Sr. Mary Ann Pevas: Still a Teacher & Bridge-builder

Racine Dominican Mary Ann Pevas officially retired from teaching economics and Middle Eastern studies in 2013, but the teacher in her has never slowed down. “I’m always curious, I love to learn new things, and I like to share what I learn,” she said. “My whole being says teacher and builder. Being refugees, my parents could not read or write, so education was like blood as I grew up.”

Sr. Mary Ann experienced various evolutions in her ministries – from high school teacher at St. Catherine’s to religious education director at St. Patrick’s Parish both in Racine, to community organizer in Wisconsin for seniors (she launched the current Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups from nothing) to university professor of economics at Winona State University, Minnesota, to community vice president for the Racine Dominicans, to Middle Eastern scholar in Egypt’s American University of Cairo and in Israel at Bethlehem University.

Currently, among other things, she teaches English live online to Arabic speaking persons in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. In this ministry, Sr. Mary Ann feels she is a peacekeeper and a bridge-builder between the Middle East and the West.

A significant event in her life was the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. At the time Sr. Mary Ann was teaching economics at Winona State University. “I had 11 students from Middle Eastern countries and found I knew very little about them, their cultures, their religions or anything else.” She was shamed by her ignorance. Committed to broadening her knowledge and understanding, she began conversations with the students and organized discussion groups between them and other students so all could learn about the Middle East.

A year later, Sr. Mary Ann took a sabbatical and became a visiting scholar at the American University of Cairo. Since talking with others is a primary way to learn about their lives, she had to study Arabic, as few around her knew English. During that sabbatical she traveled to UAE, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran. “It was a transformative year,” she said. “I returned to the U.S. with a new understanding and many friendships.”

In subsequent years, Sr. Mary Ann spent one semester traveling back to the region, giving tours, taking on a new learning project with each trip, and eventually traveling to Israel and teaching at Bethlehem University in the master’s program for Palestinian students.

Her purpose in Iran was to learn about Islamic banking. The Central Bank of Iran invited her to be a guest scholar for six weeks. Upon returning to Winona State, she initiated several courses related to Islamic banking, which is rooted in the sharing of profit and loss and in the prohibition of collecting and paying interest by lenders and investors. Islamic banks profit through equity participation, which requires borrowers to give the bank a share in their profits, rather than earning interest.

From 2002 through 2013, Sr. Mary Ann returned to the Middle East each year, continuing her quest to learn, and offering to teach English. Among various aspects of culture and religion, she learned about orphanages, labor rights, and the New Women’s Foundation, which provided workshops to teach women and workers their rights.

Wherever she gave talks in English, she offered to teach English to anyone who was interested after she returned to the U.S. Within a few months, several people would email, asking her to teach them live using Skype. Many students have become lasting friends and have referred others to her. After teaching one Iranian student, she then taught English to his wife and six-year-old daughter.

Over those years of traveling to and from the Middle East, she also raised funds for the needy in Cairo, so people could find permanent homes. Providing donations and loans, she was able to have five homes built and owned for families who would never have had the means.

What gives meaning to Sister’s life today? Now back in Racine, she has started other projects in addition to her regularly scheduled online teaching. In 2018, she set up a soup delivery system between a local restaurant and two of Racine’s outreach services to the homeless. Douglas Diner donated soup in five-gallon containers Monday through Friday before the onset of COVID-19. Sr. Mary Ann organized volunteers to pick up and deliver the welcome nourishment to the centers. Since the pandemic, the outreach programs serve only on Mondays, a limitation they hope will change soon.

Sr. Mary Ann set up a soup delivery system between a local restaurant and two of Racine’s outreach services to the homeless.

“In doing this, I have become aware of so many networks throughout Racine,” she noted. “Street people helping one another, workers and guests at the Hospitality Center where we serve soup.”

As the pandemic dragged on, Sr. Mary Ann learned of workers’ struggles, especially restaurant wait staff whose places of employment were shut down. As she told people about the unemployed workers’ plight, some donations came in, and Sr. Mary Ann was able to help several people pay their rent or put food on their tables. She even found a permanent job for a former waitress.

Much of Sr. Mary Ann’s current ministry is simply being present to others and responding to needs as they arise. One of seven children, she may help ailing siblings or negotiate a more suitable living situation to meet their needs. Making it a point to know all her neighbors, she has helped to resolve personal conflicts and often finds herself listening to someone’s concerns.

As with most retired sisters, Sr. Mary Ann Pevas’ concern for others comes out in whatever she does.

— by Jean Mullooly