As March is quickly moving to completion and is ending in a time of trial, uncertainty, and challenge, we take the time to feature a Sister of Charity who would seek to find ways to meet the new normal in our country today. The writer began this article as we were beginning Catholic Sister’s Week but the daily changes in the world forced the writing to the back burner as other pressing matters took priority…
Meet Joan McGinley, daughter of Elizabeth Zimber and Edward McGinley, born on August 26, 1930, the second daughter and youngest child in a family of six. She attended Resurrection grade school in Brookline. Joan’s mother died of cancer when Joan was ten years old and, for several months, the family was separated until Joan’s father could reorganize and unite the family.
While completing eighth grade at Resurrection, Joan planned to attend public high school with several of her classmates. However, one day, Resurrection’s principal asked Joan to have her father stop to see her after Sunday Mass while assuring Joan that she was “not in trouble.” During the meeting, the principal suggested that Mr. McGinley send Joan to Elizabeth Seton High School. Remembering that Joan always wanted to take piano lessons her father announced, “You will attend Elizabeth Seton High School in the fall and you can enroll for piano lessons.” The piano lessons were Mr. McGinley’s attempt to make the decision more palatable. Joan admitted later that the piano lessons were less successful than the overall high school experience.
Although unhappy about the decision, Joan joined the Elizabeth Seton Class of 1949 and thrived. In later years, she expressed thanks to her father and the principal. She loved her time at Seton.
In October of her senior year, Joan petitioned to enter the Sisters of Charity, but she never shared the information with her friends. To the surprise of many, Joan entered the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill on September 8, 1950. She received the habit and the name Sister Elizabeth Marie on April 24, 1949. She made her temporary profession on April 24, 1951 and perpetual profession on June 27, 1954.
She returned to her baptismal name during the changes following the Second Vatican Council.
Throughout her life, Sister Joan carried God’s word with zest and enthusiasm. During 45 years of her ministry to children, she sought innovative ways to teach and to discipline. She loved teaching in the primary grades, particularly first and second grade. Joan ministered in the Sisters of Charity schools in the dioceses of Tucson, Phoenix, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC. She was particularly attracted to teaching in areas where the children were poor and underserved. Along the way, Joan received a BA in Education from Seton Hill College (now University) and a Master’s in Reading and Language Arts from the University of Pittsburgh.
Sister Joan served most of her ministerial years, from 1964 until 1991, as a principal. Those who worked with her, as well as the many students whom she influenced, described her as a kind leader who challenged their imaginations and their creativity. She hosted plays, projects, and outreach programs in the local communities.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Joan found time to be involved in Jail ministry, outreach to the poor, and community committees, in addition to her daily demands as a school administrator. Once, Joan wrote the following about her life:
“My life has freed me to know myself in relation to others and to continue to integrate my personal, spiritual, and ministerial roles in a way that brings peace, satisfaction, and opportunities to new beginnings.”
After a sabbatical to ponder the best way to serve, Joan began to minister in social ministry. From 1993 until 2004, Sister Joan served as the Social Minister at Saint Sebastian Parish in the North Hills. She transferred many of the skills as principal to this new position. She brought energy and life to the parish community. Ministering in a parish where many of the parishioners had obtained “the American Dream,” Joan offered them the opportunity to learn about, and assist, the poor and needy. She helped to sponsor several refugee families and was always sorry not to be able to bring more to the area. She invited several parishioners to participate in AIDS ministry. She wrote requests in the Sunday bulletin for everything from diapers and food to used cars. One woman who attended the farewell party for Sister Joan at the parish said, “She could convince the devil himself to do what she thought was important.” No one in the parish was off the hook for service. If you were retired and could drive, you could run errands. If you were in your 80’s and hard-of-hearing, you could repair bicycles. If you had young children, you could invite the refugee children to come and play with your children.
Meanwhile, Joan had a reputation as a woman who also knew how to play and celebrate. Her party organizing skills were famous. She could make fun of the smallest occasion. She was particularly famous for her Saint Patrick’s Day parties. She loved the Irish Festival, but she was also present for Octoberfest. At Saint Sebastian’s, she organized a baking crew to provide small fruit cakes for Christmas, Irish Soda Bread for Saint Patrick’s Day, and other treats for shut-in s during significant days of the year. As long as she was able, she never missed a Pittsburgh Saint Patrick Day Parade.
In 2004, Sister Joan resigned from her cherished position at Saint Sebastian’s. Parkinson’s disease had slowed her gait and weakened her balance. It took longer to complete many tasks. Her final visit to the parish for a liturgy in her honor and an open lasted from eight in the morning until seven in the evening. Family, friends, and parishioners came in a steady stream to say goodbye. Even one of her first grade students came to play and sing Irish songs in her honor.
Parkinson’s Disease took away Sister Joan’s ability to walk, her voice became a mere whisper, her writing was barely legible, She continued to reach out to those in need, tried to organize ways for her friends to help with projects, sent notes by e-mail, and cards to friends at Saint Sebastian.
Joan died suddenly during a short hospitalization on December 12, 2014. To sum up a life well lived, one might think about it in a paraphrase of her own words:
“Joan did indeed get to know herself in relation to others. Even in her tears of joy and sadness, she was able reveal God’s love for His people through her courage and spiritual strength. “Joan made the work of charity visible with a joyful spirit and loving heart. She never lost her zest for life, her interest in others, her Irish wit, or her ability to laugh.
One of the final things she wrote: “I am not complaining. I was diagnosed so long ago and I have been able to do a lot. I know I ask a lot. But know that I am grateful.”
During this March 2020, and as we all face the trying dilemmas COVID-19 has brought on an international scale, let us take a moment to reflect on the lessons from that feisty Irish lady, Sister Joan McGinley. Reach out to your neighbor in need. Do what you can to help others. Enjoy life and revel in God’s gifts to the world. As Sister Joan would surely agree, our humanity is what unites us all.