With profound appreciation for her life and work, we honor the passing Friday, January 8, 2021, of Sister Jean Abbott.
Sister Jean, who founded the St. Louis Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma in 2001, was a foundational figure in the St. Louis refugee services community and one whose impact inspired a generation of clinicians spread across the country and around the world. After taking a vow of poverty with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1961, Sister Jean lived her vocation to support the most vulnerable in our society. It was her work in Central America in the 1980’s and later involvement with the Sanctuary Movement that brought her focus to working with survivors of state-sanctioned torture. A clinical social worker by trade, Sister Jean was painfully aware of the legal, physical, and emotional needs of these refugees, and worked tirelessly to secure funding and pro bono services to help meet them. After the arrival of waves of Bosnian and Afghani refugees to St. Louis in the mid-1990’s, Sister Jean was instrumental in galvanizing support and securing funds for mental health assistance to these populations.
This advocacy culminated in the founding of the Center for Survivors with the backing of the St. Louis Mental Health Board (St. Louis MHB) and the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Sister Jean served as Clinical Director of the Center for many years, providing direct service to those in need and training younger clinicians in working with vulnerable refugee populations. While Sister Jean ultimately stepped back from day-to-day operations, she never really stepped back from the work, travelling to Uganda for six months in her seventies to teach students there stress reduction and coping techniques. Even after the 2016 merger with Bilingual International Assistant Services, where her nephew Paul Witte, LPC, now coordinates her program as the St. Louis Partnership for Survivors of Torture, Sister Jean remained active and true to her mission – travelling several times to Mississippi in her later years to work with victims of human trafficking.
We do not lay claim to Sister Jean Abbott’s legacy, but we strive to prove worthy of it. Sister Jean was selfless with her time and seemingly limitless in her compassion. Over the past several days, many former colleagues and students have reached out to share their memories of working with her, including Davorka Marovic, LPC: “Jean always focused on the best qualities in people and helped them see their strengths. She was a very bright light that will keep on guiding many of us.” Thousands of survivors and hundreds of clinicians benefitted from Jean’s tireless efforts, and it is safe to say that without Sister Jean Abbott, the service landscape in the St. Louis area would look radically different, and would certainly not be as committed to the holistic care model that she championed for the most vulnerable newcomers to our region.
Sister Jean Marie Abbott, CSJ
November 8, 1943 – January 8, 2021