Executive Director Liz Hughes has been with FMS just over a month, but she can trace her path to her current position all the way back through her many job experiences. She described her development in terms of a J.D. Salinger quote: “All we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next.”
Liz was born in Massachusetts, lived most of her early life in Colorado, and then returned to her home state to attend Boston College. Her time at university planted the seeds for the two sides of her life as a committed Catholic—contemplative prayer together with living out the Gospel call to work for a more just society.
Through the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program, she headed south from Boston to an urban, mostly African American Catholic school in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was a 4th grade teacher for two years. This was exactly the sort of intercultural experience that Liz thrives upon. “It stretched me physically, spiritually, emotionally,” she reflects. “I fell in love with the students and the community.”
Liz desired to bring this idea of community service to the public service level and work for the common good. For the next 12 years, her professional positions were with the federal government, first in Washington, DC, and then in the embassy in Mexico City. Liz describes this period as an introduction to servant leadership through working under role models who taught her about caring for the dignity of the human person through leadership.
A brief leave of absence from her employment with the federal government allowed Liz to serve in Honduras, where she lived in an intentional community and taught in a bilingual Catholic elementary school—3rd grade math, 5th grade math, and 6th grade social studies. Living in the Central American countryside was very different than her experience in urban Alabama. “The teachers and the principal rode on the school bus with the students, and we had traffic jams when cows planted themselves in the middle of the road,” Liz recalls.
In 2014 came a “nudge” to more closely integrate her professional life with her faith. Taking the position of Director of International Programs with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) allowed her to connect with people from diverse backgrounds. She says, “My prayer life had always been individual and communal, but now it also includes my work community.” For three years she shared this commitment through supervision of four people. In addition to accompanying 40-50 volunteers through their two years of service, Liz visited all six of the countries and 12 service sites.
Whenever she talks about service, Liz warms to her subject. She recalls a moment from a JVC Commissioning Mass: “All the new Jesuit Volunteers were lining up for Communion. I saw them as the body of Christ, striving to give of themselves as Jesus did and as God is calling them. I remember being flooded with gratitude for each one who said ‘yes’ to the call.”
Liz has a gift for expressing the unique blessings lay mission programs bring to host communities. It was on one of her site visits to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that a headmaster explained why he continued to seek out Jesuit Volunteers to teach English at his high school. “He said that volunteers’ commitment to two years of service far from home was a model of Christian love,” Liz remembers. “He wanted his students to emulate this call to encounter and serve different cultures.”
When she heard about the opening at FMS, Liz immediately saw that the Franciscan ministry of presence was based on a similar model of encounter. “I have found listening and learning to all the people who love FMS to be a life-giving experience. I have been inspired by the witness these individuals give through the model of their lives.”
Service is an important part of Liz’s personal time as well. She volunteers with DC middle school students through an after school program as a math tutor. Reading, tennis, running, and travel round out her recreational time. Her prayer life has found inspiration in the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, located near the FMS office, where she has visited the gardens and outdoor Stations of the Cross for Lenten devotion.
Liz is looking forward to deepening her relationship with St. Francis and St. Clare, and she also admires St. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, a Chilean Jesuit who ministered to the homeless during the first half of the 20th century. “His writings are a fusion of an active and contemplative faith,” Liz says. As she settles in to her latest piece of “holy ground” here at FMS, our executive director will be sharing her own drive to express Christ’s mission here on earth along with her the quiet strength of a prayerful Catholic.