St. John’s University recognized the contributions of an inspirational group of alumna at the annual “Celebrating the Women of St. John’s” luncheon, an enthusiastic gathering held on March 26 at The Garden City Hotel in Garden City, NY.
The McCallen Society recognized six alumnae. Lucille Accetta ’86P, Mildred Antenor ’88SVC, the Hon. Tracy A. Catapano-Fox ’94C, Tanairy Estevez Fernandez ’13GEd, and Priscilla Frederick-Loomis ’11CPS were recognized as Women Achievers. The University also posthumously honored Pamela G. Shea-Byrnes, D.Min. ’86SVC, ’90G with its Alumnae Lifetime Achievement Award.
The day before the event was the Feast of the Annunciation, in which the Virgin Mary was informed by the angel Gabriel that she would become Jesus’ mother. Reflecting on that solemnity, University President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., said, like Mary, the St. John’s honorees have demonstrated “courage unparalleled” in pursuit of their destinies.
“Mary’s courage is something that we do not think about enough,” Fr. Shanley said. “I bring that up because the women we honor have all done courageous things with their lives—and that’s an important lesson for our students here today.”
The six honorees represent a diverse mix of professional experience. Two—Ms. Accetta, Senior Vice President and Head of Special Operations at the drugstore chain CVS Health, and Ms. Fernandez, a licensed mental health counselor and advocate from Huntington, NY—have forged careers in the health-care sector.
Hon. Catapano-Fox is a New York State Supreme Court Justice for the 11th Judicial District in Queens. Ms. Antenor is a journalist, author, and Professor in Seton Hall University’s English Department. Ms. Frederick-Loomis is a former Olympic high jumper, a successful motivational speaker, Chief Executive of The Priscilla E. Frederick Foundation, and a 2022 inductee into the St. John’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
Dr. Shea-Byrnes was the former Vice President for University Ministry and University Events at St. John’s. She died in 2013 after a four-decade relationship with the University marked by a commitment to faith in action.
Among her initiatives were the creation of the University’s Catholic Scholars program, its Vincentian Initiative to Advance Leadership, and her contributions to the planning and design of St. Thomas More Church. She met her husband, Jeff Byrnes ’83SVC, at the University, and their two children, Kevin ’21CCPS and Kaitlyn ’22CCPS, are both alumni.
Kaitlyn accepted the honor in her mother’s memory.
“My mom had many titles—mother, wife, educator, vice president—but one of her favorite titles was to be known as a Johnny,” Kaitlyn said.
Attending the sold-out event were many alumni, employees, and members of The McCallen Society, a community of generous alumni, benefactors, and friends of St. John's. This year the event received additional support from corporate sponsors CVS Health, The Estée Lauder Companies, and NYX Professional Makeup.
Joanne Persico ’93MBA, ’09PD, Coach of the St. John’s Women’s Volleyball team and the longest-tenured female coach in the history of St. John’s athletics, served as master of ceremonies, and introduced the guest speaker, broadcast journalist Aziza Shuler ’15CPS.
Ms. Shuler delivered an enthusiastic message rooted in personal experience. Born to parents with addiction issues, she was raised in foster care in Washington, DC. Blessed with a hunger for knowledge and an unrelenting work ethic, she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Communication Arts from The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies.
Ms. Shuler is now an on-air reporter and weekend anchor at the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, PA. While working in Yuma, AZ, in 2020, she won an Emmy® Award for reporting on the living conditions of migrant families along the US southern border. She told the audience her path to the anchor desk was paved by opportunities nurtured at St. John’s, including an internship at WINS-1010 radio, and a belief in herself cultivated by a close-knit group of professional mentors.
“I am a journalist and my job is to tell stories,” Ms. Shuler said. “For years, the only story I avoided telling was my own. I learned to suppress my story. What got me through was believing that God blessed me with a fair amount of determination.”
Ms. Shuler also spoke of her partnership with Brown Girls Dream, a nonprofit that provides support for young women of color eager to establish media careers. Since its establishment in 2018, the organization has helped dozens of interested young storytellers with internships, mentorship advice, leadership training, and more.
“There were people along my journey who didn’t see me as I saw myself, and that inspired me,” Ms. Shuler said. “If not for those women, I would not be here. Now I can inspire and empower others through mentorship.”
Ms. Shuler’s words were not lost on the dozens of current students in attendance. Catholic Scholar Emily Escalada, a junior studying Marketing at The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, found the honorees’ stories of perseverance moving.
“It was inspiring to see all these successful professional women from St. John’s,” Emily said. “But I also recognize that their success came with challenges, and I should not get discouraged.”
Senior Sarah Quispe, who is studying Psychology at St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said all six women are role models for the next generation of alumni. “These women paved the way for us, and we stand on their shoulders now,” she said. “You can see how much they want us to move forward as they did.”