WASHINGTON — Sister John Mary Fleming, a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., was named this week the executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
The education office assists the bishops’ efforts to address a host of urgent matters, from the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae to resolving parochial school-funding shortfalls.
Sister John Mary currently serves as the principal of St. Dominic School in Bolingbrook, Ill., one of the order’s 34 schools in 18 dioceses. Among the fastest-growing Catholic teaching orders in the nation, with 275 members, the Nashville Dominicans are noted for their unapologetic commitment to the New Evangelization.
“The bishops are invested in Catholic education from the university level down,” Sister John Mary said in an interview following the May 29 announcement of her appointment. “They view Catholic education as a great support to families and parish communities and want to assist that mission, while recognizing challenges in funding, identity and immigration.”
“The bishops have a great hope for education in this country,” she noted, expressing her desire “to articulate this hope, to foster it and make it more present to the Catholic community.”
Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, the U.S. bishops’ general secretary, voiced his gratitude to the Nashville Dominicans “for allowing her to accept this appointment.”
“Both she and her religious community have shown a commitment to Catholic education that resonates with our conference and which has been a hallmark of the Catholic Church in this country,” said Father Jenkins in a statement released by the conference.
Over the past 12 years, Sister John Mary served in a number of posts, including as director of education for her congregation, interim vice president of operations and board member at Aquinas College in Nashville, and supervisor of the $46-million construction project for the order’s motherhouse.
“The USCCB had contacted Mother Ann Marie Karlovic about a possible candidate. We are a teaching congregation, and they were interested in that witness and identity,” said Sister John Mary, who joined a number of candidates for a full interview process.
Assisting the Bishops
The Congregation of St. Cecilia was founded in 1860, when Nashville Bishop James Whelan requested that the congregation open a school in his diocese. Sister John Mary described its charism as “one that brings the message of the Gospel through teaching and preaching.”
In their K-12 schools and at the university level, she said, “the focus is on preaching Christ, from the vantage point of living a life of virtue. The truth of Christ is present in all the different disciplines. It is a very positive and Christ-centered approach to learning.”
She applauded the U.S. bishops’ campaign to oppose the federal rule mandating contraception, sterilization and abortion drugs in private employee health plans as a pivotal teaching moment for Catholic educators and their students.
“It is wonderful to see the bishops speaking with a single voice, getting that message out to us and involving us in this conversation about religious liberty and the effects this issue will have on us now and in the future,” she said.
Catholic education, she added, can help educate the next generation of citizens about the importance of securing religious liberty.
Sister John Mary holds a licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America and advanced degrees in theology and educational leadership and supervision.
While individual members of the congregation earn degrees in a variety of academic disciplines, she noted that each “strives to help our students know that Christ is very much a part of our life. You can’t love what you don’t know.”
Marie Powell, the present executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education, who will step down this summer, explained that the post involved staffing the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education, which includes nine bishops and additional consultants.
“The role is to assist the bishops in choosing priorities and implementing their plans,” said Powell, whose list of priority items includes a number of hot-button issues.
Ex Corde Report
One committee responsibility is overseeing the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II’s exhortation on Catholic identity in higher education. Powell noted that the committee was in the final stage of compiling a report on nationwide consultations between bishops and Catholic university presidents. That report awaits a final review by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the USCCB president, before it will be released to the public.
Last year, committee members joined diocesan school superintendents and staff from the National Catholic Education Association for a meeting in Chicago that addressed the thorny problem of financing Catholic parochial schools.
The meeting, Powell reported, “brought in diocesan fiscal managers to hear about some innovative ways schools were being funded.”
Powell has also been engaged in a study of how Catholic schools can attract more Hispanic students — a reminder that tuition increases have made it tough for many Hispanic families to enroll their children in parochial schools, and thus making it difficult to repeat the pattern of social and economic advancement open to previous immigrant groups.
Over the past decade, demographic decline in the Northeast has paved the way for massive school closings, marking the emergence of regional schools. But dioceses in the South have witnessed a pronounced growth in student numbers.
The Nashville Dominicans have participated in that growth. Thus, while Sister John Mary acknowledges the need for fresh approaches to Catholic school funding, she also stresses the diversity of current trends.
“There needs to be a concerted effort to try to come up with something more viable in the near future, and that challenge will take the involvement of the whole Catholic community,” she predicted.
“But while schools are closing in one part of the country, elsewhere they are building and re-establishing parish schools. There is still lots of support for Catholic schools” from private donors.
Sister John Mary has worked in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., to help plan for the Year of Faith, which begins this October. And in her new post, she will guide an effort to identify ways that U.S. Catholic schools might celebrate this period.
In March, Pope Benedict, announced an upcoming Year of Faith inextricably connected to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In Porta Fidei, the motu proprio in which the Pope announced the special year, Benedict asks us “to hold up the beauty of the Catechism, the [Second Vatican] Council and the Creed. These three realities have been a gift to us, and any materials put before our students” should manifest this, noted Sister John Mary.
Like most Nashville Dominicans, Sister John Mary has spent a great deal of time in the classroom. But she has also developed expertise in management and brick-and-mortar issues, serving in a number of administration roles, including the restructuring of Aquinas College from a two year to a four year undergraduate program.
Dominican Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, the president of Aquinas College, told the Register that Sister John Mary was valued as “a gifted, versatile person who is able to take on almost any task with great competency and bring it to completion. She is well prepared for this position.”
Sister Mary Sarah suggested that the congregation’s charism and traditions would serve the U.S. bishops’ appointee well.
The Nashville Dominicans, she said, “have been in the same business for 150 years. There is some sort of a gift that each is given in a way that is excellent. The face of Catholic education is changing, and we are pricing ourselves out. Something has to change, and when you are steeped in a tradition, that gives you confidence to do something bold.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor,