Published: Monday, November 14, 2011

Students, staff, faculty and religious members of Benedictine communities across Atchison faced the morning of September 26, 2011 with heavy hearts. Word had come from Kenya that Wangari Maathai, 1964 alumna and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, had passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer. She was 71.

“She left us too soon,” said Stephen D. Minnis, president of Benedictine College. He was in Olso in 2004 for the Nobel ceremonies, along with Sister Thomasita Homan, OSB, and Sister Mary Collins, OSB, prioress of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery at the time.

“When you were with Wangari Maathai, you knew you were in the presence of greatness, but she put you perfectly at ease,” he added. “She had such a winning personality and strong will. It is hard to imagine this world without her. We are lucky she has walked amongst us and she will be sorely missed.”

Maathai graduated from Mount St. Scholastica College, now Benedictine College, in 1964 with a degree in biology. In 1977, after conducting research that linked problems within the Kenyan economy and society to deforestation, she founded the Green Belt Movement. The group has planted more than 40 million trees in the last 30 years, and has brought environmental issues into the realm of world politics. Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts to promote democracy, peace and sustainable development and is the first Peace Prize winner to have an environmental focus.  She was the only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate to graduate from a U.S. Catholic college.

“I will miss Wangari, my dear friend, and friend to our world,” said S. Thomasita, a former English professor at Benedictine College and longtime friend of Maathai’s. “I will long to hear her words of encouragement, to hear her challenge injustices, to witness her untiring pursuit of bettering our planet and its people, and to see her beaming with energy and joy. But her time for full energy and joy is now and for all of eternity. Her deepest hopes are now realized. And hope now lives more strongly in me, in us, in our world.”

Maathai last visited the college on January 28, 2007, and delivered a speech to a packed house in Benedictine’s Ralph Nolan Gymnasium. During her visit, Maathai thanked the Benedictine Sisters of the Mount for giving her the foundation to do great things.

“To the Sisters, my classmates, and the community here in Atchison, I want to say thank you. Thank you for giving me the education, the foundation that changed me forever,” she said. “If my work has changed the world, it is because you are all working through me.”

“Always follow a small voice that all of us have, a small voice that comes from deep within, a small voice that I have come to identify as the God in you,” Maathai concluded. “God whispers to you and if your heart is pure, you can hear it. Follow that voice. Be committed to it, be persistent with it, be patient with it.”

Information on where to share memories and how to help continue her legacy will be provided in the coming days.

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is proud to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report as well as one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. It has a mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.

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