Sister Joanna Brown (formerly Sister Louis Marie)
“Let the children come to Me,” words of Jesus in the Gospel. Then, “Place yourself gently into the hands of Providence,” words of our Saint Mother Theodore.
Those few words may contain the heart of Sister Joanna Brown’s life and legacy as she welcomed everyone who came into her life with equally gentle love and faithful care, said Sister Gloria Memering in her commentary for Sister Joanna Brown, who died Sept. 19, 2014, at age 85. She was a Sister of Providence for 68 years.
Born Sept. 29, 1928, in Loogootee, Indiana, to John and Emma (Draime) Brown, Joanna took her place as the 14th of their 15 children. Their older girls had the name Johnnie Mae placed on her birth certificate, so she was called this most of her life. Her mother had actually wanted her named Joanna Mae, and so this was on her baptismal record. (So much for the power of older siblings in the family’s life!).
Joanna’s nieces and nephews mostly called her Joanie. At any rate, she developed as a fun-loving, tender-hearted child.
Joanna attended elementary school at St. John School in Loogootee, and St. Mary School in Wayne, Michigan. Her first part of high school was at Providence High School in Chicago, where she lived, worked and studied; after two years, she moved to Vincennes, Indiana, where she attended Saint Rose Academy for one year, then returned to Providence for her senior year and graduation.
Knowing the Sisters of Providence through her sibling, Sister Francetta, and her teachers, Sister Joanna entered our congregation as a postulant on July 22, 1946, from Sacred Heart Parish in Vincennes; she was named Sister Louis Marie. Her Reception as a novice was the following Jan. 23, and First Profession of Vows on Jan. 23, 1949. She professed her final vows on Jan. 23, 1954.
Sister Joanna received her bachelor of arts in the field of Latin at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and her master’s degree in elementary education at Indiana State University. No wonder that she could teach anything that she was asked to do. She added on to her credits a certification in secondary English and Latin, general elementary 1-8, and another to include kindergarten. Math was always her favorite subject; it seemed to come naturally that she understood and could help others – children and adults.
Community mission life and ministry took her to many places in her 50 years, from St. Mel in Chicago; St. Charles in Peru, Indiana; then back to Chicago to Maternity BVM; next on to Immaculate Conception in Tulsa, Oklahoma; to St. John the Baptist in Newburg, Indiana; to Corpus Christi in Evansville.
Now for a little humor during her experience at Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne. That’s where during the night, the chimney fell in the convent causing injury to some of the sisters. Joanna told the story how she got fully dressed in the habit to answer the door for the firemen. One of them said, “See, I told you so … they sleep in those clothes.”
Sister Joanna was called to still more places than most people (allegedly, because some hole needed to be plugged, and she was very adaptable). So she was called back to Corpus Christi in Evansville, then to Terre Haute – first to St. Patrick’s School, then to Margaret Mary’s and back to Newburg. Finally, in 1985, she enjoyed her sabbatical year at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. That got her ready for her 22 years at Precious Blood, Jasper, Indiana, as teacher, principal, confirmation coordinator and volunteer in most activities and outreach to “shut-in folks” and the poor. In 1994, she even made a trip to Selma, Alabama to join in the building blitz with Habitat for Humanity!
While in Jasper, Sister Joanna was honored as diocesan “1995 Teacher of the Year.” The Evansville Diocesan newspaper stated: “In presenting the award, Bishop Gettelfinger said, ‘it’s not the big things about her that drew our panelists to her. It was the million little things: Like listening, instilling respect, teaching her students to care and be concerned about one another. It was her volunteer work and her leadership in the parish. It was how she began her day with prayer and checking all the classrooms. She was continually creative and innovative in her teaching approaches and always able to adapt successfully to a wide variety of learning styles. She was the kind of person who would walk that extra mile just to make sure you were happy. Throughout her teaching career, she was in ‘many different settings,’ she said; and each has had its joys and sorrows. I feel that I have been able to relish the joys, rise up after defeat because of the deep spiritual background and humor given by my parents and family.’”
In September 2006, Sister Joanna returned home to the Woods as a very energetic resident of the Owens Community. Day and night she might have slipped out to Providence Health Care to comfort sisters for whom she was their designated Health Care Representative. Or she could be found in the computer room to help solve someone’s urgent problem; she is our “patron saint” of such needs. At Christmastime, she relaxed near the tree she loved to decorate here or with her Michigan family’s tree, coffee and company early on Christmas morning.
She loved her weekly service with the community at The Helping Hands and Providence Food Pantry. Joanna said in writing, “The folks I work with in West Terre Haute are life-giving. Their faith and generosity are great. Our clients are so needy. They, by their gratitude, are humbling. They are affirming, fun and inspire me by their faith.”
Many of the clothes she had first hung up on the Owen’s giveaway rack for sisters and staff to peruse, she later bagged and sent on to The Helping Hands. Joanna took Holy Communion to St. Mary’s Village Church’s shut-in parishioners for a number of years. Some other home jobs she enjoyed were doing wash for the kitchen and visitors’ rooms; being substitute treasurer for her Owens Community; any hospitality needs; helping to serve at monthly birthday dinners (as a matter of fact, the September dinner was happening as she died); at Sunday Liturgies, she regularly was a greeter or asking people to participate in the Offertory Procession and often took Communion to the organist, via the steep gallery steps. Wherever there was fun to share, Joanna was there: Johnnie Mae on the spot. Joanie carried out her “Pops” gift to Irish jigging, especially on St. Patrick’s Day and taught some of us.
Sister Joanna enjoyed many travels and visits to her scattered family. One of her companions on these various trips was Rita Muller, who was always ready to drive Joanna on these adventures. These past weeks, since Joanna’s surgery in July, give witness to the strong and loving relationship Joanna enjoyed with her nieces and nephews and their respect and devotion to her – their matriarch.
Throughout her life, Joanna was the easy-to-approach person to cry or laugh with, to settle student conflicts as a just and compassionate peacemaker; to be always learning and sharing as on our current Anti-Racism Committee. One of her nephews remarked that “he had never met a more non-judgmental person.”
Her longtime friend, Sister Martha Ann, retells the story of one of her “little” ones: He came up to Principal Sister Joanna with the question, “You are brown and Sister Rita is black. Now what color is Sister Martha Ann?”
She taught with God’s merciful love as a very welcoming and forgiving woman and truly was a positive “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” as in this song she loved. Another of her more modern inspirational songs she identified with was “You Raise Me Up.” This must have expressed her deep and honest faith, trusting hope, and faithful love in all her relationships: With God, family, colleagues, friends and community.
We will miss you, Sister Joanna, and thank you for being our companion with God on the journey, held in the palm of God’s providential hand. You shine with the stars you always loved and knew. As children in God’s family with your 40 nieces and nephews and their almost hundred children, we’ll be invited someday to be with you at the big family table forever. We love you.
Amen, and Alleluia!
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