For someone who is about to celebrate her 91st birthday, you might expect Sister Lois Aceto to be slowing down a bit. Not this Racine Dominican Sister! There has never been a day in her life that moved slowly, and no time in her life that she did the ordinary. Even now, when most people of her age are long since retired, she leads a very active life. Just ask other Racine residents exercising with her at the local YMCA at 5 a.m. each day!
Sister Lois lives in an apartment just down the road from Siena, the motherhouse and home of the Racine Dominicans. Anytime there is something going on in Racine, you can spot her in the crowd. She attends prayer vigils for victims of gun violence, helps with fundraising events for justice ministries and attends social education programs. She is a pillar in the Racine Community, especially with those working for social justice.
Growing up the daughter of a religious family in Kenosha, she knew the Racine Dominican Sisters from an early age. It was the most natural thing for a young woman of this background and at this time in history to enter a religious community, and she felt the call to become a Racine Dominican Sister.
As did most of the sisters of her group, Sister Lois taught in mostly Wisconsin Catholic schools for 14 years. She also had a special passion for working in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and teaching in Illinois at a school staffed by the Racine Dominicans. Sister Lois loved teaching and playing the organ during the early years of her ministry. But in the silence of her heart, she had always dreamed of being a missionary in a foreign country.
That call led her to Bolivia. At the age of 33, she was invited to join three other Dominican Sisters on a missionary journey there, and for the next 17 years, she would call Bolivia her home. In the poverty of this then dictator-ruled country, she taught school, established a home for young delinquents, organized a health care center (for which she studied rural medicine in Spain), and dared to speak out against an oppressive government.
I slipped into the prison to carry a message to a prisoner. As I was leaving I was grabbed and taken into custody. I was detained for hours and hours. I truly feared that I would never be allowed to leave. You can be sure I prayed without stopping. Thanks be to God, they let me gosister lois aceto
Her activities in Bolivia got her arrested twice. “The first time, I was not scared. I told them what I thought. They let me go.” With some remnants of fear in her voice, she tells of the second arrest. “I slipped into the prison to carry a message to a prisoner. As I was leaving I was grabbed and taken into custody. I was detained for hours and hours. I truly feared that I would never be allowed to leave. You can be sure I prayed without stopping. Thanks be to God, they let me go.” There is never anything shy or timid about this Wisconsin woman. She simply does not know the meaning of “you can’t.”
Returning to Wisconsin after so many adventures, you would expect a long rest might be in order. Not for Sister Lois! Back in Racine, she dove into multiple efforts to contribute to the order’s mission: “Committed to Truth, Compelled to Justice.”
Her efforts have included ministry to inmates at the Racine Correctional Institution, the Youth Detention Center, the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility and Racine County’s jail. She, in fact, started the chaplaincy program at the jail. She invited the Archbishop from Milwaukee to visit the jail, and convinced him to fund her ministry there. She has taught restorative justice and conflict resolution in all the facilities. She taught classes on criminal justice at Carthage College in Kenosha, and juvenile delinquency at UW-Parkside in Kenosha.
While serving as a jail chaplain, she attended a conference where she learned about the conflict resolution program that had been set up by the Wisconsin Correctional Center System. Sister Lois brought the idea back to Racine and with the help of several local judges and community activists, the Conflict Resolution Center – then called the Dispute Settlement Center – was founded on November 2, 1984, and still continues today.
With her big heart and commanding knowledge of Spanish, she was a perfect fit to support the establishment of an alternative school in Racine, San Juan Diego, and its offshoot, the John the 23rd Center, also in Racine.
One of the more interesting and innovative things she has done was hosting a program on Public Radio, WRJN. Her social justice connections brought many interesting personalities to her program. No one could say “no” to her invitation. This venture eventually led to a YouTube program, “Lighting the World with Truth.”
These are just a few of the organizations and activities to which Sister Lois has given her time and talents. At the urging of many to share her story with others, she wrote the book, “Journeying toward Justice.” Her exciting adventures in South America are featured in the book.
Can anything slow down Sister Lois? Only a global pandemic, it seems. While she had to take a break in many of her ministries because of COVID, she is now back serving those in prison and juvenile detention. “I missed my guys so much; it’s wonderful to be back working with them again!”
After so many decades of being a Racine Dominican Sister, this diminutive woman is still going strong. Few people, in a lifetime, are involved in as many efforts to improve their communities and the world. You can be certain to find her wherever something in the name of justice and peace is happening. As she often says, “I’m not done yet.”
— by Associate Kathie Solie