Called to Serve
When she talks about engaging alumnae in the life and work of St. Catherine University, Karen Jothen MAOL’06 usually has role models like Laura Nelson ’09 in mind.
Jothen, the director of alumnae relations, tapped Nelson last year to co-chair a new committee of the Alumnae Council. The task: to recommend how the University could recognize alumnae volunteerism as meaningfully — and publicly — as it honors financial contributions.
The committee got a 65 percent response rate on its survey of Alumnae Council members and chapter leaders, “a testament to the quality of the survey itself,” Jothen says. She praises Nelson — a rising-star attorney and a Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude graduate of St. Catherine — for her open-mindedness, ability to inspire a team and attentive listening skills.
“We are blessed to count her as one of St. Kate’s alumnae,” Jothen concludes.
Nelson, 27, is frequently asked to contribute her expertise to her alma mater. She was one of five alumnae who posed questions to St. Catherine President Andrea Lee, IHM, at the inaugural Alumnae Evening with the President on May 5. Assistant Vice President and Dean Alan Silva — who oversees the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences — invited her to join other alumnae attorneys a year ago to explore the possibilities of a pre-law program at St. Kate’s.
“I’ve learned that you say yes to one thing and it leads to three more,” says Nelson with a laugh.
LAW AND ORDER
Nelson began thinking about a legal career in eighth grade, when she was part of a reenactment of the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. “I got to be an attorney arguing in front of the Senate,” she recalls. “It clicked. I loved it.”
The daughter of an accomplished alumna (and current Trustee), Jean Delaney Nelson ’80, Laura looked at every Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota and selected St. Catherine in part because it had a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. “That made a big impact on me,” Nelson says. “I set that as a goal.”
She began distinguishing herself at St. Kate’s from the get-go. Nelson became involved with Campus Ministry and, later, Student Senate, serving as an ex-officio member of the Alumnae Association board. A double-major in history and mathematics, with a minor in political science, Nelson valued her close relationships with professors. Several, including Professor of History Jane Carroll ’80, were at Nelson’s Antonian Scholars Honors presentation, “The American Civil Religion,” inspired by John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1960 defending why a Catholic could be an unbiased president.
“Laura was one of the best history majors I have ever taught at St. Kate’s,” Carroll says emphatically. “She was able to demonstrate mastery over large amounts of material, and she learned quickly how to write precisely and concisely with a clear thesis.”
In fact, those liberal arts learnings — research, critical thinking, analytical reading, clear writing — have served Nelson well. So has St. Catherine’s academic rigor and emphasis on leadership. “Success was expected, leadership was expected, going out and giving back to your community was expected. I was taught that you could do those things,” she says.
“That gave me a ton of confidence going into law school. I could walk into a class of 100 people, and a professor could ask a question and it wasn’t jarring. I was used to being expected to give an opinion and defend it — to engage with others and think critically.”
After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School in 2012, Nelson served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Lorie Skjerven Gildea, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. She joined the prestigious firm Stinson Leonard Street last September as an associate attorney in the health law practice group.
Dressed in a blue suit, peach blouse and simple strand of pearls, Nelson sits at a polished conference table at Stinson Leonard Street’s law offices in downtown Minneapolis, her smart phone and legal pad at the ready. She looks calm, composed and markedly different from the black-and-white photos of the four white men who founded the firm in the 1920s.
When Nelson was growing up, the Minnesota Supreme Court was made up of four women and three men. She remembers the late Rosalie Wahl, the state’s first female Supreme Court justice. “A path has been blazed for women of my generation,” Nelson says. “I appreciate that.”
Nelson was raised and schooled Catholic, and she sought ways to express and deepen her faith from her first days on campus. Having been an altar server at her family’s parish from fourth grade through high school, she expressed interest in being an acolyte at Our Lady of Victory Chapel to Susan Hames, CSJ, ’68, who was then director of Campus Ministry — and who remains a mentor of Nelson’s to this day.
“The next thing I knew I was acolyte at Opening Celebration. I got thrown in on the deep end,” Nelson recalls. “But it was wonderful. Sister Susan had so much confidence I could do it.”
Spiritually, the role of acolyte — which she continues as an alumna — allows her to be “very present in the Mass. I love the Mass, and being an acolyte allows me to delve deeper into the ritual and understand the meaning.”
Nelson served for Archbishop Emeritus Harry J. Flynn at the Eucharistic celebration in March during the inaugural National Catholic Sisters Week. “We want people for whom Campus Ministry and their faith is important to have a home with us after they graduate,” says Director of Campus Ministry Laurie Svatek. Plus, she adds: “Laura is very good at what she does.”
Nelson and Archbishop Flynn have developed a closeness and comfort level with each other over the years. That comes in handy for what Nelson calls the “practical side” of the acolyte’s responsibilities. “Your role is to direct traffic,” she explains. “Many of our priests are visitors on campus, and our celebrations have dancers, musicians, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, administrators and community members all moving simultaneously. It helps to have someone who knows how all the pieces fit together and can say, ‘This is what is going to happen next.’”
She speaks with fondness and reverence of her experiences with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the University’s founders. “The CSJs broadened my conception of what Catholicism could be and what it could encompass,” says Nelson, who graduated from Hill-Murray, a Catholic prep school in suburban St. Paul. “They believe strongly in the theology of the entire community.”
Nelson is accustomed to people knowing her as the daughter of a Trustee, and she’s proud of her mother, the chief information officer and a senior vice president at Securian Financial Group. But Laura doesn’t let an interview close without acknowledging her father, David Nelson, a retired information systems engineer.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without the love and support of both of my parents,” she says. “They are a great team and are proud of both of their daughters,” including Sarah Nelson ’12, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. “They are beside us and behind us the whole way.”
Laura Nelson: Katie service
- Member, Alumnae Council, and co-chair, Volunteer Recognition Committee
- Acolyte at the Liturgy celebrating the 50th anniversary of Archbishop Emeritus Harry J. Flynn’s ordination as a priest
- Advisor, pre-law program, and guest speaker in classes
Other Katies in the legal profession
- Joy Bartscher ’82, judge, Ramsey County District Court
- Margaret Daly ’77, judge, 4th District, Hennepin County
- Paulette Kane Flynn ’70, judge, Ramsey County District Court
- Carol Ronning Kapsner ’69, justice on the North Dakota Supreme Court
- Jean Langlais ’80, Tax Law, Langlais Law Firm, Hastings, Minnesota
- Margaret Mahoney ’71, chief bankruptcy judge, Southern District of Alabama
- Lezlie Ott Marek ’80, judge, Second Judicial District, Ramsey County
- Margaret Marrinan ’69, judge, Minnesota District Court
- Anne McKeig-Osuna ’89, judge, 4th Judicial District, Hennepin County
- Diana Young Morrissey ’80, Insurance Law, Wallen-Friedman & Floyd, Minneapolis
- Kathlyn Ernst Noecker ’84, Employment Law-Management, Faegre Baker Daniels, Minneapolis
- Kathleen Flynn Peterson ’76, Personal Injury and Medical Malpractice Law, Robins, Kaplain, Miller & Ciresi, Minneapolis
- Mary Emery Shearen ’75, Trust & Estate Law, Best & Flanagan LLP, Minneapolis
- Marilies Habel Young MAT’85, marriage tribunal judge, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis