There’s a good reason Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin was honored a few years ago as “The Power Nun,” the title of a 2015 documentary of her legendary work.
In a community that never seemed free of friction and tumult, O’Laughlin, the longtime and beloved leader of Barry University in Miami Shores, let her faith guide her, while flexing her muscle. She exhibited grace — and grit. A dazzling smile, a youthful giggle — and that firmly set jaw.
O’Laughlin, 90, died Tuesday in Michigan. She was a powerhouse who faced down cancer and controversy, a force for good, for fairness and for justice. She shattered glass ceilings, entering the male-dominated inner sanctums of the invisible, but influential, Non-Group, for instance, and We Will Rebuild, an organization that vowed to get Greater Miami back on its feet after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. She strong-armed distracted or dismissive officials into getting damaged black churches rebuilt in South Miami-Dade after the ferocious storm.
She joined the fight against illegal drugs and homelessness, while fighting for racial equality and the rights of immigrants.
She was resolute and courageous in confronting controversial issues of injustice, but she also had the courage to change her mind.
As a community leader, O’Laughlin jumped into the already fraught — and hostile — environment that spiraled out of the arrival of a frightened little boy from Cuba. Should the motherless Elián González be allowed to stay in the United States or be returned to his father in Fidel Castro’s Cuba? Whatever one’s answer, it was a figurative punch in the nose, a fist to the gut — fighting words.
In 2000, O’Laughlin hosted a meeting at her Miami Beach home between Elián and his two abuelas, flown in from the island. She entered the reunion neutral on the burning question. She emerged afterward convinced Elián should remain with his relatives in Little Havana.
She wrote in a New York Times op-ed: “I saw fear in Elián, and I became a wiser woman at that moment, wincing at my own naivete.”
The Cuban regime excoriated her decision. No surprise there. However, so did so many on this side for the Florida Straits, including friends, who thought O’Laughlin was wrong.
And she faced the firestorm as she did just about every other challenge in her life — with her head firmly planted on her shoulders and her heart always in the right place.
O’Laughlin’s most enduring gift might be the template of community engagement, fueled by community commitment, that she leaves.
Consider it a call to action to the rest of us — and there is no better way to honor the life of someone so giving of herself than to answer it.