Alumna’s Love of Latin America’s People Lives on Through SLU Students
In the summer of 2017, Suzy Kickham, a sophomore at Saint Louis University, found
herself in Nicaragua, thanks to a woman who graduated from the University years before
she was born. Inspired by the legacy of Mary Evelyn “Mev” Puleo (A&S ’85), Kickham
would discover connections with Nicaragua’s people she never expected and the power
of learning to be present as a force for positive change.
Mev Puleo photographed Dr. Ann Managanaro, a Sister of Loretto, as she treated a patient
in the village of Guarjila in El Salvador in 1993. Managanaro's work in Latin America
was an inspiration to the photographer throughout her life. Courtesy of the Estate
of Mev Puleo and Mark Chmiel, Ph.D.
“It was such a challenging and eye-opening experience for me,” Kickham, a philosophy
major, recalled, “but there was beauty woven through it all.”
Just over twenty years after her death, Mev Puleo’s love for the people of Latin America
lives on in her writing but more enduringly, in the lives changed by an immersion
program created in her name. That program offers Saint Louis University students the
opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and to learn to be present through
time with the people of Nicaragua.
Kickham, along with several other SLU students, faculty and alumni, is part of a community
formed through a gift that has carried the decades following the theologian photojournalist’s
death from brain cancer in 1996.
Puleo took this photograph at St. Helen's Catholic Church in Jeremie, Haiti, in 1992,
during a period of upheaval and turmoil in the island nation. Courtesy of the Estate
of Mev Puleo and Mark Chmiel, Ph.D.
Through the Mev Puleo Scholarship in Latin American Theology and Culture, students
spend 10 weeks living, learning and working in Nicaragua. Puleo’s parents, Peter and
Evelyn Puleo, established the scholarship over a decade ago.
The Puleos and Mark Chmiel, Ph.D., Mev’s husband, have remained involved with the
program. They have spoken with students in the lead-up to their travels in Latin America.
Chmiel was a featured speaker at the most recent Mev Puleo scholarship presentation
this past fall. At the Nov. 9 event in DeMattias Hall, he read an excerpt from his
wife’s journals that described a turning point in her life after forming bonds with
the people she met in Central and South American countries.
“Whether it was people she met in Mexico, Brazil, Haiti or El Salvador, Mev listened
to them, respected them and learned from them,” Chmiel explained in a follow-up interview.
“They inspired her to a deeper Christian commitment to justice and solidarity.”
During the summer of 2017, Kickham joined two other SLU students, junior Brittany
Butler and sophomore Julia Nouse, on the 10-week immersion into Nicaraguan culture,
family life and social justice issues. Led by SLU alumna Abbie Amico, the three students
took classes, lived with host families and volunteered with local nonprofit organizations.
Kickham said she didn’t know what to expect going into the program. As time went on,
she said the most challenging part of the program was learning “what walking with
people and what justice is.”
(Left to right) Sophomore Suzy Kickham, SLU alumna Abbie Amico, sophomore Julia Nouse
and junior Brittany Butler, during their 10-week immersion experience in Nicaragua.
“When you’re witnessing certain injustices that impact the people you're developing
relationships with, it began to hit you hard,” Kickham said. But learning to be “with”
people, rather than jumping in to take charge and “help,” she explained, challenged
her to think about social justice, global poverty and the role of the United States
in the world in new ways.
“We’re human and we all feel the need to give,” Kickham said. “But it’s important
to recognize that others have the need to give as well.”
The lesson hit home when Kickham met Roxy, a 7-year-old who was taking part in a Friday
children’s program in a rural, impoverished area of the country. While Kickham felt
intimidated and out of her depth, Roxy immediately drew her into the children’s play.
“She made me feel like a friend and that was extremely powerful for me,” the SLU junior
recalled. “The energy that radiated from her fed my joy. Everything about this trip
comes back to those relationships.”
The power of relationships and solidarity is the legacy of Mev Puleo’s work, according
to the Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, Ph.D., associate professor of systemic theology, who
directs the program.
“Mev’s time in Latin America was defining for her and her family wanted other students
to have that,” Rosario Rodríguez explained. “Her impact is still being felt.”
SLU alumna Mev Puleo (A&S '85) was working on her doctorate when she passed away.
Her work and love for the peoples of Latin America live on in books, exhibitions of
her photographs and through the scholarship and immersion program that bear her name.
Courtesy of the Estate of Mev Puleo and Mark Chmiel, Ph.D.
For Kickham, the “liberation photographer” guides her now as she continues her SLU
studies and life in St. Louis.
“The themes of accompaniment, of receiving and walking with people, were key to Mev’s
life and to her spiritual journey,” Kickham said. “It’s a way of life. It’s not just
words in a dense textbook. It’s a way of living daily, of cultivating friendships
and community everywhere you can. One wisdom we were afforded this summer was that
we can be in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua and Latin America in the United
States by loving those in closest proximity to us and by pursuing truth and justice
in our daily lives.”
Before she documented the aspirations and uphill battles facing the poor in Latin
America, Mev Puleo attended school at Our Lady of the Pillar parish and at Visitation
Academy in St. Louis County. She went on to college at Saint Louis University, where
the University’s Jesuit mission shaped her future advocacy and artwork.
Her husband, Mark Chmiel, noted the influence of SLU faculty members John Kavanaugh,
S.J., Avis Mayer and Belden Lane, as well as Mev’s friends SLU alumna Teka Childress
and Ann Managanaro, a Sister of Loretto and pediatrician, in setting Mev on her path
as a “liberation photographer.”
Puleo herself noted SLU’s part in shaping her faith and work on behalf of marginalized
“My own moral consciousness was shaped at SLU – through the example of professors
and campus ministers – in a way that inspired me to devote my energies towards building
a more compassionate and just world community,” Mev wrote in a 1993 letter to then-President
Lawrence Biondi, S.J.
In addition to SLU’s mission, Mev’s own passions and understanding of Catholic theology,
spurred her to action, Chmiel said.
“Mev was studious, eager to learn, happy to read theological and spiritual writers
in English, Spanish, and Portuguese,” Chmiel recalled. “But she also learned from
her encounters with people grappling with tremendous suffering due to injustice and
oppression that faith is really a foot-trip, not a head-trip.
“As a person, she reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s saying, ‘Be in love with your life.’
Anyone who spent even five minutes with her would notice her exuberance, outgoingness
of heart, and sense of gratitude,” he continued.
Writing in her journal during her battle with the malignant brain tumor that took
her life, Mev wrote of her joy and wonder at God’s creation, noting:
“It is hard to describe the moments of joy, even days of sheer bliss! I feel like
I’m in rapture! Just as I have bouts of depression, I also have bouts of elation.
I’ve felt this way before, as if every tree, flower, blade of grass is in bold relief.
As a young girl I recall vividly, walking home from Our Lady of the Pillar grade school
and seeing the trees on my lane as if for the first time. They stood out in all their beauty, splendor — and treeness. I was overwhelmed, in awe of Creation — marveling that I could not make a tree!
Ever since then, I’ve had moments of feeling, ‘What an honor it is to be alive and
looking at this tree! This flower! This marvelous blue sky! What joy! Ecstasy!”
Following her death, Mev’s legacy has been preserved not only in the experiences of
SLU students taking part in the scholarship program that bears her name but also through
publications including The Book of Mev, The Struggle is One: Voices and Visions of Liberation and in her large body of photographs, which have been displayed in SLU exhibitions
in the past such as Mev Puleo: Witness to Life.
For Chmiel, Mev’s impact is most felt through the lives her work continues to inspire.
One student, Tasha Rutledge, who is now a nurse practitioner still reads The Book of Mev every year to “re-instill a sense of urgency in her life,” Chmiel said.
“SLU students come back from Nicaragua with that sense of urgency,” he noted. “This
is the challenge they offer to the SLU community.”
To learn more about the Mev Puleo Scholarship in Latin American Theology and Culture,
visit the program.
Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious
Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first
university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers nearly 13,000 students a rigorous,
transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse
community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares
students to make the world a better, more just place.
Story by Amelia Flood, University Marketing and Communications