Shortly after moving to Israel in 1975, Sister Gemma Del Duca began to realize how important the Holocaust is to the Jewish people.
A native of Greensburg, a Sister of Charity and former chair of the history department at Seton Hill University, Sister Gemma said her growing awareness of the depth of their feelings reminded her of the words of Catholic prelate, Father Isaac Jacob, OSB, who worked to build the Benedictine Center of Tel Gamaliel in Israel and stressed the importance of educating people about the Holocaust and the need for developing a dialogue with the Jewish people.
"After working in Israel to open the Jewish-Catholic dialogue I was struck with the idea of establishing a National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University," recalled Sister Gemma, now 80.
She took the idea to university president JoAnne Boyle. Then, shortly afterward, Pope John Paul II visited the United States and urged Catholics to recognize the significance of the Holocaust and "to promote the necessary historical and religious studies on this event which concerns the whole of humanity today."
His words gave even more impetus to Sister Gemma's desire to establish the center, which has a mission to "counter anti-Semitism and foster Catholic-Jewish relations by making the fruits of Holocaust scholarship accessible to educators at every level, especially to those working in Catholic colleges and universities in the United States."
The education center was established in 1987, and Sister Gemma returned to Israel as the university's liaison, making connections with Jewish institutions such as Yad Vashem, the Isaac Jacob Institute for Religious Law and Hebrew University.
The center is now headed by Sister Lois Sculco.
Sister Gemma continues to travel back and forth to Israel to further Holocaust education and serves as the university's representative in its cooperative program with the Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research, Education, Documentation and Commemoration.
Sister Gemma has a doctorate in Ibero-American studies from the University of New Mexico; a master's of sacred sciences in theology from the Pontifical Institute, Regina Mundi, Rome; and a Bachelor of Arts in history from Seton Hill.
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the conference, she said, seeks to enhance Catholic-Jewish understanding by "educating the educators" in the hope of reaching the whole of humanity.
The Ethel LeFrak Holocaust Education Conference Endowment Fund supports the conference's speakers and sponsors its art, music and film events.
"Together with deeply committed scholars, we will look at future challenges in the study and teaching of the Shoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust, in a fast-moving, changing world, where technology can dictate political, economic and social changes," Sister Gemma said. "The study of the Holocaust has much to teach about the danger of dictatorship; about the necessity to be guided by religious, ethical principles and universal human values; and about the difficulty and importance of maintaining human dignity in extreme situations."
Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.