Pax Christi USA has learned that Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, one of the most influential and foundational leaders of our movement over the past 50 years, passed away overnight in Erie, PA after a long illness. Former national staff member Jo Clarke, who worked with Mary Lou at Pax Christi USA, shared the news of her passing with executive director, Johnny Zokovitch.
“My heart breaks at the news of Mary Lou’s passing, and yet it also bursts in thanksgiving for everything she taught our movement, all that she gave in witnessing to a world deeply in need of the nonviolence and compassion that were always at the center of her mission,” stated Zokovitch. “Mary Lou’s leadership and wisdom are responsible in large part for what Pax Christi USA has been over these past 50 years and the fact that she got to observe this past anniversary year with us — meeting with staff members, addressing the national conference via video — I can’t even begin to emphasize what a grace this was.”
Mary Lou’s involvement with Pax Christi USA stretched all the way back to our beginnings. She was present as a participant at the first national assembly in October 1973 in Washington, D.C., and became the national coordinator in late 1984 at the urging of Gerry Vanderhaar, National Council chair. Mary Lou moved the office to Erie, PA where it enjoyed the support of the Erie Benedictines, achieved financial stability, initiated major publishing efforts, grew the staff to 15 members, and doubled our national membership. Over 300 local groups were active when Mary Lou finished her second term as national coordinator in 1991 and a functioning regional network had been put into place to serve the membership.
In the 20th anniversary issue of Pax Christi USA’s magazine, Rev. Doug Doussan, chair of the Pax Christi USA National Council during Mary Lou’s service, praised the progress she made for the movement in that role.
“Two significant developments took place … our publications reached an all-time high in quality and quantity, due to Sr. Mary Lou’s personal involvement and leadership. [And under Mary Lou] the Development Office was established and quickly became successful under Jo Clarke’s direction, offering the movement sound financial stability,” stated Doussan.
Mary Lou would remain national coordinator through 1991, and in the following years she would be named a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and honored as the recipient of the Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace award in 2006. She served as the co-chair of Pax Christi USA’s 50th Anniversary Committee in 2022.
In addition to Mary Lou’s work with Pax Christi USA, she was a respected writer and teacher on contemplative activism, nonviolence, and spirituality. She served as the coordinator for Monasteries of the Heart, director of Benetvision Publishing, and as executive director of Inner-City Neighborhood Art House.
She was the author of numerous books, including Between Two Souls: Conversations with Ryokan; A Monk In The Inner City: The ABCs of a Spiritual Journey; Love Beyond Measure: A Spirituality of Nonviolence; Mary Wellspring of Peace: A Contemporary Novena; and The Nonviolent Moment: Spirituality for the 21st Century.
All of us at Pax Christi USA give thanks for Mary Lou’s life and witness and our thoughts and prayers are with the Erie Benedictines, Mary Lou’s family, friends and admirers. We encourage all Pax Christi USA members and friends to watch the Erie Benedictines’ homepage for more information on Mary Lou’s passing and funeral arrangements. And we invite you to leave your own reflections, memories and words of Mary Lou in the comments section below.
Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB – PRESENTE!
PHOTOS FROM TOP: Mary Lou kownacki, osb; bishop thomas gumbleton and mary lou lead pax christi usa’s witness and action in the 1980s; current and former staff members visit mary lou in erie in september 2022.
Additional statements on Mary Lou Kownacki’s passing from throughout the Pax Christi USA community:
“There is no doubt in my mind that the gates of heaven were flung wide-open at Mary Lou’s arrival. She was an incredibly talented, caring and holy woman, and I am grateful to have known her and to have learned from her.” ~Phyllis Jepson, Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and former national staff member
“She left us a tremendous legacy that has carried us through the years. She gifted us with her poems and other words of wisdom. She, along with her sisters, the Erie Benedictines for Peace, were a powerhouse in the area of communication. We took a quantum leap forward when she became the national coordinator. Mary Lou, you will always be with us!” ~Janice Vanderhaar, Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and former National Council member
“Mary Lou’s quiet leadership and powerful spirit forged a deep bond between the Erie Benedictine Sisters and Pax Christi that continues to nourish our work for nonviolence and just peace. Yes, Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB – PRESENTE!” ~Marie Dennis, former co-president, Pax Christi International and Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace 2022
“Mary Lou was a phenomenal force for peace who dedicated her life to creating the beloved community. She was a poet and a prophet, and her writings and witness have been formational to so many of us who work for peace. She brought steadfast leadership to Pax Christi USA, strengthening its organizational supports while growing Pax Christi as a movement enlivened by the Spirit. I consider her to be the mother of the spirituality of nonviolence, a spirituality that she embraced wholeheartedly and articulated with poignancy and power, Her writings about this spirituality were foundational to the work of Pax Christi, always rooting us in gospel nonviolence, reminding us that the path we walk is the Way of Christ, and forever reaching toward that time when the fullness of God’s love is made manifest. May she rest in the heart of that love now and know the peace that she strived to bring about in her lifetime.” ~Nancy Small, former Pax Christi USA National Coordinator and Ambassador of Peace
“Mary Lou was a brilliant writer and a spiritual giant who worked tirelessly to move the Catholic community to embrace the nonviolent way of Jesus. She helped me become a better writer, a more contemplative activist and a more compassionate person. Always the teacher, mentor and collaborator, Mary Lou brought Pax Christi USA through difficult times to become a respected voice for nonviolent peacemaking in the U.S. Catholic Church.” ~Tom Cordaro, Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and former National Council chair
“The news of Mary Lou’s passing from life into life brings a mixture of sadness and rejoicing — sadness in the absence of her physical presence among us and rejoicing in the realization that she is present to us now in new and mysterious ways … with our God — Mystery beyond our comprehension. We are better for our knowing Mary Lou.” ~Sr. Kathleen Pruitt, CSJP, former National Council chair
More on Mary Lou Kownacki, osb:
- Watch Mary Lou’s words of welcome announcing the start of the observance of our 50th anniversary year (Mary Lou’s part starts at about the 15 second mark in the video, right near the beginning)
- Watch Mary Lou’s special welcome message to open our 50th anniversary national conference in August 2022 (Mary Lou’s message starts at the 1:34 mark in the video)
- Read this reflection for Easter Sunday, written by Mary Lou for our 2022 Lenten reflection booklet, April 2022
- Read this reflection for Epiphany that Mary Lou originally wrote in 1997
- Read this article written with Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace Joan Chittister, osb for NCR, “Cry out, sisters, cry out”
- Find many of Mary Lou’s reflections on the blog, Monasteries of the Heart
- Watch the Erie Benedictines’ homepage for more information on Mary Lou’s passing and funeral arrangements