Dominican sister says USCCB appointment an honor for her congregation

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) — Sister John Mary Fleming, a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, said she considers it an honor for her congregation that she has been appointed executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“I think what the USCCB is doing is reaching out to a community whose focus and passion is education,” said Sister John Mary, a former principal at St. Henry School in Nashville who currently is completing her second year as principal of St. Dominic School in Bolingbrook, Ill., in the Diocese of Joliet.

Sister John Mary will succeed Marie Powell, who earlier this year announced she will be retiring. Powell has been executive director since July 2007.

The Nashville Dominicans, in their traditional white habit, are one of the fastest growing communities of religious sisters in the country with steady growth since the 1980s. The congregation was founded in 1860 and is dedicated to the apostolate of education.

The sisters operate more than 30 schools in 19 U.S. dioceses and archdioceses as well as in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Archdiocese of Sydney.

“The interest of the USCCB right now is the whole horizon of Catholic education,” encompassing areas of doctrine, the new evangelization, communications, immigration policy and government relations, Sister John Mary said in an interview with the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Nashville Diocese. “It’s a pretty wide spectrum.”

“In our day and age right now, the nucleus of the family touches all of those areas,” she added, and the USCCB’s goal is to serve families by “providing a quality education and a Catholic education.”

One of the main issues facing Catholic education today is maintaining a Catholic identity, Sister John Mary said.

“That’s a very important part of a Catholic environment. We’re not just running a private school,” she said, but bringing the life of Christ to the students.

Paying for Catholic schools is another important issue facing Catholic education, Sister John Mary said. “Funding will always be a big conversation. … How can we make it accessible to more people.”

Other important issues include dealing with immigration and the multicultural aspect of Catholic schools and “providing a quality education in a very competitive environment.”

Part of her new job will be to help represent the U.S. bishops’ “great focus and great interest in Catholic education” to the Catholic community, including the Catholic educational community, which represents colleges and universities as well as high schools and elementary schools, Sister John Mary said.

“The Catholic educational community is very broad. We have a great legacy of Catholic higher education as well as strong elementary schools and high schools,” Sister John Mary said. “We encompass the whole horizon and that allows us to preach the Gospel in each of those venues.”

From 2000 to 2007, Sister John Mary was director of education for her religious congregation. In that role, she helped the congregation’s leaders coordinate the needs of the schools where the Nashville Dominicans teach, working with the school superintendents in the dioceses where those schools are located, and helping the sisters keep their teaching licenses and certification up to date.

During that time, she also served as interim vice president of operations at Aquinas College, Nashville, which is owned and operated by the Nashville Dominicans. The college at that time was transitioning from a two-year college to a four-year college and her task was to help with the restructuring the school’s administration, she said.

She also has been principal of St. Mary’s School in Jackson, Tenn., a member of the board of Aquinas College, and a board member of Providence Academy, Minneapolis. In 2012, she served on the 10-member team to develop a program for the Year of Faith for the Diocese of Joliet.

Sister Fleming holds a licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America, a master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, a master of education degree in educational leadership and supervision from the University of Southern Mississippi, and a bachelor’s degree in education from Belmont University, Nashville.

Sister John Mary grew up in New Lennox, Ill., on the other side of Joliet. As a student at Providence High School in New Lennox, she was introduced to the Nashville Dominicans who staffed the school. “It’s where God introduced me to religious life and he’s been gracious to me ever since,” she said. She joined the St. Cecilia congregation in 1980.

As a principal and educator, Sister John Mary said, she has “learned to respect parents a great deal and their desire for a really good education for their children.”

She’s also learned what a “marvelous environment a Catholic school can be in developing virtue” and helping young people live the gospel and live a good and holy life, she said.

In announcing Sister John Mary’s appointment May 29, Msgr. Jenkins said that 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.”

Sister John Mary said she hopes to begin her new job at the USCCB’s offices in Washington the second week of July.

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— By Andy Telli, managing editor of the Tennessee Register in Nashville.