By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 26, 2012
Cathy Perry teaches international humanitarian groups leadership skills and talks about team building to national organizations.
Twice a month, she gathers as part of the associates program with the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa in Atlanta, along with some 20 other women.
“I had never been in a company of powerful women who were so deeply committed to social justice. I just thought that was amazing,” said Perry, 56, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta.
Kerry McGrath works as an immigration lawyer, serving clients like an orphaned teenage facing deportation.
“It’s been sustaining me through my life as a public interest lawyer,” she said about her 20-year involvement with the Dominican sisters.
There are a dozen women who are Dominican Associates here. At the sisters’ home on Penn Avenue, they pray with the sisters, they study the congregation’s heritage, they march at vigils against the death penalty together and stand together on other social justice issues. They participate without actually becoming members of the religious congregation.
As the Atlanta Archdiocese marks Vocations Awareness Week, the relationship between the laity and religious communities is evolving. These programs for associates are a growing way for the laity to learn and participate in the spiritual heritage of the church. Leaders with the North American Conference of Associates and Religious recently estimated there are some 50,000 lay associates, both men and women, aligned with religious communities, even as professed religious have declined in number.
The Dominican Associates in Atlanta are women who are attracted to the values of the Sinsinawa Dominicans and want to live those values. The Sinsinawa Dominicans participate, passing on the congregation’s commitment to social justice and lived example of Gospel values. Among the sisters living in the Penn Avenue community are Sister Marie Sullivan, Sister Patty Caraher, Sister Liz Sully and Sister Nora Ryan. Laura Simons, a Dominican volunteer working with refugees at Catholic Charities Atlanta, also lives with the sisters.
Associates study for a year or two the Dominican charism, the mission and the history of the community. Associates can make a three-year commitment, which can be renewed. The program started in 1985.
Perry said she feels a call to participate in relationship with a religious congregation. It’s drawn her into a community that has deepened her prayer life.
“I appreciate how it’s continuous. It’s just woven into the day,” she said about praying.
Perry joined five years ago. She was motivated after offering leadership training at the International Community School, Stone Mountain, where more than half of the nearly 400 students are refugees from war-torn countries. One of its founders is Sister Patty Caraher. Perry said the sister invited her to the group’s gathering.
“They believe there is a mission, a shared vision for the order with the laity as members and shared leadership,” she said. “These women are preachers, in every sense of the word.”
For McGrath, 52, the Dominican charism is part of her life as an attorney, influencing her decisions on which clients she takes, what she charges people, and other situations that come up in running her own law practice.
“I try to quietly integrate the charism into my life,” she said.
She was introduced to the community when she joined the sisters for an evening of prayer many years ago.
“It’s a place to grow in my faith and to share questions about how to apply my faith in my life,” she said.
Karla Ruggiero, 40, a fundraiser for the Arthritis Foundation, has grown up aware of the Sinsinawa Dominicans, who started the Chicago high school she attended and the college where she graduated. While she was introduced to the local community more than 16 years ago, she’s only been an associate for the past three. She plans on recommitting to the Dominicans by repeating the promises “to take on the mission of who they are.”
Ruggiero, who attends Holy Cross Church, Atlanta, said the group shares “hard conversations” about faith and how it’s lived.
“They’ve really had me examine my relationship with God and the Catholic Church and poked holes, in a good way,” she said, pulling her into a deeper faith.
“They keep me in check with my life,” she said.