Sister Jean Marie Abbott, a social worker who helped refugees and immigrants, particularly those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, died Jan. 7 in St. Louis at age 77.
Sister Jean “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,” according to a statement after Sister Jean’s death from Bilingual International Assistant Services, an organization working for equal access to health care, mental health and social services for all. “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 1980s 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.”
Born in St. Louis, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1961 and was received into the novitiate in 1962 as Sister Eugene Therese. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Fontbonne College in 1966 and a master’s degree in social work from Saint Louis University in 1982.
Sister Jean began ministry as a teacher in 1966 in Denver. In 1968, she returned to St. Louis to teach at Our Lady of Lourdes Grade School for a year before transferring to Compton Heights School, where she taught junior high for two years
In 1975, she began her ministry as a social worker at St. Henry Parish, serving there until 1980. After receiving her master’s degree in 1982, she became the parish social worker at St. Cronan Parish in St. Louis. She then continued her ministry in Jalapa, Nicaragua, from 1984-85 and Guatemala City, Guatemala, in the latter part of 1985.
Sister Jean returned to St. Louis in 1986 with a focus on serving refugees and immigrants. She served at the Central American Work Sanctuary in the sanctuary movement. From 1991-97, she served in two roles: therapist at the Center for Psychological Growth and counselor at Haven of Grace Shelter.
For the next 12 years, Sister Jean served as a trauma therapist at Provident Counseling. In 2008, she became the clinical director for the Center for Survivors of Torture & War Trauma, an organization which she founded. Since 2013, Sister Jean served as a private counselor.
According to Bilingual International’s statement, 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. While Sister Jean later stepped back from day-to-day operations, she never really stepped back from the work and traveled to Uganda for six months in her 70s to teach students there stress reduction and coping techniques. Even after the 2016 merger with Bilingual International Assistant Services, where her nephew Paul Witte, now coordinates her program as the St. Louis Partnership for Survivors of Torture, Sister Jean remained active and true to her mission, traveling several times to Mississippi in her later years to work with victims of human trafficking.
Funeral arrangements are pending.