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May 3, 2022, Washington, D.C. – “Justice Ablaze” was the theme as Catholic Sisters and other social justice advocates gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C., on April 22 to celebrate the “50-year justice journey” of NETWORK: a Catholic social justice lobby. Among the celebrants were Sister Carol Coston, OP, Founding Executive Director of NETWORK; Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Congregation and a member of the 50th Anniversary Host Committee; and Sister Elise García, OP, General Councilor.
During the Gala, Sister Carol and four other Executive Directors of NETWORK were the inaugural recipients of the Sister Catherine Pinkerton Legacy Award, which recognizes “social justice advocates who have spent their lives working to change structures that cause poverty and inequality.” The other four directors were Sisters Nancy Sylvester, IHM; Kathy Thornton, RSM; Adrian Dominican Sister Maureen Fenlon, OP; Simone Campbell, SSS. Also receiving the award was the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
The National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) received the inaugural Distinguished Justice-Seeker Award.
“It’s hard for me to envision that [NETWORK] lasted for 50 years,” given the many challenges, Sister Carol said in an interview before the celebration. “I think part of the anniversary celebration is to honor the congregations that were involved from the very beginning,” including the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
Sister Carol was present in Washington, D.C., in December 1971 when a group of 47 Catholic Sisters from a variety of religious congregations met and decided to begin a network of Sisters to lobby for social justice. Among them were Adrian Dominican Sisters Marcella Hess, OP, Kathleen Gannon, OP, and Carol Jean McDonnell, OP. A steering committee met about a month later, and Sister Carol was chosen as the Founding Director. NETWORK officially began in April 1972.
Sister Carol recalled the humble beginnings of NETWORK. “After we had decided to go ahead and start NETWORK, two of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus offered us space in their house.” The first staff members received free room and board at a house near the Capitol. The office was on the second floor of a building owned by the Veterans of Foreign War.
One of the first challenges for NETWORK, Sister Carol said, was deciding which issues to focus on. “There were too many issues,” she said. The NETWORK leaders chose to lobby for legislative actions such as cutting off funds for the Vietnam War, reducing aid to countries that violated human rights, reducing the defense budget and increasing funds for social services, and raising the federal minimum wage.
NETWORK then brought Sisters together to lobby Congress for these actions. “We had the first legislative seminar in 1972,” Sister Carol recalled. “We did a crash course on what the process was and tried to get the women to know who their member of Congress was and, if possible, meet them.” She recalled putting the Sisters on buses to Capitol Hill to hold meetings with their Congressional representatives, lobbying for bills that enhanced social justice.
Sister Carol noted that legislative advocacy for justice was not a traditional ministry for Sisters. “Many times, the Sisters who came to the seminar might have been the only member of their congregation who was involved in political ministry,” she said. “It was encouraging to them to be with other Sisters” and to broaden their experience.
Sister Carol herself learned about the legislative process through her earlier ministry as a teacher whose students participated in speech and debate competitions. “This gave me a little bit of background on how Congress works,” she said. “I had the idea of how a bill becomes a law.”
In the years since, NETWORK has continued its work with Sisters to advocate for social justice. One of the most visible programs in recent years has been Nuns on the Bus, organized by Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, when she directed NETWORK. Nuns on the Bus operates during election years. Staff members of NETWORK and other Sisters travel to designated areas of the country to host town hall meetings, rallies, and presentations on designated areas of focus, such as voter engagement, politics for the common good, and tax justice.
Sister Carol said she learned much during her 10 years as Director of NETWORK. “You can do better together than by yourself,” she said. “What happened when we all came together for legislative seminars was that enthusiasm came from working together,” she said.
Her years of hard work to lobby for social justice did not go unnoticed. In January 2001, President Bill Clinton presented Sister Carol with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest honor for civilians, for her work in helping to create NETWORK. She was the first Catholic Sister to receive this honor.
Read more about Sister Carol and her work in building up NETWORK in this Global Sisters Report article by Dan Stockman.
Feature photo: Recipients of the inaugural Sr. Catherine Pinkerton Legacy Award – the first five Executive Directors of NETWORK – are, from left, Sisters Simone Campbell, SSS, Kathy Thornton, RSM, Nancy Sylvester, IHM, and Carol Coston, OP – along with Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Congregation, and Mary Novak, current Executive Director of NETWORK. Not pictured is the late Adrian Dominican Sister Maureen Fenlon, OP, also an early Executive Director. Photo by Shedrick Pent, Courtesy of NETWORK
May 7, 2021, Adrian, Michigan – In anticipation of the National John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Action Day on Saturday, May 8, 2021, we Adrian Dominican Sisters endorse the joint statement issued by the National Black Sisters’ Conference and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious on the critical importance of ensuring that all people – no matter race, zip code, economic status – enjoy the sacred right to vote.
As women of faith and faithful Americans, we believe that all people have the right and obligation to participate fully in our democracy. The National Black Sisters Conference (NBSC) and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) strongly oppose all attempts to restrict that participation by limiting the sacred right to vote. The strength and vibrancy of our democracy is dependent on the right of all people to vote regardless of their race, zip code, economic status, or party affiliation.
Our country has a long racist history when it comes to voting. From the end of the 19th Century to 1965, “Jim Crow Laws” systematically kept blacks from the ballot box. Violence, rigged literacy tests, property tests, grandfather clauses and more were used to deny people of color access to democracy’s most fundamental right, the right to cast their ballot. That right is under attack once again.
Our brothers and sisters struggled, some gave their lives, to secure the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It falls to us to continue their work. Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium that our vocation as Catholic sisters is inherently political: “We are all called to participate in public life…. Authentic faith always involves a deep desire to change the world…. We cannot remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”
We must call out elected officials, at every level, who continue to introduce measures that would return us to the era of “Jim Crow.” They are celebrating our dark past by enacting laws that limit participation and threaten our democracy. We pledge to oppose them at every turn, and we promise to support legislation that will ensure all people can exercise their precious right to vote.
It is long past time we established national standards for voting to ensure all of us have a voice in decisions that affect our lives and protect our common home. We call on the Senate to immediately take up the For the People Act and we call on members of both the house and Senate to introduce the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
National Black Sisters Conference
Sister Anita Baird, DHM
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Sister Annmarie Sanders, IHM — Director of Communications
Members of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ General Council are Sisters Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress; Mary Margaret Pachucki, OP, Vicaress and General Councilor; Frances Nadolny, OP, Administrator and General Councilor; Patricia Harvat, OP, General Councilor; and Elise D. García, OP, General Councilor.