By Beth Donze
Sharon Ryan Rodi became aware of the scourge of abortion in 1973 – in the wake of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case legalizing the practice.
Shortly after the landmark decision, Archbishop Philip Hannan called a meeting at St. Anthony of Padua Church to bolster participation in a ministry called “New Life.”
Rodi and a few young mothers like her were among those in attendance.
“I don’t think I had even heard of abortion. I had these two little girls and I thought this is terrible that a mother would be in such a situation that she would feel she had to take the life of her child,” said Rodi, who became New Life’s president shortly after learning about the group.
Rodi and about 50 volunteers worked from a downtown office on Camp Street to provide overnight pregnancy tests, pregnancy and adoption referrals and a 24-hour hotline for women in distress.
“I thought, ‘These women need help during this difficult time.’ We were there trying to encourage them to have their babies,” Rodi said. “I remember thinking in those early days that this was important, and if we didn’t do something about it now, in five years we’ll still be fighting this. Well, of course we still are.”
Humble award recipient
Rodi, a retired attorney, has been named this year’s recipient of The Catholic Foundation’s St. John Paul II Award, given annually to a layperson or permanent deacon who models Christian stewardship and has an outstanding record of volunteer service, high moral character and exemplary values. Rodi will receive the award at the foundation’s Oct. 19 dinner at the New Orleans Hilton Riverside.
“I still can’t believe it. I belong to a lot of things, I do a lot of things, but I don’t feel I’m deserving of it – it’s quite an honor,” said Rodi, 75. “There is a group of us who from the beginning have done this (pro-life work) and have stuck with it, so I don’t feel it is me who is being honored,” Rodi said. “I feel it is the whole pro-life movement here in New Orleans that has been so successful in trying to make people understand what abortion is: the taking of a life.”
Rodi grew up as the oldest of four children in St. Dominic Parish. Her father, Jesuit and LSU baseball standout Connie Ryan, went on to play second base for the Boston Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies. After a 12-year playing career, Ryan coached and managed major and minor league teams in Milwaukee, Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, Austin and Corpus Christi.
Consequently, throughout Rodi’s childhood and into college, she and her siblings would pull up stakes at the end of the school year and take up summer residence in the city where their father was based.
“We would always go to the local parish church and become part of that community for a few months,” Rodi said. “The nice thing was, you always came home.”
Worked in adult ed, pro-life
Rodi, a graduate of St. Mary’s Dominican High and Dominican College, married her husband, Mark, in 1965. That same year, a Dominican priest recruited Rodi for her first job: teaching disadvantaged women secretarial, business and life skills in a federal adult education program administered by President Lyndon Johnson’s Manpower Development and Training Act.
Rodi continued to pursue her interest in helping the marginalized, switching her focus to the unborn and their mothers by joining New Life, the forerunner of ACCESS Pregnancy Centers.
After attending the first Right to Life March in Washington, D.C., in 1974, Rodi felt called to add lobbying and advocacy, at both the state and federal levels, to her anti-abortion outreach.
“We would go to Washington just about every year for the march, but we would also visit with each one of our congressmen,” she explained. “In those first years, they didn’t even know why we were there. ‘Abortion? What?’ You really had to educate them. We were there to say, ‘This is the law of the land right now and we want it reversed.’”
Helped guide immigrants
In 1976, Rodi’s pro-life ministry expanded when she was recruited by Catholic Charities to help the city’s influx of 12,000 Vietnamese refugees find jobs. She became director of the office of Refugee Social Services, whose assistance included medical, mental health, housing and employment services, and English language instruction.
“It was the most comprehensive refugee program in the country,” Rodi said proudly. “Other places would split it up, but somehow, Archbishop Hannan had gotten the whole bundle here (in New Orleans) under Catholic Charities.”
“The Vietnamese people were so appreciative and so easy – they wanted to work, they were happy to be here, and they easily assimilated into our community,” she said, recalling how low-cost housing and start-up money would be allocated to help immigrant families, including those from Cambodia, Laos, Cuba and Haiti, get on their feet.
“I’ve often thought that the Lord knows how to work things out,” Rodi said.
Became lawyer in mid-life
As the need for refugee services waned, Rodi decided to do something she had been mulling over for a while: In 1985, at age 44, she enrolled in nighttime classes at Loyola Law School.
“All these kids were there who I knew because their parents were my friends,” chuckled Rodi. “I told them, ‘I know I’m the oldest one here, but you don’t have to rub it in. Call me Sharon.’”
Rodi went on to have a 17-year career as an attorney for the firm Adams and Reese, all the while maintaining her pro-life work with ACCESS, Louisiana and New Orleans Right to Life, and becoming a regular spokesperson on the issues of abortion and refugee needs in local television and print media.
She currently serves as the Louisiana delegate for National Right to Life, succeeding New Orleans/Louisiana Right to Life founder Bob Winn in that role.
A prayer-centered life
The Rodis, parishioners of St. Clement of Rome Church since 1967, are the parents of two daughters: Shannon Nash, 50; and Erin Rotolo, 48. Retired for 10 years, Rodi enjoys playing golf with her husband and traveling with her six grandchildren, “two at a time.”
But “retirement” is a loose term in Rodi’s world. Her boards and causes have included Catholic Foundation efforts such as Catholic Women in Action and the Women’s Giving Circle; St. Clement’s school board; Notre Dame Seminary; the University of Holy Cross; St. Mary’s Dominican High; the Southern Province of Dominicans; the Willwoods Community; St. Michael Special School; and St. Vincent’s Maternity Guild.
She also has received two papal accolades – the “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” and “Lady of St. Gregory” awards; the Proudly Pro-Life award; alumna of the year recognition from both Dominican High and Dominican College; and the archdiocese’s Distinguished Catholic Graduate award.
Rodi said her faith is fed by a nightly rosary and her favorite prayers: the Memorare and the Lord’s Prayer, the latter which she says “encapsulates how we should live.”
“If we don’t forgive others, we can’t be forgiven ourselves,” Rodi said.
Her faith also is animated by Jesus’ powerful reminder: “What you do for the least of my brethren, you do for me.”
“We’re here for everybody,” Rodi said. “Whoever crosses our path, we have a responsibility to reach out to them and to do what we can, whether it’s our family member or somebody we don’t even know.
“If everybody felt that way, Rodi added, “we wouldn’t be in the shape we’re in.”
For more information on The Catholic Foundation, visit cf.arch-no.org.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.