all comes together perfectly.”

By Julie Michener
Oct. 26, 2009

Contact Julie Michener, (651) 690-6521

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