Biographies

Sister Jean Pruitt, MM

Born: October 17, 1939
Entered: December 30, 1958
Died: September 10, 2017

Jean was a woman of surprises, always reinventing herself and ready to take on every new challenge that came her way. She saved the biggest surprise of all for her finale with her sudden and unexpected death at the mountain retreat of Karatu, Tanzania, in the early evening of September 10, 2017. In a recent interview Jean said, “I think God makes my life interesting by pulling me around all the time—it’s as if the ‘hound of heaven’ is chasing me”. The chase is over and Jean now resides with the hound that pursued her throughout the 78 years of her eventful and meaningful life, almost fifty of them in Tanzania, East Africa.

Born in Detroit, Michigan on October 17, 1939, to Dorcie Pruitt and Beatrice Johnston. Jean had four sisters, Mary, Margaret (Peggy), Beatrice and Donna, and two brothers, Harry and Joseph. The family moved to Los Angeles, California, when the children were young and Jean retained a lifelong love of the ocean and swimming, her favorite form of exercise and relaxation.

Jean attended Bishop Conaty High School where her vocation to mission was born. After her high school graduation in 1957, she entered the Maryknoll Sisters from Ascension Parish, Santa Ana, on December 30, 1958, and spent the next three years being groomed for mission at the novitiate in Valley Park, Missouri. Jean made her First Profession of Vows at Valley Park on August 22, 1961 and her Final Commitment at the Maryknoll Sisters’ Center in Ossining, NY, on August 22, 1967.

She obtained a degree in education from Mary Rogers College in 1967, followed by a BS in Social Work at the State University at Buffalo, NY, in 1969. Her assignment to Tanzania the same year was the fulfillment of a dream. When asked what she loved about East Africa, she replied in a recent interview: “I found people there who smiled and laughed. It is in the character of Tanzanians and, I think, other Africans. If I walk down the street, even on a truly terrible day, the smiles touch my spirit. There is a sense that life is not hopeless. And there is beauty: the trees, the sun, the air, the communities, and the people. It lifts up my spirit.”

Her spirit was lifted up for the next fifty years, most of them spent in Tanzania. After completing a course in Swahili at the Maryknoll Language School in Musoma, Tanzania, Jean was assigned to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to do community development work (1969-1971). With a team of two other women who became close friends, Jean travelled the length and breadth of Tanzania, helping to initiate self-help projects with women and youth, supporting nutrition programs and under-five clinics. It was a time of learning the language and culture as well as the needs of the people.

After helping to set up the national Caritas office in 1972, Jean shifted gears to focus on art – her first and enduring love. She viewed art as both a means to produce income for youth as well as a way to unleash their creativity and inspire others with the message in their work. Her first artistic venture was a cottage industry with standard seven school leavers. Under her creative mentoring and artistic eye, about a dozen young people learned how to produce works of art and distinctive crafts. This small group of school leavers was the embryo of Nyumba ya Sanaa (House of Art), the center that she initiated in the heart of the capital city, Dar es Salaam that soon became a hub for artistic endeavor and creative imagination. At its height, the Center reached out to as many as 600 artists and crafts people and employed 180 young people. It provided a venue for them to market their products, exchange ideas and encourage one another. President Julius Nyerere opened the Center in 1983 and became its Patron and life-long promoter. That same year, President Nyerere honored Sr. Jean with a national award for her contribution to the development of small-scale industry in the country.

Jean suffered a huge disappointment when Nyumba ya Sanaa was later torn down and replaced by a high-rise building. In spite of this setback, she persevered in her ministry to artists by opening a new gallery, Vipaji (talent), in another part of the city and in producing a book about the pioneer artists with whom she had worked. She also left a collection of their early work with Syracuse University where it is preserved and shown to a new generation of young artists eager to learn from their Tanzanian counterparts, thus building bridges between artists on both continents. Jean excelled at building bridges between people, projects and nations. She rejoiced when 25 of the youth she mentored performed at Expo Milan 2015 and another group of youth performed at the EU Summit in Brussels in 2016.

In response to a call for Maryknoll Sisters to work with refugees at the end of the 1980s, Jean again made a shift and volunteered to assist the Zimbabwe-Mozambique Friendship Association (ZIMOFA) that was helping internally displaced Mozambicans in the Provinces of Sofala, Manica and Tete. This experience inspired Jean to found TAMOFA, the Tanzania-Mozambique Friendship Association that assisted thousands of displaced people in the north of Mozambique who were fleeing the violence in that country. TAMOFA also initiated a Friendship Ferry Project between Mozambique and Tanzania that continues to connect the two neighboring countries. When the conflict ended in 1992, Jean responded to new needs closer to home.

“I have a love and passion for many things, but children are the common thread woven always with the thread of creativity expressed in art,” Jean said recently. Observing with alarm the growing number of children living on the streets of Dar and other major cities, Jean shifted her sights to care for them. She opened a shelter in the city center where they could get food, a bed and a bath as well as skills training to enable them to earn a living. Thus was born the Dogodogo (Little Ones) Center in 1992. The shelter in Dar led to a farm and vocational center in Bunju on the outskirts of the city where the street children learned dance, drama, arts and crafts as well as agriculture, carpentry, dressmaking and even fire fighting.

Shortly before her unexpected death, Jean had turned over the farm and vocational school to the Spiritans, an international community of Catholic priests, who will maintain its mission of providing quality technical education to vulnerable and needy children and youth. This was a consolation to her and to Sabaas, her colleague at Dogodogo, as well as to Bernard Staub, her long-time collaborator. He and his wife, Christa, were not only partners in mission but also close friends with whom Jean shared weekly meals and games of cards and rummy cubes at their home in Dar.

From 1994 through 1999, Jean had an opportunity to use her artistic talent in the Communications Office of the Maryknoll Sisters in NY as well in the Maryknoll World Production Office of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. At this time, she learned photography as well as computer design, sharpening and expanding her creativity through the use of new media. With these skills, Jean produced a series of posters on the Beatitudes as well as a book of poetry by Maryknoll Sisters, Journey to Sacred Spaces. Both are still in demand. More recently she has used her skills in photography and graphic design to publish several books of photos accompanied by her poems.

Her horizons were expanded in 2000 when Sr. Helene O’Sullivan, then President of the Maryknoll Sisters, invited Jean to participate in a meeting in Japan of the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), an interfaith initiative that was sponsored by the Arigatou Foundation to protect children from abuse and violence and to promote peace and tolerance. Jean then pioneered the formation of the GNRC on the African continent. With her colleague Mustafa Ali, they expanded the program to encompass peace-building workshops in Zanzibar, using art, dance and drama to unite youth across religious and cultural barriers. Jean used this entry to the world stage to advocate for children at international level, most recently at the Fifth Forum meeting that was held in Panama City, Panama, in May 2017.

She and Mustafa also launched a Leadership Mentoring Program on the Island of Zanzibar to provide options for unemployed youth. Jean explained the rationale for the program of entrepreneurial leadership in an interview she gave in Panama: “When youth are held down and have nothing to do, elders cannot keep them in check. It is a perfect recipe for Al-Shabaab. What I see as most important is to give meaning to whatever young people do. ‘Deradicalization’ sounds terrible to my ears. Youth mentoring sounds superb.”

While Jean’s accomplishments cannot be fully described in a single letter nor her personality captured in words, Jean recently spoke for herself in a message she wrote in July when she returned to Tanzania from a renewal program at the Maryknoll Sisters Center:
“What I continually delight in is the fact that I am a new woman!” She wrote not only of her physical recovery from a broken vertebrae in her back as well as a torn shoulder but also of the mental and spiritual stimulation that had affirmed and challenged her. “I came back with lots of energy from the Mission Institute – 3 of them! “Poetry, Nature and Mysticism” was a great moment. I have never shared my poetry before with a group, so it was a affirmative moment that I can write poetry and even share it. I have returned refreshed and engaged.”

In this positive mood, Jean travelled to Karatu in northern Tanzania to spend time with Margaret Gibbs, a friend who gave Jean a home away from home at her nature reserve where Jean took many of the photos for her books. On Sunday afternoon 10 September, Jean scanned the internet for news of Hurricane Irma, fearful of the damage it might cause to her sister Peggy’s home in Florida. She also received the good news that one of the artists she had mentored had won first prize in a costume design exhibition in Nigeria.

The following day, Jean was to go on a tented safari to a nearby game reserve. Instead she made her final safari that evening to her new home where she undoubtedly will find ways to support the many causes in which she was involved and to stay connected to the many people who have enriched her life and uplifted her spirit.

Jean had become fascinated with the moon over the years and took countless photographs of this nightly companion. A source of wonder and mystical power, the moon was the inspiration for many of her poems, including Cosmic Caress that she wrote in June 2013 and shared at the Mission Institute in June 2017:

The moon rules the dark
To spread its radiance
Over a wounded child
Huddled in her bed
Shivering, solitary, shakes.

Shakes unfold the moons’
Compassion
As it reaches out
And touches her
Soothing, caressing, comforting.

As the full moon consumes the dark
Her fingers of light
Stroke the girl.
With her beams of light
She opens the dawn of hope.
Jean has entered the dawn and now rests eternally in the cosmic caress.

The Maryknoll Sisters in Tanzania express deep gratitude to all those who have assisted in the arrangements for her funeral from the time of her death until today when we gather to celebrate her life. We thank those who organised the memorial service for the public at Karimjee Hall in Dar es Salaam this morning, 20 September, and all those who came to pay their respects. We offer special thanks to the Shree Hindu Mandal Community, which has offered transport and cremation services free of charge. We acknowledge Katherine Marshall who conducted the interview with Jean in Panama in May 2017 from which many of the direct quotes in this letter are taken. We are also mindful of the many donors who provided financial support for her work over the years. She valued each and every one and gained much emotional support from their partnership and their belief in what she was doing.

We welcome Jean’s good friend and active member of GNRC, Method Kilaini, Bishop of Bukoba Diocese who will celebrate this liturgy of the Resurrection. We are especially happy that Jean’s sister Peggy has come all the way from Florida, USA, to be present for this occasion. Finally, we thank and welcome all those who have joined us today and were part of Jean’s life. The greatest tribute that we can pay to her memory is to continue the work that she started. Ending violence against children in whatever form it takes was her most recent initiative and the theme of the Fifth Forum of the GNRC. May we commit ourselves to this cause in her name.

Here at Maryknoll this morning (September 20, 2017), we welcome our Maryknoll brother, Fr. Michael Snyder, who will celebrate this Memorial Mass for Sister Jean.