Through their extensive careers and great service to their parish, James and Laureen D’Ambra have made it their life’s missions to protect, educate and improve the lives of children throughout Rhode Island. These faithful and active members of St. Augustine Parish, Providence, will soon receive a Lumen Gentium Award for Public Service.
James D’ Ambra served in the Rhode Island Senate for eight terms as a Democrat before leaving politics to focus on his career as a teacher and principal. Now retired from education, he is in his 25th year of serving as lector at St. Augustine Parish.
“You don’t do service in your parish or community for recognition, you do it because it’s the right thing to do,” said James. “That is what has guided us.”
After a career in politics, James turned to education, teaching at Cranston West High School for 20 years, then as a Providence administrator and retiring as a middle school principal for the City of Providence. For six years, he also worked at the Urban League of Rhode Island, sharing in its mission to help and advocate for minorities and the poor.
James explained that his faith and interest in politics first came together when his father would bring him to Holy Name Society meetings in the 1950s. Hundreds would gather in church basements several weeks before a general election to listen to speakers campaigning for office. At the time, public officials gathering in such a sacred space for the community was the best chance to reach the voters.
“On the news today, politicians will say they are practicing Catholics with values that shape who they are, but then quickly abandon their principals in the face of controversial topics. They will say, ‘I have to wear my civil hat,’ and I don’t think you can easily separate the two. It is very difficult to compartmentalize who you are in that way.”
James also credits the Sisters of Notre Dame as well as the Christian Brothers from La Salle Academy who influenced him in his faith and desire to educate.
“I had some excellent teachers, strict religious sisters, and also very compassionate ones, that helped shape me. Your faith shapes your thinking as far as treating every child as if they were your own child. I think having children made me a better teacher and better principal because it makes you aware of the impact of your actions, your demeanor and how you treat others.”
Laureen also has always felt called to advocate for the well-being of all children. A Suffolk University Law School graduate, Laureen was named Child Advocate for the State of Rhode Island in 1989, a post she held until she was named as Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Family Court in 2004.
Laureen has also served on many boards dedicated to children’s welfare and education. To name a few, she was president of the St. Mary Academy - Bay View Board and also served for many years on the Diocesan Finance Council as well as the Diocesan Advisory Board for the Protection of Children.
Nearly 10 years before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ adoption of a formalized Charter for the Protection of Children in 2002, the Diocese of Providence was already taking steps on the sex abuse crisis including creating an Advisory Board for the Protection of Children and Young People.
“The board was and is very diverse and it’s not only Catholics.” Laureen explained. “We always had a member of the state police, a rabbi and Episcopal minister. There was never a situation in the 13 years that I served where the committee members did not agree to take an action that was in the best interest of children. All of the discussions were always fair and weighed everything, but the bottom line was if there was probable cause and any concern, we would take the position that we would not have children at risk.”
Laureen shared that working with children in the care of the Department of Youth, Children and Families (DCYF) was a real opportunity to give back.
“Being a lawyer is a very noble profession and there are some real opportunities to make some positive changes and make the world a better place.”
For the D’Ambras, their Catholic education and strong faith has played an incredible role in both of their extensive work and dedicated personal lives.
“Catholic schools have really helped to shape who we are, and why we do what we do,” said Laureen. “Our faith teaches us to treat others the way we would want to be treated. In family court, whether it is DCYF or domestic matters, we see some very good people at their worst. I try to be courteous, understanding and give them a chance to be heard. My goal in every case that I focus on is what is in best interest of the child.”
— AWARDS BANQUET —
The honorees will be awarded during a dinner at Twin River Event Center in Lincoln on Wednesday, May 15.
Guests wishing to purchase tickets to the dinner — whose proceeds will support Diocesan Youth Ministry — are asked to register online at dioceseofprovidence.org/lumen-gentium-awards.
For more information, please call 401-277-2121.