Obituary: Vermont Advocate For Social Justice Janice Ryan Had Died, Cause Of Death – Sister Janice Ryan, a leading Vermont advocate for social justice, died Wednesday, according to state and federal officials. She was 86. A member of the Sisters of Mercy, Ryan served as president of Trinity College of Vermont, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, and education adviser to the late U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords. State Rep. Tiff Bluemle, D-Burlington, announced Ryan’s death Wednesday on the floor of the Vermont House.
“Her contributions to Vermont and, indeed, to this body are almost impossible to catalog,” Bluemle said. “But I’d suggest that those of us who knew her will remember most the example she set — of how to be both candid and kind, how to listen deeply and advocate fiercely, to balance idealism and practicality.” Following her remarks, Bluemle called for a moment of silence to remember and honor Ryan’s contributions to the state.
In a written statement, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called Ryan “a force of nature” and “a human dynamo.” “She made it her job to make policymakers uncomfortable as her way to achieving real change to help those who struggle,” Leahy said. “And indeed she made a real difference. The world is a better place for her selfless advocacy for others.”
The senator said he and his wife, Marcelle, visited Ryan last weekend, knowing the end was near. “We were so moved to be with her one last time, as we said a prayer and to let her know what she means to us and to countless others,” Leahy said in the statement. “With all Vermonters, we sorely feel this painful loss.”
Born in Fairfield in 1936, Ryan joined the Sisters of Mercy while finishing high school in Burlington. She taught at the now-defunct Trinity College and, for 17 years, served as its president. Ryan was a tireless advocate for social justice, special education, and criminal justice reform and received several awards for her work.
In 2006, she was recognized as one of four lifelong Vermonters who celebrated 50 years as a Sister of Mercy. In 2017, the Vermont Community Foundation honored her with a lifetime achievement award for community service. “So many lives over so many years have been changed by Sister Janice during her long career,” Dan Smith, president, and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation said at the time.
In 2018, Ryan received an award for excellence from the New England Board of Higher Education at the University of Vermont, according to Vermont Catholic. “Life has given me many rich opportunities all of which were interesting and filled with challenges,” she said at the time.
In Washington, D.C., Ryan served as director of justice education and interfaith relations for the Justice Project. She also worked for Jeffords, the late senator from Vermont, and was project director of the Catholic Campaign to Ban Landmines. State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said she got to know Ryan when the two worked for Jeffords. She called Ryan “a fierce advocate for those less fortunate and marginalized.”
“When examining her life and her service to this state, I truly believe that Janice Ryan had as great an impact on this state as the most celebrated we know,” Scheuermann said. Ryan fought for the passage of the Vermont Special Education Law and pushed for Congress to use it as a national model. She was also involved with the Innocence Protection Act, the first attempt in federal legislation to collect DNA to ensure that innocent people are not put to death.
In 2003, Ryan became the deputy commissioner of corrections in Vermont and called it “a life-changing event,” according to Vermont Catholic. She continued working with prisoners after she retired. “It is a sad day,” Smith, of the Vermont Community Foundation, said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “Sister Janice was a remarkable person who touched countless lives across Vermont. She will be greatly missed.”