A Change Agent at Heart

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.” Thomas Merton wrote that passage over 50 years ago, but those words describe the ministry of Sr. Susan Olson, currently celebrating 50 years as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.

Sr. Susan Olson and her father.
Sr. Susan Olson and her father. Circa 1960s.

A graduate of Notre Dame High School, San Jose (1961), Susan made her first vows in 1964. She was responding to the call of a generation who were asking of themselves to do something meaningful in the world, to do the right thing by each other, to build a great society. For Sr. Susan (Ann Joachim), that calling has meant serving the poor.

Sr. Susan began her ministry in education, teaching and administering in Notre Dame schools in Yuba City, Belmont, Carmel, and San Jose. She spent two years in Mexico and Washington D.C., and it was those two years that proved to be turning points for her. In Mexico, she learned Spanish, and in Washington, D.C., she began volunteering in a homeless women’s shelter.

In 1983, Sr. Susan returned to California to help Sr. Marie Veronica Wagner start a shelter that provided temporary housing for women and children in Watsonville.  Sr. Susan worked there for 10 years and then returned in 2007 to serve as executive director. Today, Pajaro Valley Shelter Services (PVSS) has multiplied into more than 20 housing units, providing both temporary shelter and transitional housing for Watsonville’s poor and homeless. Sr. Susan’s socially entrepreneurial spirit fuels her drive to secure the funds, property and community support that makes PVSS such an impactful and successful organization.

“It works for us to do the Gospel message,” Sr. Susan said recently, making reference to a Wisconsin bishop who reportedly, for a period of one year, asked that everyone in the diocese, at every meeting, ask and answer the question, “What effect will this have on the poor?”  Her life’s work has been about addressing that question, head on, with instinct, guts and the Good God.

In addition to her work at the shelter, she also worked as a program officer for the local Santa Cruz Community Foundation, as a Manager of Operations at Watsonville’s Second Harvest Food Bank, and at the Latino Business Incubator Project, where she helped Latinos build small businesses after the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the Watsonville economy. For three years Sister also assisted the Diocese of Monterey in their planning process.

We associate a 50-year anniversary with gold, and it may be appropriate to describe what Sr. Susan Olson has done in her 50 years as a Notre Dame Sister as a kind of alchemy. If poverty is our society’s base metal, then empowerment and human dignity is the gold that results from advocacy and a mission to serve the poor. Sr. Susan is that missionary, and for the people of Watsonville, she is that alchemist.