Sister Sue Ann Shay Devoted Her Life To The Downtrodden
November 08, 2009
Sister Sue Ann Shay — most people just called her Sue Ann — was a tireless fighter for social justice who never stopped working for peace and equal opportunity for all.
She was born on May 22, 1936, and grew up in Greenwich, where her father, William D. Shay, was a certified public accountant with a big accounting firms. Her mother, Catherine Sullivan Shay, was largely a homemaker, and Sue Ann had a younger brother, Bill.
Shay learned to sail as a child and never outgrew her love of the ocean and sailboat racing. She graduated from Greenwich High School in 1954 and attended Trinity College in Washington, D.C. The college was founded by of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a religious order that emphasized education.
After college, Shay worked briefly, then, with her father's encouragement, attended Fordham University Law School, where she was one of only two women in her class and was accused of going to law school only to find a husband.
Shay began her career representing poor children who were entangled in the legal system because they were accused of delinquency or because their parents were charged with neglect and abuse.
She worked first for the New York Legal Aid Society and later for Mobilization for Youth, another program that provided lawyers for juveniles, and she gained a reputation as a fearless advocate for children.
"Sue Ann was a pre-eminent practitioner," said Jonathan Weiss, a former colleague at Mobilization for Youth.
Shay "was very professional and got along with everybody," said Stephen Wizner, then Shay's colleague and now a clinical professor of law at Yale Law School. "She had a way about her. Nobody ever got angry at her; everyone respected her."
Shay's concern for her young clients continued outside of court, and she worked diligently to get them into remedial programs or treatment and encouraged them to stay in school.
In the mid-'70s, Shay moved to Connecticut, where she worked first for the New Haven Legal Assistance Program, then for the Hartford Neighborhood Legal Services Program, which were both partially funded by the federal government to provide free representation to poor people. Shay specialized in the legal problems of children and older people.
She also became more interested in the religious life, and after spending a year testing her vocation and living with some sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, she entered the order when she was 39 and made her first vows in 1975.
"Her deepest interest was in peace and justice," said Notre Dame Sister Mary Ellen O'Keefe. "She lived her life that way and left the world a better place."
Shay — who had gone to Selma, Ala., in 1965, when there were marches in favor of voting rights for blacks and to protest the death of a civil-rights organizer — continued to participate in demonstrations.
She went to Washington many times to protest America's involvement in Vietnam, and she went frequently to demonstrations at such places as Electric Boat in Groton to show her opposition to nuclear weapons. She was arrested in Rhode Island at one anti-nuclear demonstration and was the attorney for a friend arrested in New Hampshire for acts of civil disobedience at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant.
Shay was also active in Hartford. Along with Sister Judy Beaumont, she helped found My Sisters' Place, a women's shelter. She traveled to Nicaragua and helped arrange a sister-city relationship with Ocotal, a city in the northwest part of the country.
"She wanted to support the group, even though she didn't know Spanish," said Carolyn Jean Webb, a longtime friend. "She was always ready to put herself on the line for others."
At the end of 1995, Shay left Legal Services and, together with several other nuns, opened the Communities' Law Center, a law firm that represented low-income people who had too much money to qualify for Legal Services. She also served for many years on the influential distributions committee of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
She retired in 2001 but suffered from poor health for about four years before her death from pancreatic cancer.
Off duty, Shay loved to cook. She read voraciously and eclectically: The Economist, Mother Jones, The New York Times, cookbooks, contemporary theologians, mysteries. Her wardrobe was the despair of her friends. She wore boat shoes secured by duct tape and items a thrift shop might reject. She never owned a "power suit" and was indifferent to what others might think.
She retained her childhood love of sailing and often returned to the Greenwich yacht club to sail on her brother's boat. She won the Long Island Sound championship four times, and in 1967, she crewed for Betty Foulk on a 24-foot boat that won the U.S. women's sailing championship in Rochester, N.Y.
She served on a federal court task force for gender, racial and ethnic fairness in 1997 — along with then- Judge Sonia Sotomayor — and was a trustee of her college, now known as Trinity Washington University.
Shay could be exasperating: stubborn, verbose and argumentative, but she was always well informed. She was also a warm friend and a fierce and effective advocate for the causes that were important to her.
Shortly after her death, Shay's friends from her New York City days gathered to mourn her and raise a toast in her honor.
"She was always on the right side," said Weiss. "She was drawn to the poor and the truly oppressed and the downtrodden who are not given respect in society. I think of Dorothy Day."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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