Looking Ahead: Merton Center Turns 50 – Let’s Celebrate!

By Molly Rush

Once dismissed as that “little storefront on Southside whose goal, no less, is peace and justice in the world,” nearly 50 years later that continues to be our mission. The goal, of course, remains the same; the challenge continues, so that’s where you come in.

In 1970, the war in Vietnam, despite years of protests, raged on. The battle for civil rights was at the forefront, and world hunger was acute. Three groups–the Association of Pittsburgh Priests, Catholic Interracial Council, and the Religious Education Forum–formed CEASE, Catholics for an End to Slaughter and Exploitation. CEASE organized protests, educational activities and public prayer vigils.

It soon became evident that what we needed was a full-time organization with an office and staff.

A big undertaking, but we went ahead, fundraising (40 priests pledged $5 to $20 a month). Larry Kessler, President of CIC, took on the task of making our dream come true. We rented an office at 1111 East Carson St., Southside, with a meeting room in the basement that was always busy. Soon, nicely furnished, we opened in the spring of 1972.

Larry was Director, Three nuns, Janet Brink, Stella Smetanka, and Betty Sundry, and I came on as staff, with monthly stipends of $150. The Urban League provided a receptionist to welcome visitors. The Giving Tree shop sold Third World handcrafts. The New People monthly newsletter, 8-1/2 by 11, was typed,cut and pasted together.

From the start, everyone seeking justice was welcome. This was and is our main strength. Member support has allowed the freedom to take on the powers that be.

2020 marks 50 years since CEASE led the way. And in 2022 we will celebrate our 50 years of struggle and community. Don’t you think both are causes for celebration? Not simply as an exercise in nostalgia, although it is important to share our amazing history and the thousands of members who are part of that history.

Mainly it’s a real opportunity to inspire, invite and encourage others to find their voice, envision change, proclaim and act on the belief that the struggle for peace and justice enriches lives, builds friendships, and makes change possible despite the odds.

I also see it as a chance to get our story out more broadly, as well as inspire others to bring their vision and energy to the task of building a new world. (And, by the way, help pay the bills.) I have seen changes come about through patient struggle. Our first year we were approached by Dignity, a gay Catholic group who needed a place to meet and pray. Of course we said “welcome!”

Today gay marriage is legal; unheard of then.

In the 1970s we campaigned nonviolently against Rockwell, contractor for the B1 bomber. And in the 1980s, the River City Campaign held weekly vigils for 10 years at Westinghouse, going to jail many times at both headquarters. We met with top executives. Westinghouse sold their defense electronics business in 1995. Rockwell moved to Milwaukee. Today the PNC Banking the Bomb campaign protests continue the struggle.

Local, national and international issues continue to be a focus, from the environment to housing to migration to racism and more. Always it’s activism that is the core of our being. It’s the initiatives of our members and collaborators that keep us going.

We have a story to tell and the 50th anniversary is an opportunity to shout it from the housetops. And have a good time. Please contribute with your ideas, memories, energy and enthusiasm. We’ll need your help to shine some light on the Center and look to the future. Join us!

Molly Rush is a member of the Editorial Collective.

Categories: News

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