May 19, 2017
By Joyce Rothermel

This year two of our Merton Center members received local Jefferson Awards for their important work in our community: Theresa Orlando and Fr. Regis Ryan.

The annual Jefferson Awards for Public Service are part of a prestigious national recognition system honoring community and public service in America. They are presented on two levels: national and local. The mission of the Jefferson Awards is to encourage and honor individuals for their achievements and contributions through public and community service.

Theresa was nominated by Anne Wirth, founder of the Gr. Pittsburgh Interfaith Coalition, a project of the Merton Center. She recognized Theresa’s 22-year commitment to the North Hills Anti-Racism Coalition. Theresa founded the Coalition and served in leadership roles throughout its history. Theresa humbly received the recognition, noting the importance of anti-racism work in the current climate where there is so much division among peoples. The Coalition brings people together. “People trying to be good neighbors; reach out; highlight the good; speak up for people when needed,” says Theresa of its work. Upon the occasion of this recognition, Theresa’s 12-year-old grandson noted, “Grandma is like Martin Luther King, only for Muslims.”

Theresa traces her convictions back to the Civil Rights movement and a friend she made at the time by the name of Sheila. Involved in Freedom Schools, Sheila became a Catholic, choosing Theresa to be her godmother. At the time, people would not sit next to Sheila in church. Theresa’s landlord was threatened when Sheila would sit on Theresa’s porch in Stowe Township. Now in her 60’s and living in Texas, Sheila shared, “As a young black woman this woman (Theresa) saved my life. She introduced me to a world of love, grace and compassion. Because of her my whole life is a life of working in service and social justice.”

Theresa also believes that the Catholic teachings that came out of Vatican Council II had a big influence on her and her husband, Harry. She believes everything she does is a response to what is expected of God’s children. Vatican II awakened in them a different way of thinking, being and valuing. Theresa became involved in religious education and was able to teach people about the faith, making it more real to her and others.

When asked where she finds hope, Theresa explains, “in Kevin McNair, my fellow Jefferson Award winner, the young man awarded the Most Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award. He is co-founder of 1 Nation Mentoring, whose goal is to help African-American males, who with strong, positive role models in their lives, learn to see greatness in themselves.” Also, when she meets many young people who are attending the Friendship Dinners the Coalition holds. It is also hopeful to her to see people becoming activists in the face of the attacks on civil rights they see happening in US national policies and acted on in our local communities.

When asked to give a message to you, our NewPeople readers, Theresa responded, “No matter who you are or where you are, just be kind to others; be a neighbor. Reach out. Say hello to the stranger. We are too isolated. When we are good neighbors and are good to others, it helps them be better. Expect the good; don’t judge. We are all in the same mix.” Theresa believes she is an ordinary person whose actions look extraordinary when they are highlighted. She just does what she believes is the right thing.

Fr. Regis Ryan, a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh was honored for his life of service throughout his years of ministry here in the Pittsburgh area, especially his work at the Focus on Renewal Center in McKees Rocks from 1975 to April 2012 and the Sto-Rox Health Center where he continues to serve. He also ministers at St. John of God Parish in McKees Rocks.

“The ability to combine the two ministries of parish and communities for over 40 years has been a very special gift and a satisfying life for me,” Fr. Ryan said.

His involvements through the years have included the Albert Schweitzer Advisory Board, Area Health Education Center Board, Children’s Cabinet Allegheny County, Community Care Behavioral Health Board, Consumer Health Coalition, Coordinated Care Network, Family Support Policy Board, Healthy Start Board of Directors, McKees Rocks Community Development Corp. Board, National Federation of Priests Councils Board, Operation Valor Arts Board, Association of Pittsburgh Priests Steering Committee, Sto-Rox Plaza and Rx Council.

Fr. Ryan encourages future clergy to “get involved in the community beyond the parish. Respect all, especially those with whom you disagree. Be imbued with the spirit of mercy and compassion which Pope Francis reminds us of everyday!”

Joyce Rothermel is chair of the Membership Committee of the Thomas Merton Center.