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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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February 5, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – For years, Sister Leonor Esnard, OP, has been sharing her love for the Montessori teaching method and for children by training with hundreds of educators in the Montessori teaching method. 

The educators are trained in the Montessori Early Childhood Certification Program offered by the Adrian Dominican Montessori Teacher Education Institute (ADMTEI). Sister Leonor has directed the program since 2009.

Developed by Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the Montessori Method encourages young children to study independently and to foster intellectual curiosity and love of learning for its own sake – not for external awards. 

ADMTEI was founded by Sister Anthonita Porta, OP, whom Sister Leonor met while ministering at St. Vincent Ferrer in Cincinnati. Sister Anthonita was completing her studies in Montessori at Xavier University and Sister Leonor often visited her classroom. “I fell in love with Montessori because it was nothing like traditional teaching,” Sister Leonor said. “Xavier had a demonstration class and that’s where Anthonita was in the practicum. She was my mentor.”

The Adrian Dominican Sisters’ General Council in 1971 asked Sister Anthonita to return to the Motherhouse at Adrian and open a Montessori school for children ages 2 ½ to 6 at St. Joseph Academy. Sister Leonor joined Sister Anthonita to work at the St. Joseph Academy and later at ADMTEI. Sister Leonor received her own Montessori credentials through Rosary College, now Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

In her current ministry, Sister Leonor administers the ADMTEI program and is among the program’s nine instructors. Classes are held during weekends and are focused on topics such as the philosophy of Montessori, child development, math curriculum, language curriculum, music curriculum, and classroom management. 

The program includes the academic coursework and a practicum phase, which students can take concurrently or in different years. Sister Leonor supervises the adult students’ practicum, observes them in their classrooms, and offers feedback. Many of the students already teach in a Montessori school and attend the ADMTEI program to get their credentials. 

In addition to her direct ministry with ADMTEI, Sister Leonor travels around the country, giving workshops and talks on the Montessori method, early child development, Montessori education and brain research, development of self-discipline, community building and leadership, and similar topics, often at Montessori schools. In addition, she teaches in summer programs other Montessori teacher education institutes in New England and New York. “I like to be busy and involved,” she said. “I get so much energy out of it.” 

Sister Leonor said that the majority of ADMTEI students are women, many of whom have chosen to be Montessori teachers after working in other fields. “My hope is that we will continue to empower the women, which is what we do, to help them believe in themselves and to be competent, and to be able then to be the best that they can be for the children,” she explained.

“This journey is transformative,” Sister Leonor said. At the end of the year, in May, the students have a chance to articulate their experience. “Everyone says something similar about the positive changes that have occurred [within themselves] and the building of community for each particular class. They love the spiritual atmosphere, and that is one of the elements that attracts students to come here from different races, ethnic backgrounds, and religions.” 

Sister Leonor said many of the ADMTEI students “are intuitively Montessorians. … They have this harmony with the philosophy whether they know it or not.” The core tenet of the Montessori philosophy is “respect for the children, the teachers, the environment, the animals and plants,” Sister Leonor explained. “There’s a reverence we bring.” Montessori schools provide furniture that fits the size of the children, who are encouraged to work independently, with another student, or in groups. “We afford the children freedom, but freedom with responsibility – no license.” 

Children who spend their early years in Montessori do well in traditional classroom settings because of their grounding in intellectual curiosity and freedom and their self-confidence. “The students who go to Montessori are not necessarily smarter but they have a certain curiosity, creativity, and love of learning,” Sister Leonor explained. “They become independent problem-solvers.”

Sister Leonor speaks well of the Montessori teachers who inspire these children. “It takes a great deal of energy and time and effort to be a Montessori teacher,” she said. “There has to be a deep sense of commitment in order to be the kind of teacher that is going to inspire children, that is going to help them learn.”

ADMTEI is taking applications for its 2018-2019 academic year, which will begin on Friday, August 24, 2018. Information can be found on the website,

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January 23, 2018, Milwaukee, Wisconsin – In the past year, School Sisters of St. Francis and Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi (Lake Franciscans) have been fired up for justice and peace advocacy in such areas as human trafficking, immigration reform, and peace. Encouraging them in their advocacy, is Adrian Dominican Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP.

In June 2016, Sister Durstyne moved to Milwaukee as the justice coordinator for the School Sisters. Since then, she has taken on service one day per week as consultant and animator for the justice work of the Lake Franciscans. Sister Durstyne convenes the quarterly justice committees for both communities, works with the sub-committees, helps the Sisters to establish annual goals and objectives, and helps to organize the various justice and peace actions and presentations of the two Franciscan communities. 

Some of the peace and justice activities coordinated by Sister Durstyne in the past year-and-a-half have included:

  • A phone call campaign among the Lake Franciscans in which the Sisters continue to call their representatives in support of a just and humane immigration reform.
  • Donations of homemade and store-bought snacks by Sisters of both communities for young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients for their journey to a demonstration in Washington, D.C. 
  • A trip by two busloads of Sisters to Janesville, Wisconsin, for the arrival of NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus.
  • Sunday morning presentations – between Mass and lunch – on issues such as human trafficking.
Sister Simone Campbell, director of NETWORK, meets the School Sisters of St. Francis during a Nuns on the Bus event in Janesville, Wisconsin. Sister Simone is in the middle row, third from the right. Standing behind her, looking over her shoulder, is Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP.

Sister Durstyne said she enjoys working with the Sisters, and is thrilled by their responses to justice and peace work. “Getting people to make a difference is really so empowering for them,” she said. “For most of them, this is the first time they’ve ever done anything like this.” The Sisters, who are now retired, hadn’t participated in advocacy work, often because of the hectic schedule of their full-time ministries.

Sister Durstyne sees her role as facilitating the Sisters’ desire to remain active and engaged in justice and peace work – supplying them with the information and resources they need. “Once they get the directions, they can go forward,” she said. “My role is to facilitate and animate people. I help get a lot of background [information] for them, but they make the decisions.”

Both congregations have made a difference in Milwaukee for well over a century, Sister Durstyne noted. 

Part of her ministry has involved learning about the issues that Milwaukee faces. Although Milwaukee faces the same issues as the people of Adrian, Michigan, “in Milwaukee, the issues are compounded by size,” she explained. Along with racism, poverty, and immigration reform, the people of Milwaukee face the need for transportation for people who strive to get out of poverty by finding high-paying jobs – which are often an hour’s drive away from Milwaukee; the high re-incarceration rate of former prisoners; and human trafficking, which is prevalent in Milwaukee. 

School Sisters of St. Francis participate in Circle the City with Love.

A clinical social worker by training, Sister Durstyne advocated for adults with severe mental illness and then served for six years in Ghana and Kenya, Africa. When she returned to the United States in 1996, the General Council was seeking a new justice and peace coordinator for the Adrian Dominican Congregation. “It was a position I had to grow into because I didn’t have a lot of experience with multiple issues,” Sister Durstyne said. In this new ministry, she said, she has gained a global perspective and has become involved with Dominican Friars and Sisters worldwide through her work as a North American Justice Promoter for the Dominicans. 

Although she is frequently challenged by the difficulty that constituents sometimes face in contacting their legislators, Sister Durstyne enjoys working with the Sisters in the Franciscan communities as they advocate for justice. “My role is to help facilitate their desire to stay involved,” she said. “It makes me happy when I see them getting involved.”



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