Mary Heyser, RSHM has dedicated much of her life bridging the divide between people trying to escape human trafficking and those who can provide help.
For the last six years, she’s also been a bridge between Marymount College, where she graduated in 1962, and Fordham, which acquired Marymount in 2002. As the University’s current Marymount chaplain, Sister Heyser tends to the spiritual, social, and educational needs of the college’s alumnae.
[She has also been called on to deliver the opening prayers for the 2015 Commencement ceremonies at Rose Hill and for a D.C. alumni chapter’s evening honoring Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in September 2015.]
On Dec. 6 at a Marymount Founder’s ceremony at the Rose Hill campus, the school’s Alumnae Board will honor Sister Heyser and Sister Margaret Ellen Flannelly, RSHM, with the Mother Butler Leadership award.
Both women have served in the chaplain ministry: Sister Heyser since November 2009 and Sister Flannelly, a former Marymount professor and academic dean, from 2007 to 2009.
Sister Heyser never held administrative posts at the college, but whether she is working against human trafficking or on behalf of the Marymount family, she has always had a knack for making connections.
At Fordham, she makes connections with the Marymount alumnae via monthly newsletters, retreats at Cormaria House, and communications with women who attended the school that Mother Marie Joseph Butler founded in 1907. Part of the job, she said, is listening to alumnae who are still unhappy that the college, located on the Hudson River in Tarrytown, had to close in 2007.
“I listen, because it’s a journey of sadness they have. But I say, look at other women’s colleges that have closed. They have no place to gather, no place to have reunions, no place to have opportunities for educational talks,” she said.
“So we’re very lucky in that sense to have an institution that’s welcoming us and allowing us to be part of the big family.”
When Marymount closed, the alumnae also board started a legacy fund that grants scholarships to Fordham women who have a family member who attended an RSHM school.
Being part of a large Jesuit institution has also given her a platform from which to expand her passion of fighting human trafficking, which afflicts 21 million people around the globe.
She’s on the Coalition of Religious Congregations to Stop Trafficking of Persons (CRC-STOP), which organized two Fordham conferences on the subject. Through the STOP Coalition, she has helped raise funds for LifeWay Network to open its first safe house and to work to open two more safe houses in New York City area. She served on the LifeWay Board for eight years and just recently left that position.
Sister Heyser said the subject resonates deeply with the women in her order. One of the first actions Father Jean Gailhac took when he founded the order with Mother Saint Jean in 1849 was build a shelter for prostitutes and an orphanage for children.
“I look at things that need to be done and try to do them. I may not stay with them forever [as]I invite other people to join me and move on to something else.
“I can’t leave human trafficking issue though. It’s still such a terrible crime,” she said.
Awareness of the problem has been growing, she said, and authorities are beginning to finally focus less on prostitutes and more on johns. But challenges still remain, she said. One challenge is that many people can’t accept the possibility that trafficking could be happening right in front of them.
“It’s that attitude, of ‘Nothing like that happens in my neighborhood, it can’t happen in my building.’ So how do you become alert? You look for signs that persons may not really be in charge of their own lives,” she said.
“They don’t have any papers; they’re not even sure where they live. Maybe there are a lot of men going into a house, or there are a lot of women there. Why are there so many young people there? Just begin to ask the questions.”
If you do see something suspicious, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at (888) 373-7888.
It’s a knotty problem that taps into troubling issues of economics, sexuality, and psychology, and fighting it is firmly in line with the teachings of Jesus and of course Mother Butler, she said.
“When Mother Butler founded Marymount, she told the students they should be focusing out to the world ‘You should be somebody who speaks out in society, and knows what’s going on,’” she said.