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March 2, 2022, St. Louis, Missouri – Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP, PhD, has made a home for herself as Associate Professor of Theology and Preaching at the Dominican graduate school, Aquinas Institute of Theology. Her wide-ranging ministry involves teaching at the master’s and doctorate level; teaching deacon candidates from the Diocese of Tallahassee-Pensacola, Florida; working with doctoral candidates on their thesis projects; serving as a reader for master’s level theses; and working on committees.

Sister Sara has been teaching at Aquinas for four years but experienced the college earlier as a master’s student. Since then, she earned her PhD at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, and taught for 20 years at Barry University in Miami – sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters – before returning to Aquinas. 

As Associate Professor of Theology, Sister Sara teaches a number of courses, including Foundations of Preaching, Ecclesiology, Christology, Theology of Preaching, and Core Homiletic Seminars. She also teaches one-credit courses for the Diaconate Program. 

Much of Sister Sara’s time is spent in the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Preaching Program, directed by Father Gregory Heille, OP, DMin. The two work closely with the doctoral candidates, teaching the courses – often team-teaching – and dividing the thesis projects. They guide the doctoral students through the process of writing the proposal, defending it, and writing it.

The current 47 DMin students are unique and diverse. Many are seasoned ministers – Catholic priests and deacons, Protestant minsters, lay women, and lay ecclesial ministers, Sister Sara said. Because of their full-time ministries, the DMin students typically take online courses, often with a week in residence at Aquinas. 

“Right now, we have 25 who are actively in course with us and a number that are at a different phase,” Sister Sara explained. DMin students at Aquinas are required to take two courses at a different institution on topics related to their thesis project, such as psychology, human development, racism or feminism, she said.

Sister Sara finds diversity not only in the programs she ministers in but in the types of courses she teaches. “When you’re teaching systematic theology, it’s a lot of theoretical research to prepare for the classes,” she explained. “When you’re teaching preaching, you are more involved in teaching effective homiletical practices and coaching students to learn by doing.”

Still, she added, preaching requires solid, practical theology. “Good theology does strengthen your preaching, but it has to be more than theology,” she said. “It’s knowing Scripture and theology but also knowing your audience and trying to connect the Gospel message to people’s lives.” 

Through it all, Sister Sara brings her love for God, her students, the Dominican family, and learning. “I really enjoy the students,” she said. She finds joy in “working with committed ministers who want to know more about the faith so they can give it to others. I love working with preachers in making their preaching more effective and more alive and connected to people’s lives. …I love the process, both at the doctorate and the master’s level, and I really enjoy directing all these theses because I learn so much from them.”

Although her ministry is demanding and varied, Sister Sara leads a balanced life. She lives in an apartment building shared by six Sisters of Mercy, who form community with her. Every Sunday they have prayer and dinner together. Also, on Sundays, her day off, she typically spends a couple of hours at Forest Park in St. Louis.

Sister Sara was drawn to theology through her love for God. She fell in love with God before entering the Adrian Dominican Congregation. “I wanted to develop my relationship with God, and studying theology is part of that for me, but I’m also a teacher by temperament,” she said. She had served in other ministries – campus ministry, elementary education, and social work, as well as vocations ministry for the Adrian Dominican Sisters. “But I knew that teaching really is what I enjoy doing and what I have the gifts and talents to do.”

She encouraged others who are considering a call to listen to their hearts. “Love what you do,” she said. “If you love what you do, you’ll do it well. It’ll nurture you and renew you.”

For her part, Sister Sara has found a good sense of community at Aquinas Institute. “There’s a good morale in terms of faculty and staff getting along well and working together,” she said. “If you enjoy learning, it’s fun to be part of a learning community and to support students in their educational development.” Through my ministry at Aquinas, I continue to challenge our Church to recognize the importance of the role of women in every aspect of Church life and ministry, including every dimension of the Church’s preaching ministry.

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March 27, 2020, San Rafael, California – At Dominican University of California, professional faculty members are not the only people who teach students and influence their lives. Sister Mary Soher, OP, as Director of Campus Ministry, and student leaders help the entire university community to understand the ideals of the Dominican Order, reach out to people in need, and become involved in social justice issues.

“I work with our student leaders to help our university community embrace and embody the Dominican ideals of study, reflection, community, and service,” Sister Mary said. “I’m learning how to advise and empower them so that they continue to grow as leaders in developing a variety of skills, amidst all their other responsibilities. I’m learning how to best support them and then together offering quality programming to their peers and to the university.”

An Adrian Dominican Sister, she is in her fourth year of service at Dominican University of California, sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael.

Sister Mary and her team of students work to make members of the campus community aware of issues such as homelessness and hunger; coordinate Sunday liturgies, labyrinth walks, retreats, and a variety of activities; and support students in their challenges.

Dominican University of California students examine the produce available to them through the University’s Penguin Pantry. Photo Courtesy of SF-Marin Food Bank

An ongoing project of Sister Mary and the student leaders is the Penguin Pantry, initiated in September 2018 that once a week offers students with a selection of produce, starches, protein, juices, and snacks from the SF-Marin Food Bank. “It’s totally run by students for the students and it’s become an opportunity for internships and capstone projects,” Sister Mary said. The students are now working with the food pantry’s government affairs manager, becoming involved in advocacy work.

Student leaders are also active in making their fellow students aware of the issue of homelessness. Sister Mary said, the student leaders recently collaborated with a local group that provides outreach to homeless youth to offer the students the opportunity to participate in a solidarity sleep-out. 

“We sleep on the plaza using cardboard boxes and sleeping bags for protection,” she explained. The students do have some comforts – the availability of rest rooms and the knowledge that they can go back to their homes if they get too cold. Despite these advantages, Sister Mary said, the experience is one of solidarity with people who are homeless. “It’s being willing to experience for a night what other people have no choice but to experience,” she said.

Sister Mary also led an Alternative Spring Break that brought 10 students to the San Diego-Tijuana border to learn about immigration issues. During the March 7-14, 2020, trip, the students spent three days on each side of the border, learning about the issues and hearing from people who minister to immigrants – as well as from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

Sister Mary’s ministry also involves supporting the students in their challenges. She pointed to financial insecurity as a major issue for many students. “There’s a lot of pressure that I think they put on themselves because many are first-generation in their family to go to college,” she explained. “They feel they have to be perfect.” Many also feel pressured by the idea of repaying student loans and feel the responsibility to be present to their family members at home.

Sister Mary Soher, OP, center, cuts the ribbon in September 2018 for the new Penguin Pantry at Dominican University of California. Photo Courtesy of SF-Marin Food Bank

Her work with the students is enhanced by the University community itself, which offers a supportive environment to the students, helping them deal with self-doubts and pressures. “The University is really trying to build a support system to help each student,” she said. 

Sister Mary has learned a great deal from her ministry at Dominican University of California, such as developing her listening skills. In addition, she said, she has benefited from her service on the Board of Trustees of Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. “I’m looking at higher education from the perspective of a board member and a member of the Congregation that founded it,” she said. “I see higher education from both ends,” both as a staff member and as a board member who must be concerned about the “hands-on experience of the daily operations of a university.”

Sister Mary said her years of serving in campus ministry have taught her to be present to the students in various activities. “I really believe in the ministry of presence – going to the sport events, the theater events, the academic presentations and being visible so that if a student needs someone to talk to they find me approachable,” she said. “Students come to college, some knowing exactly what they want to do and some not having a clue, and to be one other person to help reflect back to them what’s going on in their life is a humbling and an exciting ministry.”

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October 29, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – In 26 years of mission work in three countries, Sister Maurine Barzantni has experienced a variety of cultures, languages, and life situations. But in all of those situations, she found people who struggled for a better life for their children and who showed incredible generosity and hospitality to visitors.

Sister Maurine’s service in the missions began in 1990 in the Dominican Republic, where she and the late Sister Renee Richie, OP, worked for 10 years with the people of Sección San José de Arroyo Hondo. The Sisters worked with the people of this small barrio, or village, listening to their needs and helping them to fulfill those needs. 

Celebrating the 25th anniversary in September 2019 of Fe y Alegría Espiritu Santo School in the Dominican Republic are, from left, Sisters Basilia De la Cruz, OP; Mary Ann Caulfield, OP, Chapter Prioress; Maria Eneida Santiago, OP; Neri (Luchy) Sori, OP; and Maurine Barzantni, OP.

During that time, the people were able to establish a health clinic, pharmacy, and school. Espiritu Santo School, part of Fe y Alegría, a Jesuit system of schools, grew from a few children learning under a tree to a school of 1,500 students from kindergarten through high school. Espiritu Santo recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. 

“I think of my experience in the Dominican Republic as a community organizing venture, and out of that community organizing came health services and then the school,” Sister Maurine said. “We never dreamt of starting a school. It came out of the development of the community.” 

After leaving the Dominican Republic in 2010, Sisters Maurine and Renee – along with Sisters Kathryn Cliatt, OP, and Christa Marsik, OP – began their ministry at St. Clare Girls’ Centre in Meru, Kenya. The orphanage takes in girls who have been orphaned and those who seek safety from dangers such as being sold as child brides.

“The community made a commitment of four Sisters for three years to be grandmothers to 250 orphaned girls,” Sister Maurine said. Each of the Sisters also offered her own focus. Sister Maurine offered the girls the opportunity to do painting and drawing. “It started out being just an invitation, but the teachers asked that it be part of the curriculum,” she said.

From 2013 to 2016, Sisters Maurine and Renee were invited to serve in Northern British Columbia, Canada, to offer their presence to indigenous people, members of the Carrier Nation, on four reservations. They served as pastoral assistants to Father Fran Salmon, OMI, Pastor of Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Fort St. James. 

Sister Maurine speaks with a woman from the First Nation community in Northern British Columbia, circa 2015.

“The Carrier Nation not only survived, but had a vibrant community because they worked together,” Sister Maurine recalled. “They didn’t lose their traditional values and traditional way of life. They taught their children how to fish, hunt, trap, and prepare food for the winter season. They preserved their Carrier language and all that kept them united as a community.”

Sister Maurine said she has seen a similar spirit wherever she has ministered. “People who struggle for survival have incredible skills for living together, building solidarity in a community, because they need each other to survive,” she said. “People who struggle for survival also have a deep trust in the presence of the Divine.”

Sister Maurine also recalled the “generous hospitality” that she found in every place where she ministered. She gave the example of the Dominican Republic, where the small community was often visited by high school, college, and medical groups. “The people who had nothing, living in small, small houses without any conveniences, would welcome the visitors with big smiles and would say to us, ‘How is it that they would want to visit us?’ They felt that the presence of visitors was a gift to them.”

She acknowledged the challenges inherent in missionary work – differences in language and “accustoming oneself to a whole different environment.” Still, Sister Maurine said she loved every place she served. “Just the welcoming by the people and the appreciation and willingness of the people to really work for and struggle for a better life for their children” brought her joy, she said.

Her involvement in missionary work always came through an invitation, Sister Maurine said. “Invitation is the strongest vehicle for a calling,” she said. “We call it a vocation in the religious community, but a vocation is a calling. From my earliest years, I was always drawn to the poorest communities,” even in the U.S. cities, she said.

Sister Maurine has advice for anyone who is interested in serving in the missions. “Just say ‘yes’ and be very patient with yourself. Be present. Don’t try to do anything. The people will tell you what they need and sometimes you can help them achieve those goals – and sometimes you can’t. Even if you can’t, your presence is still valuable.”

Feature photo (top): From left, Sisters Kathryn Cliatt, OP, Maurine Barzantni, OP, the late Renee Richie, OP, and Christa Marsik, OP, at their home in Meru, Kenya, circa 2010.



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