While undertaking the emotionally charged, often painful work of reviewing the cases of those seeking an annulment of their marriage, Dominican Sister of Peace Judene Lillie
always recognizes the dejected adults before her as the beloved sons and daughters of God.
Looking back on her 24 years as an associate judge and assessor in the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Sister Judene says it’s the small kindnesses that have had the greatest impact on those who come before her with their very personal stories of dating, marriage and divorce.
“Just for them to be able to have somebody listen to them is very, very important to them,” said Sister Judene, 86.
“When they come in – and this is true of both men and women – many times they don’t have confidence in themselves. They feel like they’re a failure, or they feel like they’re no good,” Sister Judene added.
“I try to use the (pastoral approach of) Pope Francis – I try to show them that no matter what, they’re still loved. They have goodness in them. They’re not bad people.”
Sorting through 157 years
Sister Judene, currently in her 64th year of vowed life, left the Tribunal earlier this month to prepare for her relocation to the Dominican Sisters’ motherhouse in Columbus, Ohio.
Before departing New Orleans this summer, Sister Judene hopes to complete the work of sorting through the Dominican Sisters’ voluminous archives, which date back to their 1860 arrival from Cabra, Ireland. Sister Judene also will be among those overseeing the sale of the Dominican’s motherhouse at St. Charles Avenue and Broadway to Loyola University New Orleans. About 25 Dominican sisters remain in the archdiocese in various ministries.
“It’s been an interesting 24 years, but all good things have to come to an end,” Sister Judene said, before cutting a king cake at her Feb. 21 sending-forth party at the archdiocesan chancery office.
Born Ann Adele Lillie in Menlo, Iowa, Sister Judene was raised on a farm 10 miles away from the nearest Catholic church. She and her three sisters attended public elementary and high schools in the predominantly Methodist area, and so received most of their catechism at home from their mother.
“They called us ‘Cat Lickers’ – their name for ‘Catholics,’” recalled Sister Judene, who moved to Iowa’s capital city of Des Moines upon her 1948 graduation from high school to take a summer job in the circulation department of Look Magazine. As a graduation gift, Sister Judene’s uncle, a Dominican priest stationed in Rosaryville, Louisiana, gave the 17-year-old a one-way train ticket to New Orleans.
“I didn’t have a ticket home,” said Sister Judene, smiling. “(My uncle) said, ‘You can go to work, or go to Dominican College in New Orleans, or hitchhike home.’ I decided to go to Dominican College.”
Although she returned to Des Moines after completing her two-year associate’s degree in business, thoughts of tropical but lovable New Orleans – where “everybody talked funny” – remained with her. She also had fond memories of Dominican College, Sister Judene’s first Catholic school experience and on whose campus the farm girl from Iowa could attend daily Mass without having to drive for miles.
Although Sister Judene tried to pray away thoughts of a vocation to the religious life, she took another look upon learning that a friend from Dominican College had decided to enter the sisters’ New Orleans convent.
“I gave up; I said ‘I guess I’m gonna come and try it,’” said Sister Judene, who professed her first vows in 1953 and took on her religious name – the feminine version of Jude – in honor of the patron saint of impossible causes.
“I liked (the Dominican Sisters’) life. They never tried to push me. They treated me well,” said Sister Judene, who spent her first six years of consecrated life as an elementary school teacher at St. Anthony of Padua, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Matthias in New Orleans; and at St.
Agnes in Baton Rouge.
Realizing that an education ministry was not her forté, Sister Judene was poised to help open a hospital in Tangipahoa Parish when she was asked by her Dominican superiors to become treasurer of Dominican College. She spent 26 years in that role, earning her MBA from Loyola and seeing Dominican College through its transition to a computer payroll system and its 1984 closure.
A completely different ministerial path presented itself at the end of Sister Judene’s subsequent sabbatical in Boston: She was hired to do the daily finances of a Jewish synagogue of about 400 families in Lexington, Massachusetts. Sister Judene spent seven happy years there and was even invited by the Jewish congregants to teach classes on her faith.
“They wanted to know all about Catholicism,” Sister Judene said, recalling how she was frequently called on to dispel interreligious myths. For example, some of her Jewish friends erroneously assumed Catholics were “against families” because of their misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching that his disciples must “hate” their parents and children in order to follow him.
“And I learned so much about their history,” Sister Judene said. “I felt I was doing some kind of ecumenism.”
A new ministry
Called back to New Orleans in 1994, Sister Judene began volunteering as a fee collector at the Metropolitan Tribunal, then headed by Judicial Vicar Msgr. Earl Gauthreaux. Over the years, she absorbed the complex canon law and pastoral skills related to marriage, separation, divorce and the annulment process.
The Tribunal, now led by Judicial Vicar Father Peter Akpoghiran, currently handles an annual average of 300 annulment cases originating in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and appeals for an additional 20 cases connected to Louisiana’s six other Catholic dioceses.
Although Sister Judene has been involved in just about every aspect of the Tribunal’s work – from deposing parties one-on-one, to writing their sentences – in recent years she primarily has worked behind the scenes, sifting through the paperwork of cases, researching the related law and then judging them on their merits – or lack thereof.
“You get all the data in: they turn in testimony; they suggest grounds; and someone (also) tries to defend the marriage bond,” Sister Judene said. “I take all that and I adjudicate the case. That means I ‘write’ the case – I gather all the facts and the law and the reasons for the affirmative or negative (judgment).”
Sister Judene said her hope for all those she has encountered in her marriage ministry, both face-to-face and through paperwork, will find peace, no matter what the written judgment happened to be.
“You have to try to have compassion for them and try to understand their situation, and in so doing help them find some sort of healing,” she said. “Even in (negative) sentences, you try to affirm. It’s almost like confession. They need the healing of forgiveness.”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.