The graduate commencement ceremony at Fairfield University on May 22 conferred an honorary degree on Sister Maureen Fleming, SSND, coordinator of Pastoral Outreach at St. Luke Parish in Westport, for her advocacy for the rights of women and children, and for those in poverty.
Valeria Martinez, assistant professor of finance in the Dolan School of Business, delivered the citation: Fairfield County is a study in contrasts. It is one of the wealthiest areas of the country, yet contains great numbers of urban poor and immigrants. It is one of the most highly educated areas, yet is home to many who can’t read or write English. Fortunately for this latter group, Sister Maureen Fleming of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a 1971 graduate of our graduate School of Education and Allied Professions, has devoted her talents, passion, and education to help these members of our community acquire the tools they need in order to succeed.
In 1995, Sister Maureen became executive director of Bridgeport’s Caroline House, a center founded by her order and dedicated to helping immigrant women and their children develop literacy skills. The goal of Caroline House is not only to teach language skills to 50 low-income, immigrant women enrolled each semester, but also to break down the barriers of social and physical isolation that have kept them from building better lives.
”There is a great need for these women to learn English,” says Sister Maureen. ”If they cannot fill out a job application, there is no hope.”
An incident in May 1999 involving one of these women shook the City of Bridgeport to its core and gave shape to the next phase of Sister Maureen’s ministry. Julia Toledo Urgiles and her four young boys were fleeing a difficult domestic situation in the dead of night, when all five were struck and killed by a train. “All of us at Caroline House were devastated, and we realized there were others in similar situations. It was a wake-up call and catapulted me out of my executive job and into involvement with other issues,” she recalls.
Since then, Sister Maureen has been passionate about educating the world about the twin issues of domestic abuse and human trafficking. “Nobody believes that we have an issue with trafficking in Fairfield County, but we do. This modern-day form of slavery is under the radar and yet under our noses,” she says.
As a registered NGO at the United Nations, Sister Maureen is a participant on the commission dealing with the rights of women and children. Sister Maureen has worked tirelessly to educate the public and lawmakers, with the goal of bringing perpetrators to justice. She is proud that the hotline number she continually gives out has resulted in hundreds of calls to law enforcement agencies. Though educating the public and elected officials is an essential first step, “collectively, we have to push our lawmakers to prosecute perpetrators,” she says.
Currently serving as director of Outreach Ministry at St. Luke Parish in Westport, Sister Maureen oversees a ministry that includes programs such as a food pantry, housing assistance and fundraising for her parish “Matthew 25” fund. This fund helps support charitable causes for those most in need such as Caroline House; Blessed Sacrament Parish, Bridgeport, summer camp; the Missionaries of Charity; the Cancer Survivor Network in Bridgeport; and the Open Door Soup Kitchen in Norwalk.
For her dedication to the most marginalized and least powerful among us, especially children and abused women, the President and Board of Trustees of Fairfield University hereby proclaim:
Sister Maureen Fleming, SSND
Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa
After earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees in education from Seton Hall University, Maureen Fleming taught in both the Archdiocese of New York and later in the Diocese of Bridgeport. Calling herself “a teacher down to my toes,” she also has a certificate in counseling, another in pastoral ministry, and a M.A. in Religious Studies from Fairfield University.