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October 3, 2020, Adrian, Michigan – As the United States is engaged in controversy over President Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, four Adrian Dominican Sisters who are attorneys continued to reflect on the impact of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, an immigration attorney who served as Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Congregation from 2010 to 2016, was inspired by her personal encounter with Justice Ginsburg in 2005. Sister Attracta was part of a group of Catholic University Law School graduates who were sworn in at the Supreme Court. While all Justices attended the swearing-in ceremony, Sister Attracta recalled, only Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ginsburg attended a reception hosted afterwards by Catholic University.
“She talked with the women in the group, and her message was to remember – always remember – those who are on the margins,” Sister Attracta recalled. “She said it’s wonderful now that we women have our voice in court to help others, but never forget those who have no one, or who have very few people who care about them.”
Through the years, Sister Attracta said, she continued to follow the work of Justice Ginsburg. “She was so wonderfully brave, and when she went to law school, she was one of very few women in her class,” Sister Attracta said. “She held on to what she knew was right and was willing to speak her mind and speak the truth.”
Justice Ginsburg “is primarily known for raising up the legal rights of women and bringing to the consciousness of the court the gender discrimination that had been buried within our legal system,” said Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Congregation and an attorney.
Justice Ginsburg’s work to end discrimination against women became most evident in her opinion in the case of the United States v. Virginia, which ended the Virginia Military Institution’s long-standing prohibition against admitting women, Sister Patricia said. “When she wrote her opinion, she educated the court on gender discrimination and the violation of the 14th Amendment.”
But Justice Ginsburg went beyond defending the rights of women, Sister Patricia said. “Her interests were very much on protecting the legal rights of those who are often disadvantaged.”
Yet, while being a defender of human rights, “she never took on a shrill position but was always very dignified,” Sister Patricia said. Justice Ginsburg “chose to work within the system, knowing that significant change needs people within the system who can very judiciously maneuver legal reasoning to point out the blatant discrimination.” While supportive of people who chose to speak out in protests, Justice Ginsburg “used her quiet power to educate the people in her institution” about matters of justice.
Sister Carolyn Roeber, OP, a canon lawyer who also practiced civil law, noted that she might not have made it into law school and become a lawyer without Justice Ginsburg’s efforts toward the equality of men and women.
Also important, Sister Carolyn said, was Justice Ginsburg’s approach of promoting change one step at a time. “This incremental change is easier for people to adapt to,” she said. “It’s easier for people to see the benefit of incremental change rather than a 180-degree change.” Justice Ginsburg was also adept at considering the perspective of people she disagreed with and presenting her beliefs in a way that they could understand.
Sister Noreen Sharp, OP, who uses her training and experience as an attorney to benefit people facing disadvantages such as low income, recalled her own personal experience with Justice Ginsburg. “I had the privilege of meeting Justice Ginsburg at the United States Supreme Court in 1998,” she said. “Our court was awarded special recognition from the Supreme Court for the work we had done on access to justice. The Supreme Court hosted a dinner in the rotunda for us and several other courts. What an honor to have even a few moments with such a brilliant person whose values governed her work and her life.”
The Sisters also reflected on how we can carry forward the legacy of Justice Ginsburg. One way, Sister Carolyn said, is to follow Justice Ginsburg’s incremental approach to change. “One piece of that is the ability to accept less than you want, to compromise, to be thankful for small steps, and to recognize that those steps might be difficult for other people, and to be willing to say, ‘OK, this is what we can do now,’” she said.
Sister Carolyn also noted that Justice Ginsburg’s ability to work with and respect people she disagreed with is sorely needed in our culture today. “Not making enemies of people who disagree with us is essential to the Gospel, but I think it’s also essential to the country,” she said. “What can I learn from these people who disagree with me? In order to speak to people where they are, you have to have that listening and that understanding of what they believe and where that comes from – what issue are they promoting, and where can we find common ground?”
Sister Attracta said that another way to carry on Justice Ginsburg’s legacy is to “continue to look for the people whose rights have been taken away from them – who never had a chance because people have decided they have no rights.”
As an immigration attorney, Sister Attracta safeguards the rights of immigrants and of those seeking refuge or asylum. She first became aware of the plight of the people of Central America in the 1980s when she visited Guatemala with Witness for Peace. There, she said, she saw the government of Guatemala – supported by the U.S. government – “destroying the indigenous people and killing anyone who got in their way.”
During Sister Attracta’s term on the General Council from 1986 to 1992, the Adrian Dominican Sisters were asked to provide temporary sanctuary for people from Central American nations awaiting their documents from home so that they could find asylum in Canada, Sister Attracta said. “We agreed to give one wing of Weber Center to house them,” she said. That experience drew her to become an immigration attorney. “I realized that if I knew law, I could be so much more help to the people,” she said.
Sister Patricia said people today can live out Justice Ginsberg’s legacy “by remaining engaged in the justice issues of our time … continuing to honor and deepen our commitment to justice and living our Gospel values.”
Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, an immigration attorney, shakes hands with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a 2005 reception for Catholic University Law School graduates who were sworn in at the Supreme Court.
September 14, 2020, Adrian, Michigan – For the past three years, Adrian Dominican Prioress Patricia Siemen, OP, has played a special role in a canonical network of Catholic Sisters throughout the world. Her term as delegate for the United States, North America Constellation 3 of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) has given her a greater sense of global needs and responses – and a profound appreciation of the commitment of Catholic Sisters throughout the world.
“The greatest takeaway is that there is an extraordinary organization in Rome that represents the interests of congregations globally,” Sister Patricia said. The congregations of women religious around the world “differ very much from one another, but I found a commonality in mission, to live religious life authentically, to be in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable, and to share the charism of religious life globally with each other.”
As a delegate, Sister Patricia had opportunities to meet with Sisters from other nations – and from throughout the United States. For the past three years, she has served in leadership at the regional and global level with the other U.S. delegate, Sister Constance Phelps, SCL, Community Director of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas. Both were elected in 2017 and completed their term in August 2020.
The UISG offers an opportunity every third year for the Major Superiors of all member women’s congregations throughout the world to gather. The most recent general assembly was May 6-10, 2019, in Rome. About 820 Major Superiors from 80 communities attended that meeting under the theme “Sowers of Prophetic Hope.” As a delegate, Sister Patricia helped to plan the event.
The plenary gatherings offer the opportunity to “learn the story of women religious from other cultures and other countries and a chance to support each other and to be formed,” Sister Patricia said. “It is a forum for women religious to meet and share on issues of religious life.”
The United States Constellation is one of 37 constellations in the UISG structure, each based on regions of continents and each represented by one or two delegates. The U.S. Constellation represents 143 congregations of women religious. Membership in the UISG is made up of the Major Superior – in the case of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, the Prioress – of each member congregation.
“The delegates form an international council,” Sister Patricia explained. “We are available to advise or be consulted by the UISG office in Rome in matters regarding religious life.” The UISG has its own board, which consults with the office on a regular basis, she said.
Sister Patricia attended the November 2017 international delegates meeting in Manila, the Philippines, which drew about 46 delegates to discuss and learn about interculturation. “It’s becoming a global institute for leadership on canonical issues and formation,” Sister Patricia said. The meeting also serves as a “forum for women religious to meet and share on issues of religious life.”
“I have learned from Sister delegates the common commitment to meeting the needs of the people of God, wherever they are,” Sister Patricia said. “I have learned the incredible resiliency and joy that Sisters from other countries exhibit, and their commitment to the Sisters and to the people they serve. I benefitted tremendously from [interacting with] people from different cultural and racial backgrounds and identities.”
The delegates also convene an annual meeting of all Superiors General in their own Constellation. Members of the U.S. Constellation usually gather the day after the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) assembly, Sister Patricia explained.
Sister Patricia and Sister Constance worked together on the agenda for this year’s August 15 gathering of the United States Constellation, highlighting care for Earth and updating members on the work of the UISG.
The Zoom call technology was arranged by the Communications and Technology Departments of the Adrian Dominican Sisters. Brad McCullar, Director of Technology, and Sheila Wathen, Assistant Director of Communications, did “yeo-people’s work in getting this organized,” Sister Patricia said. She also gave credit to her assistant, Mary Weeber, and Sister Constance’s assistant, Pamela Logan, for the “behind-the-scenes organizing.”
During their service together as delegates, Sisters Patricia and Constance strove to increase the connection and conversations between the UISG and the LCWR. “LCWR’s mission is to attend to the needs of the elected leadership in the U.S., but there are so many common commitments [between the two groups] – to the environment, anti-human trafficking, protection of girls and women,” Sister Patricia said. “When we can build those connections globally, it enhances the work that we can do locally.”
Just as the Adrian Dominican Congregation served the needs of the Constellation, Sister Patricia said that her service as delegate benefitted the Congregation tremendously. Serving as a delegate “gave me a wider global view,” she said. “Congregational leadership isn’t only about the Congregation because we live in a wider world.”
Feature photo: Sisters Constance Phelps, SCL, left, and Patricia Siemen, OP, delegates for the U.S. Constellation, stand outside the retreat house during the UISG international delegates meeting in Manila in November 2017.