Mary Ellen Russell, the outgoing executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, receives a citation from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan for her dedicated advocacy work during the conference's April 9 "Sine Die" barbecue. (Photo courtesy of the Maryland Catholic Conference).
Mary Ellen Russell, the outgoing executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, receives a citation from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan for her dedicated advocacy work during the conference's April 9 "Sine Die" barbecue. (Photo courtesy of the Maryland Catholic Conference).
After nearly 25 years on the staff of the Maryland Catholic Conference, Mary Ellen Russell will be leaving her role as executive director in June and will be succeeded by Jennifer Briemann, the current deputy director of the conference.

Russell said she has seen many exciting victories during her time at the conference, including the repealing of the death penalty in Maryland and three repeated years of defeating legislation that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide in the state.

Education issues have been particularly close to her heart during her time at the conference, she said, as her first job was teaching English at St. Patrick’s Academy, a Catholic high school for girls in Washington. There, she said she saw firsthand “what an incredible difference that school made in the lives of the students,” many of whom came from difficult backgrounds.

She first began working for the Maryland Catholic Conference as the associate director for education, and throughout her time working at the conference she witnessed the creation of the Nonpublic Schools Textbook and Technology Program, the Nonpublic Aging Schools Program and the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) scholarship program, which she called a “huge achievement” because of the more than a decade of work that went into it.

Through all of those events, Russell said she was proud of the staff at the conference and how they have “built up the image of the conference and the Church as a welcoming and compassionate presence.”

“Members of the legislature have really come to appreciate how much the Church is doing in the community,” said Russell.

Russell noted that the conference has been able to develop relationships across the aisle because of the broad range of issues that the Church addresses.

“We are known in Annapolis as one of the leading groups that can reach out to just about every individual and find common ground with them,” she said. “…The beauty of our work is the fact that while we don’t fit neatly into political categories, there is a consistent view of the value of each human life that drives our work and that legislators recognize is something they can count on in how we can approach issues.”

This unique positioning of the conference is why they often tell people, “In a state with such deep red and blue lines, we’re as purple as they come,” said Briemann.

On the last day of this year’s legislative session, the Maryland Senate honored Russell with a resolution that was presented to her on the senate floor, thanking her for her advocacy for those most in need. Briemann noted that every single senator, from the most conservative to the most liberal, stood to give her a standing ovation for her work.

Later that day, during the annual party that the Maryland Catholic Conference holds at the end of the legislative session, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan stopped by as a surprise to present Russell with a citation for her dedicated work at the conference.

Russell said her prayer life has been one of the main things that has sustained her throughout her time with the Maryland Catholic Conference.

“I think I learned early on that so much of the work we do is not really in our hands. It is truly in God’s hands,” she said. “We can’t allow ourselves to take credit for our victories or think we are at fault if we try our best but lose…I have just seen over and over again the hand of God in our work.”

After leaving the conference, Russell plans to continue her passion of supporting the work of the Church in ministering to communities in need, particularly in the inner city of Baltimore. She and her husband, who have four grown sons and four grandchildren, recently celebrated 36 years of marriage.

“I am thrilled to see Jenn take over as the new leader,” said Russell. “She brings a wealth of experience, energy and passion for her faith. I’m excited to see the places she will take the conference.”

Briemann began at the Maryland Catholic Conference in August 2016 as the associate director for respect for life, and over the past year has worked as the deputy director of the conference. She, her husband, and her young son are parishioners at Our Lady of the Chesapeake in Pasadena.

Before working for the Maryland Catholic Conference, Briemann started out as a staffer in the Maryland Senate, and later was a lobbyist for both public and private sector interests.

Briemann’s goals for the future include continuing to build upon the relationships Russell has built over the years and to continue the legacy that “the conference has never wavered from the teaching of the Church, regardless of how challenging that may be,” she said.

“We never shy away from a tough fight when it means defending the teaching of the Church,” she said.

Briemann said she plans to focus on the continued strengthening of grassroots organizing, which involves the engagement of parishioners across the state, because “there is no more powerful force” than legislators hearing from their constituents, she said.

“I see it to be my responsibility to educate those folks on issues,” she said.

One place in particular where Briemann sees opportunity going forward is on issues related to immigration, which she said the two sides often have a hard time coming together on, but noted that a lot of people can identify with the Church teaching on immigration.

“Moving forward, that’s a real opportunity for us to do good for that population,” she said.

In the future, Briemann said she hopes to continue to get the message out that society’s most vulnerable people are at the heart of the work that the Maryland Catholic Conference does.

Both women said they are primarily motivated to do the work that they do through their Catholic faith, and “from that flows all the other reasons that we do what we do,” such as “being a voice for the voiceless, for the unborn, for the elderly, and for the terminally ill,” said Briemann.

“It makes you get up and look in the mirror and know you made a difference,” she said. “…You can’t put a price on that.”