Serving the Earth and Community

Local attorney, Sisters of St. Francis plan for the future

What do you get when you combine a successful, motivated corporate attorney with a group of nuns who “take the world as it comes”? Turns out it’s just what they both needed!

Attorney Jenifer Belt’s philosophy was to “retire at 50, and then save the world.”  Accustomed to world-saving attempts in her position as co-administrator of the Healthcare practice group at Toledo-based law firm Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, where her work entailed interacting with all types of healthcare providers and corporate entities, Belt is well known for her philanthropy and community service efforts. Among her accolades is receiving the Ohio LGBT Ally Award from the Ohio Diversity Council, recognition as the Most Powerful and Influential Woman of Ohio in 2013 (from the National Diversity Council) and Toledo’s 20 Under 40 Leadership Award.

Dramatic change of direction

But in 2016, after a personal crisis, Belt began to reassess her career and personal goals and began making inquiries around the community. Those inquiries led her to the Sisters of St. Francis, Sylvania, a group she had counseled for 25 years while she was at Shumaker. She joined the organization, as chief operating officer and general counsel, in February 2020, “a month before the world shut down,” she explains. Through the pandemic and beyond, “my duties are ever-changing and have evolved over the years. Belt is also back in school. She’s in a doctorate program to ultimately earn her canon law degree, a designation that is awarded by the Vatican.

“I found my home here,” she says of her work with the Sisters. “It’s such a different world for me moving from the corporate life to a community that embraces women. It’s so easy to admire what these women are about – the power of energy, love and community.”

Creating a community legacy

With a visit to the campus of Lourdes University, you will understand the attraction. The park-like community is an arboretum with more than 10,000 trees, along with statues, grottos and a stream. Its buildings are a combination of the style of California missions and the architecture of Assisi, Italy. The setting is also in keeping with the Sisters’ commitment to diverse ministries such as education, health care, social services, religious education, media, law, art, parish and retreat ministries and spiritual direction. 

“I’m helping the sisters to create a legacy for their work, positioning them for the future,” Belt said. More than 500 sisters were part of the Sisters of St. Francis at its peak. The number has dropped considerably, and is closer to 100 today, she said, adding “ I am helping them implement their dreams” for community service.

A centerpiece of their work is the Sisters of St. Francis Foundation Fund. Established in 2014 to support the underserved and marginalized while preserving the earth, the Foundation awards grants that support work in four areas: Human Trafficking, Immigrants and Refugees, Social Justice and Equal Opportunity and Care for Creation. In 2020 and 2021, the Foundation awarded grants of over $1 million to local organizations, including Partners for Clean Streams, Inc., Beach House, Cherry Street Mission and Habitat for Humanity.

FLAMES for Sylvania

The group has also created the Sylvania Franciscan Connection which offers diversity and inclusion programs and events on the Lourdes University campus and throughout Sylvania. The six “FLAMES” activities feature: Family and Intergenerational, Love of Creation / Care for the Earth, All are One / Diversity and Inclusion, Maximum Health and Wellness, Ecumenism and Spirituality and Social Justice.

And they practice what they preach. The sisters are working on aging in place initiatives, for themselves and for community groups. And as part of their refugee housing effort, they have sponsored a family from Afghanistan to live in the Toledo area.

They have also adopted the seven goals of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Ecology by instituting a variety of environmental and sustainable efforts around campus (such as community composting) in a five-year effort that is especially important to Belt.

“I can really be my authentic self here,” Belt said. “The sisters are the living embodiment of what being Christian can be.”