Sister Rosalie Esquerra, OP, Honored for Nearly 50 Years of Service to Detroit Youth

Sister Rosalie Esquerra, OP, was recently recognized for 48 years of dedication and commitment and for the lives she influenced for the good through her ministry at Life Directions. The Detroit-based organization – which Sister Rosalie co-founded – encourages young people in high school and beyond to work with and inspire their peers, helping them to recognize their own gifts and lead productive and happy lives.

Sister Rosalie was honored during Life Directions’ Spirit of Hope Tribute Gala.

“It’s been a wondrous journey,” she said of her ministry at Life Directions. She was one of the founders of the organization with Father John Phelps, CSsR, President and CEO; Father Alexander Steinmiller, CP; and Alexander and Judith MacDonald.

“Father John had initiated a conversation about the poor in Southeast Detroit,” Sister Rosalie recalled. “The five of us were caught up by that vision, so we initiated various programs,” including working in public schools. At the time, Sister Rosalie said, she was already involved in public schools, walking with the students through their various challenges, including local gangs.

Very early on, the co-founders began what has been their focus for much of their history: “peers inspiring peers.” Sister Rosalie, Father John, and Father Alex each began working with one high school in Detroit. “We initiated conversation groups with at least 15 students” in each school, Sister Rosalie said. “We asked teachers to send us students who are positive and have goals and students who are ambling along. The idea was peers inspiring peers.” During the first session, participants were invited to express their concerns, and the three leaders from Life Directions created modules based on those concerns.

“The impact on the schools was incredible,” Sister Rosalie recalled. Among the students who had been less purposeful, “grades went up, attendance improved, and the spirit in the school was positive.”

Applauding Sister Rosalie in the tribute video are: standing, from left, Sisters Sheila Delaney, OP, Susan Van Baalen, OP, Rosemary Asaro, OP, and Joanne Peters, OP, and seated, from left, Associate Mercedes Fitzsimmons and Sisters Joella Miller, OP, and Mary Soher, OP.

But, Sister Rosalie said, the focus of Life Directions was on young people in Detroit who were past the age of high school. Young adults were invited to a retreat, “Focus Life,” which helped them to see that each is a gift. 

The focus during the retreat was still on “peers inspiring peers,” with groups formed of seven to nine achieving and non-achieving young adults. “They’d work in small groups and encourage and support each other,” Sister Rosalie said. “Their role was to share their journey, the journey dealing with hurts and heals, the joys and the special things that happened in their lives.”

After the retreat, Sister Rosalie said, the participants were invited to stay connected as a circle in their neighborhood. Married couples would continue to listen to, guide, encourage, and support them, she added.

In both programs, the staff of Life Directions focused on low-income neighborhoods in which gangs and gang violence were prevalent, Sister Rosalie said. “Years later, the neighborhoods are still doing well,” she said. “The impact in the neighborhood is still evident.”

The success of the program in Detroit led Life Directions to begin programs in Chicago; New Orleans; San Antonio, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; and Salem, Oregon. Since then, with the success of the program established in these areas, Life Directions turned its own focus solely on Detroit and Chicago, she said. 

“One of the core values we hold is that you are a gift and I walk with you to help you see your gift, grow in your gift,” Sister Rosalie said, adding that seeing the gifts in others is also important. “All of us are gifts, and many times the focus that is given is on the downside of people’s lives rather than on their gift side, their caring side,” she said. “Sometimes that caring side is just a spark. By walking with people, recognizing them, encouraging them, they actual begin to value the gift they are.”

Many of the people Sister Rosalie worked with attended the gala tribute to her. “The people at the celebration were people we worked with in high school 50 years ago and people from retreats,” as well as from parish missions that Life Directions conducted, Sister Rosalie said. “It was really special to be there and see people who had met me at a retreat when they were a young person or had met me at school because of the peer motivation program.”

Many others who were influenced by Sister Rosalie could not attend the celebration because of COVID-19 restrictions. These include a group of Adrian Dominican Sisters, who created a video in tribute to Sister Rosalie. Watch the video and hear more about Sister Rosalie’s impact and influence.