HUNT VALLEY, Md. (CNS) — Sister Katherine “Sissy” Corr had a message for a group of 400 Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and Notre Dame AmeriCorps members gathered at a conference in Hunt Valley: “You’ve got guts!”

Since 1804, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have lived out their mission of empowering the poor, educating for and acting on behalf of justice and peace in the world, she said.

It has not always been a simple task, said Sister Corr, herself a member of the religious congregation, noting that the sisters began schools and community centers in areas such as the Congo, Guatemala and the United States as early as the mid-19th century.

But that same spirit can be seen in the Notre Dame AmeriCorps members, all full-time volunteers, she said.

Speaking to the young men and women in the program who will dedicate 11 months serving in 23 cities across the U.S., Sister Corr said that “everywhere the sisters go, we commit ourselves to those found in the most abandoned of places. This is the spirit of the sisters, and as you can see here today sitting among 350 of your peers, it is the spirit of each of you.”

Sister Corr made the comments in an address on the first day of a Feb. 14-16 professional development training conference for the Notre Dame AmeriCorps members.

The event also marked the 20th anniversary of the faith-based government partnership between the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and AmeriCorps, a service program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency.

In her speech, Sister Corr touched on the past, present and future of the journey of service that the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and AmeriCorps members share.

For the sisters, the journey began in Belgium in 1804 when their foundress, St. Julie Billiart, established a group of religious sisters to “exist for the poor” and “teach them what they need to know for life” around the world.

After 188 years of serving alongside the poor, the sisters felt they could do more. So they began a small program with just a handful of volunteers in Boston. Called Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, the program’s purpose was to expand the congregation’s scope and mission to “honor the human dignity and self-determination” of those they were serving through literacy efforts.

In 1994, Sister Corr was asked by the congregation’s leadership to expand the program nationally, and she and a small group of sisters did so with the support of AmeriCorps, which had been launched that year.

In the past 20 years, the sisters’ partnership with AmeriCorps, has lifted up the power of what she called “this little program from the sisters,” and has made it “a national model.”

Showing her audience a photograph of Notre Dame AmeriCorps members talking to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, she said with a grin that this national model caught the attention of some “high-up places!”

Growing over the years from 46, to 68, to 93 Notre Dame AmeriCorps members, the sisters’ program took on new initiatives like educating about the environment, serving children of incarcerated parents, and teaching unaccompanied minors who had entered the U.S. illegally. But just like the sisters, wherever the program expanded, it stayed rooted in its mission to empower through education, Sister Corr said.

While Notre Dame AmeriCorps has been able to serve almost 700,000 Americans over the course of its 20-year history, thanks to the 4,000 volunteers who have gone through the program, something more important has taken place in Sister Corr’s view.

These 4,000 men and women have gone on to be leaders in the field of social justice and education, and for her, that’s because the program has drawn on the sisters’ belief of cultivating the interior spirit through reflection, she said.

As part of the Notre Dame AmeriCorps model, members meet twice a month for training related to their service work. This includes workshops on conflict resolution; reflections on the meaning and purpose of one’s service work; and service projects that engage members in community development and outreach in addition to their primary service work.

As one member said, “I have come to strengthen my belief that education and service can have a transformative effect, both on the population served, but even more strongly on those who choose to serve. I have been forever challenged and changed as a result of those I have worked with. I have come to believe that to lead is to serve.”

Notre Dame AmeriCorps members share a set of values — an energy, creativity, perseverance and courage — with one another and with the sisters, Sister Corr explained.

She charged the members to consider two questions for the remainder of their year and their life beyond: “What can we do to help one another uphold these key values?” and “How are we going to stay in relationship to continue to build a just a peaceful community?”