We are so glad that Sister Joannes chose to become a School Sister of St. Francis at the urging of her priest uncle who said, “Join the School Sisters of St. Francis. They are the best in the world.”
Sister Joannes was ready to enter the Lake Franciscans, who taught at her parish school in Belgium, Wisconsin. Other girls from the neighboring parish in Dacada had already become School Sisters of St. Francis. Among them were the Watery sisters and her cousin, Sister Cynthia. After her uncle took her to visit the motherhouse, she liked what she saw and decided to enter on August 15. Sister Martha Lanser entered with her.
Our congregation’s ministry in foreign missions also drew her to us. Her eighth grade teacher was very disappointed, of course, and so was a young man who had an eye on her. He wrote, but of course,Joannes was never given the letters. When she went home for her summer visit as an Aspirant, he saw her and asked, “How come you didn’t write to me?”
When she was interviewed at the motherhouse and asked what ministry she wished to pursue, teaching was her choice. Her other options were music or nursing. Her mother was present and said, “Don’t follow the music path” (She had heard her play!) However, Sister Joannes did bring her love of music and from a young age she was known for always having a song for everything. Another talent that she brought was her love for memorizing poetry.
Sister Joannes’ desire to serve with the poor was diverted at least two times. The first time was when a group of sisters formed out of St. Therese Parish in Milwaukee to go to Williamsburg, Kentucky. Sister Joannes was teaching at St. Therese and wanted to join them. The leadership said, “No, wait a year,” and so she did.
In 1976, Sister Joannes had an opportunity to visit India as part of the Living Aware program. Sister Gertrude Rothle and Sister Joannes went with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky. The Indian School Sisters of S. Francis were ministering in Germany at the time and Sister Joannes’s group had to leave before those sisters returned, which was disappointing.
But in 1982, Sister was working in Mississippi. She needed to study Spanish in preparation for going to Latin America. She found a school in Mexico and called the Provincial office to ask permission to attend it. No one answered the phone, so she called the Generalate office. Sister Barbara Kraemer answered the phone and said, “Yes, go for it.”
There was a coal miners’ strike in Kentucky while Sister Joannes was working there, and she supported the people. This would be a remote preparation for her ministry to and with the compesinos in Honduras and Guatemala.
For nine years, Sister Joannes lived with and supported the refugees from Guatemala in a refugee camp in Honduras because of the civil war in Guatemala. She started a school and with the help of Catholic Charities and donations from friends in the United States (especially our congregation’s Mission Advancement office) they were able to get textbooks, a pencil, and a notebook for each child. Sister Joannes was able to leave the camp and teach art, music (yes, she did do it!), and English in the middle school in Paraiso, Copan.
When the refugees could return to Guatemala, they were given very poor land that had been devastated by the war. Sister Joannes’ farming background was a great asset in helping the people to work the land and grow crops again. During that time, she always felt the support of the congregation even though she was the only sister there. A visit from Sisters Fran Cunningham and Barbara Kraemer from the Generalate team during that time was very life giving. That is among her best memories.
A memory that makes her laugh was the time in the Novitiate when she was assigned to clean the infirmary. A sick sister was told to drink a bottle of beer each day to build up her strength. As Sister Joannes was picking up the bottles, she dropped one. Jokingly, she said to the sick sister, as if it was Sister Archelaus speaking, “For your penance, you will have no more beer” Sister Joannes turned around and there stood Sister Archelaus! Sister Joannes asked her “What is my penance?” Sister Archelaus said, “You named it.”
A sad time was when her Dad had a heart attack, but Sister Joannes did not know it. As she was scrubbing the floor and laying down newspapers, she saw an article with a picture of her Dad’s farm showing the farmers who came to help her Dad because he had a heart attack. When Sister Joannes asked to call home, Sister Archelaus said, “No, you shouldn’t be reading the newspaper” and she was not allowed to call home.
All in all, though, Sister Joannes has good memories of Sister Archelaus, including once when the wooden floor on the fourth floor of the motherhouse was being refinished. As Sister Joannes was sanding it, Sister Archelaus did it with her.
Whenever Sister Joannes is working with the poor, the outcasts, simple people, she feels the most connected with God. Her guiding viewpoint is to “take people as they are.” She was so inspired by the people in the refugee camp who saw no future and many of their loved ones had been murdered. They remained so dedicated to the Church, though, and their faith was so strong. She has the same experience with the people at a shelter in El Paso, Texas, where she now volunteers one day a week.
Regarding the future of the congregation, Sister Joannes notes that we may be diminishing in numbers in one part of the world, but we are getting vocations in India and Africa.
“If a woman really feels called to us, no matter what age, we should accept them even if it ends up being only for a short time,” she said. She strongly believes that religious life will come back, especially in the United States. We thank you, Sister Joannes, for your strong faith, belief in religious life, and your 70 years of faithfulness as a School Sister of St. Francis. You are truly an example of following Mother Alexia’s vision: “Whatever are needs of the time, that is the will of God for us.”
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