Prep educator on commission advancing women in Jesuit mission

FAIRFIELD — Dr. Donna Andrade, dean of mission and ministry at Fairfield College Preparatory School, has advanced the Jesuit mission of social justice throughout her 42 years at the school, and she was recently named to an international commission that will assess the role and responsibilities of women in Jesuit apostolates around the world.

She is representing women in the North American continent on the Commission on the Role and Responsibilities of Women in the Society of Jesus in what she describes as a historic opportunity.

“I am so pleased that the Jesuits are looking at this issue,” she said. “They are looking at it within the Jesuit network…And it’s exciting to me as a Jesuit educator that there are people from all over the world that I will get to meet and learn from.”

The commission was announced in March by the Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., the superior general of the order, and it represents a further step by the Jesuits to “more fully include and collaborate with women.” A major objective of the commission is to evaluate how relevant the previous decree issued by 34th General Congregation in 1995 is today, because as Father Sosa said, “The world has changed substantially since then, including the situation of women.”

The commission comprises six women, three Jesuits and one layman, representing eight countries. They have already begun work, which is expected to take three years to complete before issuing a final report for Father Sosa, who will act on their recommendations.

Throughout her career, Dr. Andrade has been focused on the Jesuit mission.

She began teaching English literature at Fairfield Prep in 1980, and wrote a proposal in 1985 for the first diversity program for Jesuit high schools in the nation, which was replicated around the country. She eventually began organizing diversity conferences for the network of then 44 schools in 1994. At Prep, she has held a variety of administrative positions, including director of diversity and academic dean.

“When I began at Prep, the president of the school approached me,” she recalls. “I was the only person of color until 2001 in the school, and we had very few students of color, so the school did not reflect the diversity of our area. It was a predominantly white and wealthy school in a changing landscape. Our kids were predominantly white students, going into a world that was diverse, and they were not prepared for that.”

She says that the diversity program cultivates understanding on both ends of the spectrum and is mutually beneficial.

“It is important because everybody benefits,” she says. “White kids are exposed to diversity and others learn about social capital and the environment they will encounter in college and beyond in a predominantly white school and college.”

Today, Fairfield Prep is one of the most diverse schools in the area, she says, with 25 percent of the student body consisting of students of color.

“We are blessed and we our pleased,” she says. “We worked at getting that diversity over the past few decades. It is the core of our mission as a Jesuit school, which has a commitment to social justice. That includes socio-economic, political, ecological and ethical justice, which are issues we address in our curriculum.”

Andrade, the oldest of three sisters, is Cape Verdian, a colonized mixture of African and Portuguese. Her parents were the first generation in their families to be born in America.

She grew up in the East End of Bridgeport and is a lifelong parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church, where her mother Frances worked for 15 years as parish secretary until she was 80, after having retired from the City of Bridgeport.

“My parents raised us in the Church and we went to Mass on Sunday,” she recalls. “I was a public school girl and went to McKinley Elementary School and Harding High School and took religious education and received my first communion and confirmation at Blessed Sacrament.”

She received a bachelor’s in English education from the University of Connecticut, a master’s in educational media from Fairfield University, a master’s in administration and supervision from Fordham University and a doctorate in education from Fordham.

Since the beginning, Andrade has been inspired by the mission of the Society of Jesus, which this year is celebrating the 500th anniversary of its founding by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish nobleman who was hit by a cannonball during the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, an incident that led to his conversion and the eventual founding of the order.

“My first encounter with them was a personal one,” she recalls. “In 1980, there were a lot of Jesuits in the school, and I befriended the ones who worked with me in the English and Arts Department. They would invite us over to the Jesuit residence, and I got to know them personally.”

She says it is an honor to be the only representative from North America on the commission, which will chart the course for the “role of women in the Jesuit mission, a faith that lives justice.”

Father Sosa in announcing the commission enumerated his objectives, the initial one being a review of the previous decree from 1995 titled, “Jesuits and the Situation of Women in the Church and Civil Society,” which was promulgated at the 34th General Congregation.

Among his other objectives were a review of the Society’s “structures of collaboration with women,” “strengthening the mission of the Society with the active participation of women,” and the encouragement of “mutual respect, care and solidarity between men and women.”

Dr. Andrade stresses that the commission is not just looking at the role of women in education, but in all Jesuit apostolates, including parishes, charitable work and social justice initiatives worldwide.

The commission has been at work since March, via Zoom because of the COVID restrictions, and the group recently chose a moderator.

“It is a very Ignatian process involving discernment and how we should proceed as a commission,” she says. “We didn’t jump right into the work. Everything we do is grounded in Ignatian spirituality, which is the one thing we all have in common.”

“We will be looking at where we came from and where we want to go,” she said. The process will involve an examination of existing structures, best practices that help women and practices that impede women. And from their three-year endeavor, they will draft a report with recommendations to the Superior General.

Some of their discussions will center on the equality of women and men, ensuring that women are promoted to positions of leadership and determining how the participation of women will strengthen the Jesuit mission.

Dr. Andrade has been committed to Catholic education throughout her career, and she is hopeful that the work of the commission will have implications for the broader Church regarding the role of women in leadership and the contributions they can provide. She stresses, however, that the issue can be a divisive one and that it is fundamentally important to have those discussions “in a way that doesn’t divide us, but unites us.”

She is enthusiastic about the initiative and says it can best be summed up by the phrase, “Women in the Jesuit mission — a faith that lives justice.”

By Joe Pisani