Joan was the family’s Christmas present in 1934, born on December 21 to Theresa and Clement Puls. She was number nine, the baby of the family. Her three brothers (Roman, Odo, Edmund) and five sisters (Connie, Peg, Leota, Elma, Clementine later known as Sister Alphonsa, and Joan), and their families were always a central focus for Joan.
Home was a mixture of hard work and making ends meet, loving one another, with Mom as the “heart” of the family and Dad as the “taskmaster.” The family owned a country store with fish fries on Friday nights. She remembered playing with her nieces and nephews, and the neighborhood kids, praying the rosary after supper while leaning on the kitchen chairs, and her brothers going off to join the army and navy - all memories of home in Louisburg, Wisconsin.
Her mother died when Joan was just 15. By the time Joan was 70, all her brothers and sisters had died.
Joan loved her high school years with the Sinsinawa Dominicans, but she followed her sister, Alphonsa, to the School Sisters of St. Francis. She was received in 1954, the Marian year, and received the name of Sister Mary Sarto.
Her first mission was St. Benedict High School in Chicago, a big challenge for a young woman from rural Wisconsin. After four years of teaching English and history, she began her studies in philosophy at Marquette University here in Milwaukee, where she received her PhD in 1965.
Immediately after receiving her degree, she was asked to teach Philosophy at Alverno College with often more classes than usual and the maximum number of students, and always with the best of her energy.
However, the following few years was a time of declining health for Joan, she suffered from an emotional breakdown; she completed several years of therapy, and she emerged from her tunnel as she described it - healed and healthy.
It is difficult to condense the activities and experiences she packed into the next
several decades. She helped found and worked at the Justice and Peace Center in Milwaukee. She helped found Network, a national lobby for religious women and laity. She served has a resource person for the International Team, giving workshops on formation, and leading discussions on Response in Faith in North and South India.
In 1981 she met Gwen Cashmore, who helped launch Joan on her world travels, her many experiences with other cultures and with ecumenism. She lived in Switzerland for some time, acting as a consultant in spirituality for the World Council of Churches. She lived in England for nearly eight years, co-directing with Gwen, the Ecumenical Spirituality Project, under the auspices of the British Council of Churches. It was during these years that Joan wrote four books on spirituality and collaborated with Gwen on a fifth book.
After Joan and Gwen were no longer working closely together, they managed to bridge the great distances and potential obstacles in their long-term international friendship. In spite of breast cancer, diabetes and a pacemaker, Joan was always ready to pursue the next adventure, the next challenge.
When Joan returned to the United States in 1996, she became the first inter-community novice director at the Common Franciscan Novitiate in Winona, Minnesota. Then in 2000, she was elected President of the School Sisters of St. Francis for a six-year term.
Her greatest joy in serving as President of the congregation was the opportunity to come to know and visit sisters in every province and to mentor and encourage them in their personal lives and ministry.
After her term in leadership, Joan returned to her first love, teaching. She became the Curriculum Coordinator at the Silver Spring Milwaukee Achievers Literary Services. There too, she fell in love with her learners and with the generous volunteer tutors. She also was devoted to the Sisters at Sacred Heart and St. Joseph Convent where she led Scripture reflections. She always said those Sisters taught her so much about living and letting go.
Joan was a pioneer in many ways. Perhaps it was her studies in philosophy, as well as her rootedness in family and her ordinary life experiences that enabled her to integrate justice and peace, spirituality, global issues, ecumenism, human encounters and a multicultural perspective in her speaking and writing.
In spite of her diverse and demanding ministries, Joan valued the relationships that were formed, her bonds with people in many countries, with many different backgrounds. Her heart was big enough to hold the large family of Puls descendants, an international community of sisters, friends and colleagues, fellow staff members, heads of churches, adult learners, or companions on a spiritual journey.
Joan remained close to her many nieces and nephews and to an even greater number of her great nieces and nephews, and now even into the next generation. She prayed them through crises, supported them in their college studies, approved their marriages, remembered their birthdays, and wrote countless notes and cards over the years.
Joan loved and claimed time for solitude and reflection. Thomas Merton was a lifetime guide for her. She was given her first Merton book in High School. She would often quote, “We do not go away from people to escape them, rather one goes into solitude so to meet them with greater compassion and love.”
When Joan was physically able, she would start each day with a morning walk. These were not only a part of a healthy and physical routine for her but here she would greet the new day, experience God’s goodness in creation and celebrate the uniqueness of each day.
Joan, you have now completed your many earthly walks. May you now enjoy the many paths in God’s heavenly kingdom and once again meet all those you loved, admired, and cherished.
Sister Joan, may you now rest in peace. AMEN!