Sister Barbara Bogenschutz, OP
Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota
For Dominican Sister Barbara Bogenschutz, social justice begins in her church parking lot where she has installed a water pipe for anyone on Pine Ridge Reservation to access free, potable water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
This clean water is life-changing for the many residents who lack it either permanently because of inadequate infrastructure or seasonally when pipes freeze. Other basics, such as electricity and sewage systems, are also lacking. Many use wood stoves to heat their homes.
The reservation is 2.1 million acres—the seventh-largest in the U.S. and bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Its 40,000 inhabitants are Oglala Lakota, a tribe that is part of the Sioux people. With few natural resources and no industry, only one in five residents has a job. Life expectancy is among the nation’s lowest at 66 years, the suicide rate is four times the national average and infant mortality is three times higher. Eighty-five percent are impacted by alcoholism.
These are the intense challenges facing Native Americans on Pine Ridge. Sister Barbara is there to soften the hardest edges and to assure residents that they are not alone. She is devoted to the Lakota people, whom she has served on the reservation since 2010.
“The greatest blessing and challenges in this ministry are the same,” she said. “I never know what the day will hold, and I am never lacking in ‘that-was-a-first’ experiences.”
As the parish life coordinator at Our Lady of the Sioux Church in Oglala—with 250 members—she is the principal pastoral presence of the Church on the western edge of the reservation. The Catholic Church is the only mainline denomination in Oglala, a town of 1,550 people who endure a 60 percent poverty rate and whose median household income is $22,750.
Sister Barbara tends to families. She prepares a monthly Kids Mass, a liturgy where children do the readings, the collection and beating of the sacred drum. With a high percentage of these children being raised by their grandparents, this special faith formation is essential. She also organizes community events and bingo at the parish and visits the homebound.
“The Eucharist comes in many ways all week long,” she said. “And when I arrive where I am going, I always find God is already there.”
She is also the main agent for four Catholic cemeteries on the reservation and has an active bereavement and funeral ministry that serves people regardless of their church affiliation, managing more than 40 funerals a year.
Under Sister Barbara’s leadership, the parish provides a range of social services. She raises funds to help people with utility payments, holds rummage sales and organizes a monthly food bag distribution.
Last year, when hailstorms and high winds destroyed nearly 500 homes on the reservation, she took charge in rebuilding the 61 damaged homes in her town. “Sister Barbara is very entrepreneurial,” said Father Joe Daoust, S.J., the parish pastor. “With that rebuilding project, she saw a need, saw that nothing was being done and figured out a way to make it happen.”
Photo from Office of Communications, Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois.