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By Madelyn Birmingham
Content Writer, Siena Heights University
February 2, 2023, Adrian, Michigan – When she was a little girl, Sharon Weber didn’t spend a lot of time in one place. As a byproduct of her father’s job, her family was constantly relocating, which lent her to experience five different grade schools and a different high school – all of which were Catholic. It is only fitting, then, that as Sharon settled into her adult life, she would remain anchored at one institution, and a Catholic one at that: Siena Heights University.
At one of her elementary schools, Sister Sharon’s instructor was an Adrian Dominican Sister. The Sisters’ contagious passion for life and joyous demeanor drew her to the Adrian Dominican Sisters, and her religious convictions drew her to a dedicated lifestyle.
After graduating high school, she joined the Adrian Dominican Sisters and ended up furthering her education at Siena Heights College (now University). During the first two years, as both a postulant and novice, Sister Sharon was also a full-time student.
Following her first two years, she was qualified to teach at an elementary level. she taught first grade for five years, and seventh grade for one year. During this time, she was continuing her own education after hours and over the summer. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Sister Sharon completed master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Michigan, an experience that also allowed her to study and teach in Germany at the University of Konstanz.
After completing her formal education, Sister Sharon returned in 1974 to Siena Heights, where the next four decades would serve as a continuation of the lifelong education that comes through teaching and interacting with others. Until her election to the Congregation’s General Council in 1986, Sister Sharon taught chemistry and other science courses, as well as Letters and Sciences courses for the institution.
In one of those years, Sister Sharon was awarded the Sister Eileen K. Rice Award for Teaching – an accomplishment that she still regards as one of the most honorable accolades of her career. After 1993, following a yearlong sabbatical, she returned to Siena Heights to teach and occupied several administrative roles for the university from 1993 to 2022.
Throughout this time, Sister Sharon experienced Siena Heights University from multiple perspectives: student, teacher, Division Chairperson of the Science and Math Division, Acting Director of the Graduate Program, Acting Dean, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and – while on the General Council – as a Member of the Board of Trustees.
During her time as Acting Director of the Graduate Program, as well as the Acting Dean, Sister Sharon rose to the occasion of satisfying the needs of the university, even above her own personal preferences. Her interim roles were brief but essential and serve as a testament to her commitment to Siena Heights, allowing it to grow as an institution. The administrative roles occupied by Sister Sharon were crucial to the development of Siena Heights University, with her time as the Vice President of Academic Affairs helping to bring about the Nursing and Engineering programs. Additionally, Siena Heights’ introduction of its Online Program began during her time in administration, though she gives substantial credit to Dean Deb Carter during that timeframe for the addition of the Online Program.
Despite these impressive career accolades, Sister Sharon feels the most pride in herself and her career when looking at the successes of other people. She notes: “The most important moments I’m proud of are when I get to listen to how we [the Siena Heights community] have really had a good effect on people’s lives.”
When asked about her inspirations and greatest influences, Sister Sharon spoke fondly of many sources of inspiration in her life. Her family – parents, siblings, and grandparents – were the first she named, but also praised fellow Adrian Dominican Sisters, teachers, Siena Heights faculty and staff, as well as her students. She fondly recalls a story where one of her first-grade students inspired her:
“We were talking about how Jesus calms the storm at sea, and so I was at my dramatic best, and was painting this picture of a storm at sea – with the lightning and thunder and waves and wind – and said to them: ‘Do you think the apostles were afraid?’ And every hand in the room goes up, and I picked a student and said, ‘So what do you think? Were the apostles afraid?’ And the student answered: ‘No Sister, Jesus was in the boat.’ And that day, a six-year-old taught me a lot about faith. There are so many little places where people can inspire you, and you remember it almost sixty years later.”
On the topic of inspiration, there are two very crucial elements that inspired Sister Sharon to stay at Siena Heights for as long as she did, and the two elements are surprisingly simple: Its people and its mission. In the words of Sister Sharon: “Siena is its people, and I think it has a mission that’s worth expending energy on.” She recalls how, while the current mission statement of the university was not verbalized at the time she was a student, the heart of it permeated through the culture and people of Siena Heights University. She credits Siena Heights in her journey to becoming more competent, purposeful, and ethical – as both a student and educator.
For this reason, Siena Heights University serves as a place where Sister Sharon believes seeds are planted, and that from those seeds, many fruits are grown. This impact, she says, is especially prominent in our alumni. Each year, at the alumni awards ceremony, Sister Sharon remains amazed by how many successful alumni credit Siena Heights with integral components that helped to bring about those successes.
Sister Sharon also views Siena Heights as a place where Dominican tradition and the search for truth is fostered and done in a very committed environment, in both the academic world and relational world; additionally, it is a place where lifelong relationships are developed.
As a result of these lifelong relationships, and the search for truth, Sister Sharon Weber was given additional accolades outside of the aforementioned Sister Eileen K. Rice Award. In 2012, she was the recipient of the Zonta of Lenawee’s Amelia Earhart Award, which is given to those who exemplify a pioneering spirit and excellence in their field.
Most recently, upon her retirement in 2022, the Science Hall was officially dedicated as the “Sister Sharon Weber, O.P., Ph.D., Science Hall.” This is a tremendous honor, though Sister Sharon remains very humble in that she believes many other people deserved the same recognition.
Throughout her many years spent at Siena Heights as a student, professor, and administrator, Sister Sharon has witnessed the changes in higher education firsthand. The three differences that struck her as the most prominent include the cost, the technological advancements, and the goals that students have for themselves in attaining a college education – that is, the focus on career rather than on liberal arts education.
When asked about her plans for retirement, Sister Sharon says that they are still in the works. She is enjoying the time she’s been able to spend with her family, as well as enjoying her own personal hobbies, but hasn’t yet figured out her full retirement plans. While she isn’t entirely certain what the future holds, Sister Sharon knows how she wants to be remembered by her students, fellow faculty, and staff:
“I want to be remembered as a Dominican, who, in the search for truth, has tried to listen to all sides.”
Photos courtesy of Siena Heights University
January 3, 2023, Adrian, Michigan – The year 2022 found the Adrian Dominican Sisters – like so many organizations in the United States – slowly easing pandemic-related restrictions. But it also brought tremendous change as the Sisters approved five Enactments and elected a new General Council to lead the Congregation for the next six years. The year also brought continued challenges as Sisters, Associates, Co-workers, and other Partners in Mission strove to live out the Vision: Seek truth, make peace, reverence life. Below are the top 10 highlights of 2022, selected by Co-workers in the Office of Communications.
Delegates from the Adrian Dominican Sisters meet every six years to approve Enactments – the direction that the Congregation will take in the next six years – and elect a Prioress and General Council to lead the Sisters and Associates in living out those Enactments. Elected to the General Council were Sisters Elise D. García, OP, Prioress; Lorraine Réaume, OP, Vicaress; and Janice Brown, OP, Bibiana “Bless” Colasito, OP, and Corinne Sanders, OP, General Councilors.
The 2022 General Chapter affirmed an Enactment that continues a 2016 Enactment on diversity. This area was addressed in many ways in 2022. Kevin Hofmann was named the first Director of the Congregation’s Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion. His outreach included telling his personal story during a Lunch and Learn program at Weber Retreat and Conference Center and writing a weekly blog exploring equity and inclusion. In reparation for the Congregation’s role in racism and white supremacy, the Adrian Dominican Sisters established the Sister Jamie Phelps Endowed Scholarship at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, New Orleans, an endowment in support of the Department of African American and African Studies at Michigan State University; and a scholarship at Siena Heights University for students of color. Barry University in Miami, a sponsored institution of the Congregation, received $1 million in endowment for the Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative to prepare Hispanic pastors to lead congregations. INAI, an art gallery adjacent to Weber Center, hosted the Unraveling Racism art exhibit and an artist’s talk to tell of the experiences that the artists had in racism and white supremacy.
The 2022 Enactment on Sustainability calls on the Adrian Dominican Sisters to become a Laudato Si’ Action Platform Congregation, joining with Catholic organizations throughout the world to carry out the vision of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical. Brad Frank, of Adrian, Michigan, was hired to fill the role of Director of the Office of Sustainability with the election of the former director, Sister Corinne Sanders, OP, to the General Council. Along with an installation of a solar array, Motherhouse campus improvements in sustainability include a new permaculture sink to streamline the process of preparing produce for the Dominican Life Center kitchen and the purchase of an electric mower, the first electric vehicle purchased for the Motherhouse. But the Congregation was involved in sustainability efforts throughout the world. Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP, Dominican Representative to the United Nations, traveled to Egypt for COP27, a United Nations conference in which national leaders were to make significant commitments to address global climate change. She also participated in a Dominican Sisters Conference-UN webinar on climate change efforts throughout the world. Father James Hug, SJ, priest chaplain at the Motherhouse, continued to write Catholic liturgical materials for the annual Season of Creation, held globally September 1 through October 4.
The Dominican family – in the United States and throughout the world – continued to grow and to become closer to one another in the past year. Sister Elisabeth Nguyen, OP – a Dominican Sister from Vietnam and an Adrian Dominican Associate for many years – transferred to the Adrian Dominican Congregation as a vowed member, while Sisters Leizel Tedria, OP, Meliza Arquillano, OP, and Marifi Lugtu, OP of the Our Lady of Remedies Mission Chapter in the Philippines renewed their vows. Adrian Dominican Sisters took on leadership roles in the U.S. Dominican family, with Sister Katherine Frazier, OP, named Director of Dominican Youth Movement, and Sister Xiomara Méndez-Hernández, OP, named Executive Director of the Dominican Sisters Conference (DSC). Associates – women and men who make a non-vowed commitment to Congregations of Dominican Sisters – and other Partners in Mission also played key roles in the Dominican family. Adrian Dominican Associate Nancy Mason Bordley was named the first Director of the Office of the Dominican Charism, helping Associates and other partners in mission to live out the Dominican Charism. During the year, the Congregation celebrated the formal Ritual of Acceptance of four new Associates online in August and three new Associates in Henderson, Nevada, in November. This was the final Ritual of Acceptance presided over by Associate Mary Lach, who retired after 13 years as Director of Associate Life.
Adrian Dominican Sisters and Associates lived out their commitment to justice and peace advocacy in a variety of ways in 2022. Sisters Marilyn Winter, OP, and Patricia McDonald, OP, members of the Lenawee County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, were among four panelists in a human trafficking panel discussion on the continuing prevalence of human trafficking. Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP, Dominican representative to the United Nations, spoke out on her disappointment at the lack of progress in UN Nuclear Disarmament meetings. Sister Donna Markham, OP, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, was among many faith leaders to participate in the White House United We Stand Summit, calling on people in the United States to foster unity and to take a stand against hate-motivated violence. Sister Marilín Llanes, OP, a former member of the Congregation’s Portfolio Advisory Board (PAB), took on the role of Portfolio Manager. She oversees the PAB’s community investments, low-interest loans to organizations that promote social, economic, and environmental justice in local communities.
As the United States reeled under numerous mass shootings and many called for stricter gun laws, Adrian Dominican Sister Judy Byron, OP, Director of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment, took a different approach to stemming gun violence. She was involved in a campaign by faith-based investors to call on gun manufacturer Sturm Ruger to undertake a Human rights risk assessment to determine how their products contribute to gun violence. Sister Judy further discussed this approach during the After Buffalo, After Uvalde Webinar, focusing on recent incidents of gun violence. In the meantime, the General Council of the Adrian Dominican Sisters spoke out several times against the easy access to guns that makes gun violence a more common occurrence. (See more in item 8 below.)
2022 was a year of milestone celebrations for both individuals and organizations. During the year both Sister Mary Arnold Benedetto, OP, and Sister Mary Catharina Bereiter, OP, celebrated their 100th birthday. Sister Carol Coston, OP, founding director, attended the 50th anniversary of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby. Closer to home, 25 Sisters marked their Diamond, Golden, and Silver Jubilees with Mass and dinner at the Motherhouse in June. Sisters marking their 80, 75, and 70 years in religious life were honored at local celebrations. Co-workers at Motherhouse marked a collective 445 years of service with Adrian Dominican Sisters.
The Leadership of the Adrian Dominican Sisters – often in conjunction with other Congregations of Catholic Sisters – voiced their concern in a number of issues and events in 2022. The Leadership Council – comprised of the General Council and the elected Chapter and Mission Prioresses in the Congregation – released a statement calling for the immediate passage of voting rights legislation. The General Council released a number of statements: in defense of the Gospel work of Catholic Charities USA; a call on Ash Wednesday for prayer and fasting for Ukraine; on the mass shooting in Buffalo, as well as support of the Black Sisters Conference and LCWR statements on the Buffalo shooting; and in response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The 2022-2028 General Council joined leaders of Catholic Sisters in Michigan in issuing a statement on the divisiveness of elections. The General Council also issued statements in response to the mass shooting in Colorado Springs and in observance of the UN International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Sponsored institutions of the Adrian Dominican Sisters were involved in a number of ways in furthering the Mission of the Congregation. Rosarian Academy of West Palm Beach, Florida, offered its inaugural Adrian Dominican Sisters Scholarship Awards to students on the basis of merit and need, as well as a focus on diversity. Regina Dominican High School, an all-girls school in Wilmette, Illinois, opened its Building Her Tomorrow campaign to redesign the campus for the benefit of the students. St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center in Flint, Michigan, hosted a summer camp to help elementary school students improve their academics and to enjoy some recreation. Barry University, in Miami, Florida, received $1.25 million to establish Sister O’Laughlin Scholarship, to be given as financial support for students who embody Sister Jeanne’s legacy of academic success and service to the community. Sister Peg Albert, OP, announced her retirement as President of Siena Heights University in Adrian at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year. In addition, Siena Heights named its Science Hall after Sister Sharon R. Weber, OP, PhD, upon her retirement after more than 40 years of service as chemistry professor and Vice President of Academic Affairs. Both universities granted honorary degrees to recognize the dedication of its recipients: Siena Heights University to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ 2016-2022 General Council, and Barry University to outgoing Prioress Patricia Siemen, OP.
Outreach, service, and advocacy for immigrants has long been a value of the Adrian Dominican Sisters. This year, Sister Donna Markham, OP, PhD, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, made plans with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to resettle Ukrainian refugees. Sister Lucy Vazquez, OP, a native of Cuba, wrote an opinion piece for Florida Today on refugee transfers by Texas, noting that this practice treats immigrants as political pawns. Members of the newly merged Catherine of Siena Mission Chapter – made up of the regions in the United States outside of Adrian – expanded on the previous Dominican Midwest Chapter Initiative on Immigration outreach. The new initiative includes not only Chicago-based programs, such as Court Watch in which volunteers attend immigration court to ensure justice for the immigrants and the weekly rosary at a detention center in the Chicago area, but also outreach to immigrants in Tacoma, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona.