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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.

Ann Managaro, photographed by Mev Puleo

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.

St. Helen's Catholic Church, Jeremie, Haiti
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.”

Suzy Kickham, Abbie Amico, Julia Nouse, Brittany Butler

(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. Submitted photo

“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.”

Mev Puleo

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.”

The Life of a “Liberation Photographer"

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 peoples.

“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.

Wonder in Witnessing Life

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!”

Mev's Legacy

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