'That little nun'

Adrian Dominican Sister Sharon Park. Photo: Stephen Brashear Adrian Dominican Sister Sharon Park. Photo: Stephen Brashear
For the better part of four decades, Sister Sharon Park has lobbied in Olympia on behalf of Washington state’s bishops

During a particularly fraught legislative hearing on the Natural Death Act at the state Capitol in Olympia in 1979, things got a little testy. One legislator was so riled by the nuances of the Catholic position on the bill being presented by Dominican Sister Sharon Park that she angrily called out the Catholic lobbyist as “that little nun.” Sister Sharon, the unassuming, 5-foot-4-inch Washington State Catholic Conference staffer, was unfazed. And she good-naturedly took being called “that little nun” by her fellow lobbyists for some time afterwards.

While being publicly berated isn’t a common occurrence for the Dominican, over four decades Sister Sharon has carefully navigated the state Capitol hallways, lobbying on behalf of Washington state’s bishops.

Friends and colleagues describe her as faith-filled, unflappable, erudite and always ready to listen to your side of the issues.

“You’ve got to be able to listen,” Sister Sharon said. “You’ve got to hear the other person. You’ve got to respect the person that may totally disagree with you as much as you respect the person who agrees with you on everything.”

The native Washingtonian, who will retire this fall from her role as executive director of the WSCC, didn’t intend to end up in “political ministry,” as she calls it. All she ever wanted was to be a religious sister.

Sisterly ministry

Sharon Park was born in Tacoma and raised in Seattle, the oldest daughter in a family of three girls and one boy.

Her mother taught civics at St. Alphonsus School — Yakima Bishop Joseph Tyson was one of her students — and her father was a traveling salesman.

Park attended Our Lady of the Lake School before switching to Christ the King in the third grade.

“In first grade, Sister asked who wanted to be a sister. And I raised my hand, and basically I never took it down,” she recalled.

She graduated from Blanchet High School and in 1963 entered the Dominican Sisters of Edmonds (now merged with the Adrian Dominican Sisters of Michigan). Her religious name was Sister John Marion until the Second Vatican Council gave the option for women religious to return to their given names.

Before starting her studies as a Dominican at Seattle University, she had the choice between teaching and nursing. Nursing won out, a decision “for which I am forever grateful,” she said.

Sister Sharon earned her nursing degree in 1969, and went on to work at the Edmonds Dominicans’ hospital in Aberdeen and at the University Washington, taught at Seattle Central College, and provided public health and visiting nurse services, mostly for low-income families.

It was while she was a visiting nurse that Sister Sharon joined the social justice committee of the archdiocesan Sisters’ Council in the mid-1970s. The sisters met regularly to study, discuss and act on social justice issues. Eventually two sisters were chosen to take six months off from their regular jobs and get firsthand experience with the Legislature down in Olympia.

While not originally picked for one of the two spots, Sister Sharon ended up filling in when one sister was unable to go. She and then-Sister of St. Joseph of Peace Margaret Casey headed to Olympia for half a year.

“We learned a lot that time and met a lot of people that way,” she said. “We’d come home and read bills every night.”

The two sisters then lobbied with the newly formed Washington State Catholic Conference, the public policy voice for Washington’s bishops, to split a staff position between the two of them.

“We were so linked as an entity,” Casey said of her and Park’s work with the WSCC. “We trusted each other and we both had a skill set that complemented each other.”

What followed was years of legislative work as the voice of the state’s Catholic bishops, first under Father Harvey MacIntyre, WSCC’s executive director from 1976 until 1987, and then under Ned Dolejsi. They worked closely with the Archdiocese of Seattle, the Diocese of Spokane and the Diocese of Yakima’s Catholic schools offices, Catholic charities providers and other Catholic organizations.

“That makes our agenda probably larger than anybody in their right mind should be doing,” Sister Sharon said.

Sister Sharon Park with archbishop and other WSCC staff
Sister Sharon Park, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and WSCC contract lobbyists Donna Christensen and Tom Parker pose for a photo in the Senate chambers during the archbishop’s first visit to Olympia in 2011. Courtesy WSCC


Action and presence

Sister Sharon describes her work at the WSCC as a two-pronged effort of “bringing the message of truth that we know to the political arena” and a “ministry of presence” to those in and out of the political field.

“What she has really tried to do is to help everybody to become a better legislator and to become better informed regardless of their political affiliation or their stance,” said Yakima’s Bishop Tyson.

“There is no political ideology that fully captures the vision of the Catholic social teaching,” Dolejsi said. That means Catholics can work both sides of the aisle, said Sister Sharon. “There is not a legislator that we do not agree with on something.”

That willingness to see someone else’s perspective extends to all. Holy Names Sister Linda Haydock, who was the executive director of the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center in Seattle for many years before recently becoming her congregation’s leader, worked closely with Sister Sharon.

“We didn’t always agree on a way forward on particular issues, but I always knew that I could count on her to listen,” Sister Linda said. “I consider us friends over the long haul.”

Sister Sharon’s witty sense of humor is another tool she uses to her advantage. “Even in the midst of a sometimes awkward or tense situation she could bring humor or be willing to laugh at herself as well as situations,” Sister Linda said.

Biomedical ethics

After about a decade at the WSCC, Sister Sharon decided to pursue a graduate degree. She initially planned to study economics but switched to biomedical ethics after a staffer in Olympia suggested that her nursing background would pair nicely with that increasingly important area of politics.

“I’m just amazed how God works in our lives,” Sister Sharon said. “That intersection has proved very, very fruitful for me and hopefully for the people I’ve served.”

In 1991 she earned her master’s degree in theological studies with a concentration in biomedical ethics from Seattle University.

She also ended up back at the WSCC. Facing assisted-suicide and abortion initiatives, then-WSCC executive director Dolejsi remembers thinking, “I have to get somebody who knows what they’re doing” on those issues.

That was Sister Sharon. She had the “moral depth” and ability to “apply Catholic moral teaching to a variety of complex issues” along with the medical knowledge needed to understand the intricacies of end-of-life issues.

Another good pairing for Sister Sharon was working with both Casey and Dolejsi. The latter two were more vocal, visible and extroverted while Park describes herself as an “articulate introvert.” She tended to be more reflective, putting in long hours behind the scenes reading and researching.

“Some people just talk,” she said. “For me, if I say something, it’s my conclusion. It’s not my beginning sentence.”

She added, “I pray for the wisdom to say to the people the things that they need to hear and in a way that they can hear it.”

Sister Sharon park speaking at Catholic Advocacy Day
Sister Sharon Park speaks at the 2017 Catholic Advocacy Day in Olympia. Photo: Courtesy IPJC


Taking the top job

Shortly before then-Archbishop Thomas Murphy passed away, in 1997, he asked Sister Sharon to take over as WSCC executive director as Dolejsi left to head up the California Catholic Conference.

“I said, ‘I’m probably not the right person. I think you want somebody that’s more of an extrovert,’” Sister Sharon recalled. “And he said, ‘Try it, you might like it.’ So I said, ‘OK.’”

Archbishop Murphy was right. Those who have worked with her say she’s excelled in the job.

“She knows the Church’s moral and social teachings well and tirelessly upholds the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death,” Archbishop J. Peter Sartain said in an email. “I am always amazed by her encyclopedic memory of complicated legislative matters and bills in their various stages.”

The archbishop has also been known to joke that Sister Sharon is one of the fastest talkers he knows.

“She’s a really intelligent woman but there’s nothing stuffy or unfriendly about her,” said Theresa Ferguson, the WSCC’s office manager.

“I can’t think of any other religious woman I’ve known in the last 30 years who matched her presence, her ability to talk to people and to be that kind of silent, calming leader,” said State Sen. Mark Miloscia (R-Federal Way), a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way, who has known Sister Sharon for more than 25 years.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her upset or flustered at all. I know she’s calmed me down a time or two,” he added.

“She’s very quick on her feet with a comment that just makes you roar with laughter,” said Casey, who also describes her as an “incredibly strong person.”

And she’s a tireless worker. Ferguson said the inside joke is that when Sister Sharon is on vacation she’s just working elsewhere because she often takes files and work reading with her.

“She really truly is an Energizer Bunny,” she said.

That doesn’t mean Sister Sharon doesn’t have her indulgences and downtime. She loves sweets, watching home and garden television, tending to plants at the office and her convent, and watching the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners on TV (there’s not much chance to make it to a game in person).

She tells new WSCC hires that integrity is key to their work. “We say we are Christian and that’s who we are no matter what. I want us to be telling the truth. I want us to be living out our faith.”

“People say you shouldn’t be legislating morality,” she said. “Well, guess what: There’s not a bill that I know of that doesn’t legislate morality. When you say who gets and who doesn’t, that’s moral.”

Rooted in faith

Those who know her say she lives by example.

“It’s not just her being a religious that makes the difference,” Miloscia said. “It’s her being a faithful, practicing, believable, sincere religious that shines through. There’s no doubt that she serves our church and Jesus Christ.”

“It is and it was always evident [that] because Sister Sharon was a woman rooted in prayer and nourished by the Eucharist, she could hold the tensions and the challenges of bringing critical issues into the political arena,” Sister Linda said. “And that’s not any small feat.”

Four decades after she first started her “political ministry,” Sister Sharon’s passion for the work continues.

She points to the WSCC’s “A Guide to Making Good Decisions for the End of Life” and helping craft the state’s bishops’ pastoral letters on the Columbia River and poverty as some of the highlights of her time at the WSCC. She’s also proud of securing ongoing funding for the Volunteer Services program, starting various other anti-poverty programs and launching the state Cornerstone Catholic Conference.

But Sister Sharon can rattle off issues for which she wishes legislation had passed: anti-abortion, more support for homelessness, curbing hunger, providing better child services and foster care, and improving mental health efforts among them.

“People say you shouldn’t be legislating morality,” she said. “Well, guess what: There’s not a bill that I know of that doesn’t legislate morality. When you say who gets and who doesn’t, that’s moral.”

Despite the work she still wishes she could achieve through the WSCC, her own health issues mean she will be retiring after transitioning the new executive director, Joseph Sprague, into the role as of Oct. 2. After that, she plans to focus more on passion projects like the PREPARES program, which supports young families across the state.

“It changes both the recipient and the giver, and sometimes the giver more than the recipient,” Sister Sharon said. “It’s a program that really says poverty and life. And so it puts together two components that people are often divided on.”

She’ll also continue the roles she’s taken on at Assumption Convent in Seattle, helping care for her fellow sisters, gardening and fixing this or that.

Her WSCC role will be a tough one to fill. “It’s really hard to write a job description for someone that’s been here 30-plus years,” Ferguson said.

“She’s been just a giant for us at the Washington State Catholic Conference,” Bishop Tyson added.

“We have a strong and effective Catholic Conference because she could take the visions of the bishops and take that to the Legislature,” Sister Linda said. 

Some local vocations resources

- Serra Club promotes and supports vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Now a worldwide organization, Serra got its start in Seattle in 1935. Visit seattleserra.org.
- Archdiocese of Seattle vocations news, information and photos: seattlevocations.com.
- Be inspired by sisters celebrating 25, 50, 60, 70 and 80 years of religious life: NWCatholic.org/womenjubilarians.

 

Choosing sisterhood

Sister Sharon Park
Photo: Stephen Brashear

Adrian Dominican Sister Sharon Park knew she wanted to be a religious sister since the first grade, when her teacher asked the girls in her class about who wanted to be a sister.

But the numbers of women religious have steadily declined in the last half a century. There were 147,310 women religious in the U.S. in 1950 and only 47,170 in 2016, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Sister Sharon attributes those lower numbers in part to women having more vocation options open to them today and to changing societal values that focus less on helping others and more on the individual.

“[Women] know they can be active and never enter religious life. They can be doing social justice and never enter religious life,” she said. 

However, religious life offers “purpose and goal” and a deep prayer life rooted in community. 

She said that probably the greatest gift that women religious have is “a sense of community and a relationship with God that is fostered in that community.”

“I don’t know of any sister who doesn’t have a relationship with God. That’s really important in our lives,” she said.

Sister Sharon now lives in a local community with 10 other sisters, most of them older than herself, and says, it’s not always easy. But they know they will always have the social, spiritual and communal interaction with each other to rely on.

“I think it’s a special path. Those of us who are in it are grateful for the gifts that we’ve been given,” she said.

Northwest Catholic - July/August 2017

Anna Weaver

Anna Weaver was the multimedia, online and social media editor, and writer for Northwest Catholic from 2013-2018.

Website: annapweaver.com