In his 1995 “Letter to Women,” Pope Saint John Paul II applauded the roles of women in society, at home, and in religious life, and told them that through their unique insight, they “enrich the world's understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.”

During the month of March, people around the United States celebrate Women’s History Month and reflect on the ways women have contributed to our country. To commemorate this month, the Catholic Standard spoke to several women in leadership roles in the Archdiocese of Washington about their roles as women of faith in the workplace and at home.

Family as ‘Catholic foundation’

As a young girl, Sandra Coles-Bell would attend novena prayer groups with her grandmother, and she remembers asking her grandmother, “What is all of that about?” But before long, after observing her grandmother’s reverent prayer, she “learned to listen and understand there is a power in this,” she said.

Coles-Bell, who noted that she comes “from a long line of African American Catholics,” said she looks to her grandmother as a role model of faith.

“She was a quiet woman, but [was] very strong,” she said. “She prayed a lot.”

Coles-Bell, who is now the program director for the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach at the Archdiocese of Washington, later raised her own three children, and said, “to be their Catholic foundation is a very unique role, not only as a mother, but as a friend, as someone who accompanies them and answers questions for them.”

Coles-Bell began working for the archdiocese after spending her entire career working in the health science field, specializing in blood banking. She worked at the National Institutes of Health for seven years, where she prepared to transfuse blood by making sure it would be compatible with the person receiving it. After leaving NIH, Coles-Bell worked at Children’s National Health System, and while working for them ran two pediatric clinics in low-income neighborhoods in Washington, serving the African American and Hispanic communities. From there, she went on to run HealthChoice in Baltimore, which is the Medicaid program for Maryland.

“What ended up leading me here (to the archdiocese)…I think it was God’s calling,” she said. “…This has been the amalgamation of all my previous experiences.”

Like Coles-Bell, Jem Sullivan’s family had a large impact on her faith and her desire to serve the Church. In Sullivan’s family, being involved in ministry at their parish was always important, and her parents were “constantly doing something” there, she said. Sullivan also attended Catholic schools her entire life – from kindergarten through receiving her Ph.D. at The Catholic University of America.

With this foundation, Sullivan said she sees her current job as the secretary for education for the Archdiocese of Washington, “not so much working for the Church” as “serving a mission.” In this role, she helps oversee a system of 93 Catholic schools and 127 parish religious education programs in the archdiocese.

“It came out of my family members giving of themselves to the life and mission of the Church,” she added.

Mary O’Meara, the executive director of the Department of Special Needs Ministries for the Archdiocese of Washington, was originally motivated to serve Deaf persons after growing up with her father, who lost his hearing on D-Day.

“Although he never learned sign language, that was always a presence in our lives,” she said.

After graduating from Gallaudet University in Washington with a master’s degree in linguistics and interpreting, O’Meara went on to work for Montgomery County Schools. When her oldest son was born, she decided to stay home with him during the day and work as an interpreter during the night, which she continued to do after she had three more children.

This decision of what to do about work after having a child is one that many women grapple with, and O’Meara said, “I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer.” But after evaluating childcare costs, “for me it made sense and gave me the ability to be present with my kids,” she said.

Sara Blauvelt, the archdiocese’s director for catechesis, made the same decision while raising her three children. She left her job working as a financial advisor at Electronic Data Systems, a company owned by General Motors, and stayed at home with her kids.

While they were focusing on raising their children, both Blauvelt and O’Meara began filling roles in their parishes that later led them to their work for archdiocese.

O’Meara worked in the evenings as a sign language interpreter at the University of Maryland and at her home parish of Holy Redeemer in College Park. Before long, other parishes also desired to have interpreters, and Father Jerry Trancone from the Catholic Deaf Center asked O’Meara to coordinate them.

That marked the beginning of her current role, which has grown over the past 20 years. As the executive director of special needs ministries, she oversees the department that helps Catholics who have disabilities access their faith by providing supports, education, resources and connections to community partners. Through their programs, the department seeks to allow people with special needs to participate fully in their parish and communities.

“Each day I have the honor and privilege to support persons who are Deaf, or those with disabilities, [to] find their way to be full and active participants in the Body of Christ,” she said.

When one of Blauvelt’s daughters was about to begin first grade, her family’s parish, St. Patrick’s in Rockville, needed a first grade catechist. A woman who had been a catechist for several years offered to mentor Blauvelt if she decided to step into the role, so she did.

Blauvelt grew to love being a catechist, and found beauty in teaching different age groups.

“When you would say to first grade students, ‘God loves you,’ they would say, ‘I know,’” she recalled. “There was something tremendous about that in a world that doesn’t eagerly say that.”

Then, when she moved to teach older students, she found that they were all “trying to figure out how faith and life go together,” which led to them asking a lot of questions. When she said, “God loves you” to that group, “half of the time they would say, ‘Why?’” she recalled, adding that the “initial impetus to accept love, the culture had hardened.”

After serving as a catechist for five years, Blauvelt was offered a part-time support staff position in the parish’s religious education program, and later became a full-time administrative assistant at the parish.

Eventually Msgr. Kevin Hart, who was then the pastor of her parish, asked her to become the director of religious education and told her that he would support her in getting a master’s degree in catechesis from The Catholic University of America. She completed that degree and began working toward her doctorate., but took her current job as the director for catechesis in the Archdiocese of Washington before completing it.

Now, Blauvelt oversees faith formation for people of all ages in the archdiocese, which includes the Rite of Election for people who are entering the Church at Easter, children’s catechesis, religious formation at Catholic schools, and the “Living Catholic” program for staff of the archdiocese.

Blauvelt said her job is different every day, and she enjoys the variety and the challenge “to think about new ways to represent an eternal Truth.”

Womanhood as a prism

Even after she went back to work full-time, O’Meara said her family remained her first and primary vocation. Her role as a mother also contributed to the perspective with which O’Meara approaches her current job, and she said her experience as a mother has taught her lessons that were also applicable to ministry, which “truly asks us to accompany families.”

As a mother, “you live and learn how to build bridges between personalities every hour of every day,” she said.

In her work, O’Meara said it is important to “come into a relationship of understanding” with the people she is serving and to listen to their life experience before talking about how to engage them in active participation in the Church. 

O’Meara said she feels that “in many situations, womanhood is a prism,” that allows her and other women to look at different circumstances through different lenses, finding the solutions that works best for the unique person whom she is speaking to, because there is no “cookie cutter” response to a family’s needs.

“Each person, each family, has a unique set of circumstances,” she said.

In addition to this form of accompaniment, O’Meara said, “Women have a distinct ability to unite people within our culture that seems to be swaying far to the side of creating division.”

“We seek to find the shared or common experience among people as a basis to create a sense of community,” she continued. “As our secular culture highlights all the ways we disagree, women have an inherent desire to unite…to encourage persons to not only dialogue with one another – but to practice deep listening, to allow space and time for each of us to become mutually transformed by experiencing the story of the other.”

Coles-Bell described doing similar work as the program director for the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach. She plans programs and events for the archdiocese, such as the annual Black Catholic History Month Mass, but perhaps most importantly, she said, “what I’ve come to learn I offer is an ear (to listen), a heart to offer space for people to come together in cultural communities, a space to plan liturgies, and a space to feel comfortable and protected.”

Women are particularly influential in archdiocesan Catholic schools, as they make up about 75 percent of the staff. Sullivan said she believed this might be the case because, while men also make good teachers, “there is an element of nurturing” in the role that women are naturally drawn to.

“Women contribute in numbers, but also in quality,” said Sullivan. “Particularly in education, women have a huge role to play as principals and teachers.”

Blauvelt reflected on the importance of having women leaders in the Church by focusing on the important role that women play in the family, which she called the smallest unit of the community of faith. Just as the richness of the family is lived out when there is a husband and a wife, in the Church it is “important to have male and female leadership,” she said, noting that they each bring “complementing gifts to the flourishing of society.”

“We’re the richest when everyone is represented in the family,” she said.

Opportunity to ‘craft the dialogue’

In recent months, much of the dialogue about women in society has centered upon the many women who have come forward with stories of sexual harassment they have faced, particularly in the workplace. Many women were inspired by these accounts to post their own stories on social media, using #MeToo.

Coles-Bell said she felt Catholic women had the opportunity to help drive the conversation around the #MeToo movement “by helping to crack the language that is comfortable.”

“What women leaders in the Church can bring…if we raise [the issue] and we talk, we will be able to help craft the conversation,” she said.

With this issue, just like with racial dialogue, people often avoid discussing the difficult topic because they are uncomfortable or do not know what is appropriate to say, while in reality, not saying anything perpetuates the problem, she explained.

“We need to be able to craft the dialogue that is going to be open and healing for us all,” she said. “…Unless we talk about these things and get to a space of being open…we’ll fear it rather than understanding it and moving forward.”

Sullivan said an important contribution the Church can make to this dialogue is its belief, “everyone is worthy of respect and dignity because we are made in the image and likeness of God. We are not just biological accidents.”

Likewise, Blauvelt said, “The Church’s teaching on our dignity as children of God can become a balm to soothe the deep wounds inflicted on women throughout the world.”

When the Catholic Standard asked about other issues facing women that the Church could help with, domestic violence was a recurring response.

O’Meara said she felt that when the Church receives applications for annulments that describe domestic abuse, “We should be far more proactive in reaching out to say, ‘You are a loved child of God.’” Doing so would make women “feel embraced during a time they feel isolated,” she said.

One idea in particular she had was that upon receiving such a report, the Church could ask the woman if she would like to be connected with another woman mentor who had been through the same experience before. Since a man cannot do this type of ministry due to the women’s past circumstances, O’Meara said it could be an important opportunity for women to step up.

“If there was someone who could walk through that with them that is a woman, that would make the process much more pastoral,” she said. In doing so, the women could serve in a role that Pope Francis has emphasized for the Church, to “become that field hospital for those hurting and feeling alone,” she added.

In times of joy and in times of crisis, women of faith have the opportunity to use their unique gifts to minister to each other, as well as to their families and wider communities. Coles-Bell, remembering her grandmother and other Catholic women who have inspired her during her life, said, “There is something about being in the company of Catholic women that is very nourishing.”

“I think it is my duty, my responsibility, to be one of those women,” she said.