Published June 19, 2008
Her installation, along with that of the other new officers, will take place at a Mass on June 28 in Sacred Heart Chapel in Yardley. The new president is Sister Julia C. Lanigan. Other council members are Sister Dawn Gear, a former principal in Atlanta area Catholic schools, Sister Mary Lee Farrell, the new council vice president, and Sister Mary Sharon Walsh, the new treasurer. Chosen at the congregation’s general chapter on April 25, they will serve through June 2013.
Most recently serving at St. Brendan Church in Cumming, Sister Joan is almost a reference point for Catholic life and history in the archdiocese over 45 years. “I feel privileged to have been part of the growth of this great diocese,” she said.
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., just a few blocks in either direction from a Catholic elementary school and a Catholic secondary academy where the Grey Nuns taught, her family was “just placed in an area where I heard the call,” Sister Joan said.
“It is a mystery how one so young could make the decision, but those were the times,” she continued. “Today it would be almost unthinkable. I was 17.”
She came to Atlanta in August 1963 as a newly professed sister and encountered the winds of Vatican II in a new archdiocese led by Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan. “It was just perfect timing in my life to be right on the cusp of Vatican II and learn all these things in this diocese,” Sister Joan said.
“There were a lot of sisters here. Nobody had a motherhouse so it wasn’t a question of this sister or that sister. It was that we were sisters. I think that has always been a strength here too. We bonded as sisters.”
She taught for three years at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, while completing her college degree in philosophy. After teaching novices in her order she returned to Atlanta in 1973 to teach at Christ the King School. But her path led instead into pastoral and parish ministry, which became the heart of her vocation, and she went on to receive a master’s degree in it from St. Paul’s College in Ottawa, Canada.
She has served in this ministry for eight years at Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain, six years at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville, and for the last seven years at St. Brendan Church in Cumming. Her memories are all joyous.
At Corpus Christi she recalls when the laity eagerly responded to the opportunity to serve as the hands and feet of Christ in new ways, such as in ministry to the sick, homebound and nursing homes, in baptismal preparation classes, and in ministry to the separated and divorced.
“The laity was so ready. It was exciting. You really felt like you were doing what Jesus said,” she recalled. “We visited the sick. We had all these adult education classes so people could share their faith with one another, Scripture study and Lenten reflection groups. We also started a SWORD (separated, widowed, divorced) group at Corpus Christi to reach out to people who were hurting … to help them through a really difficult time in their life.”
At St. John’s in Hapeville, she relished the history of this established parish with its school. Her role was adult education and she became the director of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, “which was wonderful, working with folks becoming Catholic.”
From 1992 to 1999, Sister Joan left the archdiocese for retreat work elsewhere, but she came back eagerly in 2000 to the new parish of St. Brendan when Father Willie Hickey asked her to join the staff.
She has been a part of the foundation laid in that area, starting small faith sharing groups and establishing local charities. A particular effort has gone into serving the Hispanic community. A program called “Our Family” the parish established is now in its third year, collaborating with Lanier Tech to help Hispanic women with small children learn English. While Lanier provides teachers, the parish provides free childcare and bilingual mentors for the women from the parish, along with conversational partners.
She feels the empowering of the laity begun by the Second Vatican Council has been a consistent emphasis throughout her over 45 years as a woman religious. The reality that the people of God are the church, with different gifts and different roles to make up one body, is her lifelong experience.
“I guess I am a great advertisement for the laity,” Sister Joan concluded. “Without them I would be just this one little lonely voice out there. I am their cheerleader.”
“We were shaped by the Second Vatican Council, and we are still doing its good work. It is just the first 40 years. … I just have felt really blessed that I have been in an arena where I could learn so much from others and share so much myself.”
“I guess (the Atlanta Archdiocese) will always be the one closest to my heart because I have given most of my life here,” Sister Joan said.