Sister Joneen Keuler

Sister Joneen KeulerTwo aspects of early home life had the most profound effect on Sister Joneen’s later ministry. Her life was coming full circle, though she only realized it later.

“I had two main desires for life after my high school years with the School Sisters of St. Francis in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin: to be of service and to be happy. As the only daughter and the youngest of five children, my mother wanted very much to pass on to me her amazing cooking and sewing skills. But I didn’t want anything to do with those ‘inside things’ – I preferred being outside in the barn or driving tractor in the fields.

“But then I entered community and had to learn to sew! Eventually I was allowed to transfer from the field of education into the field of nutrition, where I had to learn all about foods and food preparation! My mother never pointed out the irony of this, but I suspect she thought about it more than once!”

Joneen’s work assignment as a first-year Novice was in the diet kitchen with Sister Augustella (“Gusty”).  “We had a great year together,” she recalled. “It was this year with her that led me to the field of nutrition.”

Joneen spent 24 years as a clinical nutritionist at Tucson Medical Center. That time was “significant and rewarding, especially the four years I spent ministering to hospice patients with the interdisciplinary team. We met weekly – medical director, nurses, social workers, pastoral care staff and me – learning from each other whatever might be the most important needs of each hospice patient and their caregivers. They included Native Americans from the Yaqui and Tohono O’odham reservations in and near Tucson. I learned so much about how to live fully each day from the women and men I accompanied as they were living the final days of their lives.”

Living in the southwest, Joneen feels very connected to the desert. “It’s a very spiritual environment,” she said. “The starkness of the desert is balanced with the beauty of creation and all peoples, and in turn, Native American spirituality is intrinsically connected to the earth.”

Being outdoors has always been a part of how Joneen experiences God. “How I see, and experience Creation is how I experience God,” she said. “I’ve found God in the most exquisite works of creation: a pink and blue sky at sunrise that surrounds me as I drive out of the city towards the mountains; a perfect mini orchid blossom; the thunder of a waterfall.”

“Other than the name ‘St. Francis’ in the name of our community, and knowing the ‘St. Francis of the Birdbath,’ I knew little about what ‘Franciscan’ really meant when I entered. Slowly, care of the earth became a call, and a connection was made, and Pope Francis certainly raised the world’s awareness through his name choice and ‘Laudato Si’.”

Current writers continue to challenge Joneen to make connections between the incarnational spirituality of St. Francis and St. Clare, her lived experience as a School Sister of St. Francis, and how she companions others in her spiritual direction practice.

Reflecting on the future of religious life, Joneen says, “I believe it will be much less about ‘how many’ than simply ‘how,’” she said. “How will those who commit to life in community see themselves ministering in collaboration with other religious, people of other faith traditions, and global partners, to live the call of the Gospel? How will they minister to meet the needs of the homeless (think refugee), the hungry (think compassion), and care for all creation (think water and forests)?  I believe the ‘how’ we minister is what changes when we pay close attention to the signs of the times.”

So, the girl who avoided domestic chores and instead found happiness outdoors has come full circle and grown into the woman religious who served initially as a nutritionist and ministers now as a spiritual director in a very creation-oriented environment, using her gifts and talents helping others grow in their relationship with God.  Because she is able to do this, Joneen says, “I’m most grateful!”

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