Blog #115: The Sisters of St. Joseph - and where our money lives and works

April 13, 2023
Monika Weber-Fahr
On Easter Monday, the Financial Times carried a headline that gave me pause: “Nuns urge citigroup to rethink financing of fossil fuel projects”. The foto underneath the headline - while looking cool and pink - is somewhat misleading; it does depict protesters looking to point to Citibank’s investment portfolio - but while clad in pink they are associated with Extinction Rebellion and not with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace who were featured in the article. The article did make me wonder: Who are these nuns - that they would make a Financial Times headline - and what is it that we are doing with our own money? 
Firstly, I found an Anglican connection: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, while being a catholic order, were founded in 1884 by Margaret Anna Cusack - known also as Sister Francis - who was raised in the Anglican church and only later, in 1858, converted to Catholicism.  Apparently an “independent and controversial thinker”, Sister Francis was also a passionate Irish nationalist and seemingly often at odds with the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Her independent thinking seems to have been maintained by the order throughout the last 130+ years: With locations in the UK, the US, and Haiti, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace find themselves called to practice “radical hospitality, nonviolence and care of the creation”, resulting in a commitment to social and environmental justice that involves them in initiatives ranging from what they call peace ministries - serving poor or disadvantaged communities - to very practical advocacy. And here is the link to the FT article: The sisters own shares in Citigroup (and probably other corporations and banks, I would presume) and - two weeks ahead of the bank’s annual meetings - had filed a resolution calling on the board to “report on what it was doing to protect indigenous rights affected by its project and corporate financing decisions”, noting that the bank had “provided over $5bn” to companies that enabled controversial oil pipelines in North America”.
Foto: They don't really look like revolutionaries, but the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace are committed to "radical hospiality, nonviolence and care of the creation", and they are taking their commitment to the streets and into shareholder activism. Their spirituality and prayers are also worthwhile checking out.    
Shareholder activism - including with the intent to get commercial banks to decarbonize their investment or lending portfolios - is nothing new: In fact, many sustainability-focused organizations have begun exercising their voting rights to steer companies towards actions on climate mitigation and adaptation, a course of action considered by many in the industry to be an effective ways for investors to support environmental and social change. Research shows that it can be a potent threat to companies, and in fact in the financial sector the Net Zero  Banking Alliance has been formed to already go ahead, examine and reduce if not eliminate what is called financed emissions, which means they work with the clients they lend money to or invest in to account for their carbon footprint, help them reduce it, or even divest.
Sofar so good - but what about us? About myself? The focused activism of the Sisters of St Joseph of Peace made me ask myself: What is it that I am doing with my own money?  Where does the money go, where does it work? Well, no big drama here - I am banking with the Raiffeisen Bank Wien, all seemingly very local and even somewhat green: On their website, they advertise loans to finance things such as installing solar panels. Why did I choose Raiffeisen Bank in the first place? Simple: Their office was across the street from my office when I first moved to Vienna. But looking into Austrian banks’ performance along sustainability criteria offers another perspective. An independent assessment conducted by the Austrian NGOs Protect our Winters found in 2021 that none of the 13 Austrian Banks they reviewed can be considered a top performer in terms of sustainability; in their view only a small eco-Bank - the Umweltcenter Gunskrichen - was ahead of the game (“Vorreiter”), while all the others were considered merely average, including my own Bank Raiffeisen Bank Vienna. Global 2000, another great NGO here in Vienna, conducted a similar assessment and came to the same conclusion - their Banken Check 2021 is an interesting read and helps learn about what we can and maybe should expect from our banks here in Austria. As it were, Christ Church Vienna's main bank is Bank Austria, #2 on the list - close to the top - comforting to know!
So should we become shareholder activists - like the Sisters of St Joseph of Peace in New York? Certainly I myself will need to reconsider banking with Raiffeisen - only through the reports about the record profits they made by continuing to operate in Russia have I learned about the role the bank plays in financing Austrian gas imports. Well, someone has to do it, one might think - if only because Austria has decided to remain dependent on Russian gas. The ECB seems to think otherwise. Arguably, it’s a complex topic. But wherever you come out in your own considerations: The work and commitment of Sisters of St. John of Peace gives us all something to think about.
Feeling inspired? Want to contribute? Remark on or question something? Please send thoughts about or suggestions for the Living Light Blog to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.