Sister Mary Jo Stewart (formerly Sister Joseph Maureen)
Isn’t it special that we gather during this Easter week to celebrate the life of Sister Mary Jo Stewart, whom God called to join her parents, Frank and Josephine Bohnert Stewart, and her brothers, Henry and Marvin, on Saturday morning of the solemn Easter Vigil, said Sister Ann Casper and Sister Mary Mark Dede in their commentary for Sister Mary Jo Stewart, who passed away on Saturday, April 20, 2019, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 91 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 74 years.
Sister Mary Mark continued: Mary Johann Stewart was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on Sept. 25, 1927. She attended St. Ann Grade School and high school at Providence Juniorate at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. I have been friends with Mary Jo since I was six years old, so we have had an uninterrupted friendship for nearly 85 years. We attended St. Ann School together – a very small school with two grades in each room. Everyone knew each other and we dearly loved the sisters.
Some days after school, I would go to Mary Jo’s house to play. However, her mother would sit down with us and we could not play until Mary Jo practiced her music lesson. Mary Jo’s mother died when she was only nine years old. She died from a simple dental procedure, so it was a great shock.
Mary Jo’s brother Marvin was seven years older than she and her brother Hank was 14 years older. When Hank married, his wife Helen was a real gift to Mary Jo, as she cared for her and looked after her. They were always great friends. Later in life, Mary Jo was able to return the kindness by taking Hank and Helen to Mass when he could no longer drive.
One of Hank and Helen’s children, Mary Jo’s niece Jeanine, shared that their favorite memory of Mary Jo was as they were growing up. There were seven children and every Sunday, their mother would make 12-dinner-plate size pizzas, dress everyone in their Sunday best and the family would go to the Woods. They met Mary Jo, who took them all over the place and played games with them. They were even allowed, Sunday-best clothes and all, to catch tadpoles in the fountain.
Mary Jo was also very close to her brother Marvin and his family. The morning of my father’s funeral, we had several inches of snow on the ground. I looked out the window and there was Marvin Stewart clearing our sidewalks.
Mary Jo’s dad was an engineer on the railroad, so his work necessitated his being away, sometimes overnight. He hired a woman to take care of Mary Jo, whom she nicknamed “Battleaxe,” so we all called her “Battleaxe.” About two weeks ago, Mary Jo and I were trying to think of the poor woman’s real name and we came up blank. As adults, we realized what a good, but firm, caregiver she really was.
Mary Jo entered the Congregation on January 8, 1945. She made her first profession of vows on August 15, 1947, and her profession of perpetual vows in 1952, both on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. Interestingly, from that very small class of St. Ann’s, two other girls entered at the same time, Sister Marie Paul Haas and Sister Winifred Mary Sullivan. I tagged along the next year.
Mary Jo received the religious name Sister Joseph Maureen and proceeded to earn her bachelors of science degree in education. She ministered as a very fine primary teacher for 25 years, serving in schools in Indiana, Illinois and California. In the mid-1970s, she felt a strong call to pursue a degree in Licensed Practical Nursing and graduated from Ivy Tech in Terre Haute in 1976.
Sister Josephine Bryan recalled that “Mary Jo fulfilled her noble calling with the same dedication that she devoted to teaching. She enjoyed her gift and brought it to fulfillment. She could be in a mess up to her elbows and still found joy in being present when needed. She always used her energy for service and we were blessed to have her on our team in the infirmary.”
Mary Jo nursed at the Motherhouse three different times for a total of nine years and then she felt called to the southern mission, serving in the Sacred Heart Southern Missions and Catholic Community Outreach in Holly Springs, Mississippi, for 16 years. It was then that she changed back to her baptismal name, so that the masculine “Joseph Maureen” would not confuse the people. Her main role was making home visits on a weekly or monthly basis to people who did not qualify for home-health care through Medicare or Medicaid. She maintained that the most important part of her ministry was creating relationships with the people. “I had to work to earn their trust,” she shared.
Mary Jo loved animals and I’m sure many of you remember how fond she was of the bunny rabbits in the health care courtyard. The last time I visited her in Holly Springs, she had a cat that she named, “Pizza-Pizza.” Only Mary Jo could come up with that. Before leaving Mississippi to return to the Woods, she volunteered at the Humane Society. She assisted the vet in neutering, spaying and caring for the injured animals. Whether animals or humans, she was there to help and minister.
Sister Joann Quinkert, who also served in the south and often attended meetings with Mary Jo, said that “Mary Jo always spoke of her ministry to folks out in the country as giving love and compassion as she visited and cared for people in their homes. She truly felt that they had been entrusted to her care.”
Many sisters cherish the memory of Mary Jo and Annette, both with their walkers, taking a daily stroll down the avenue to the road toward the grotto, resting there on the bench, and then returning. Having a walker seemed not to deter Mary Jo from her life-long spirit of generosity – her last ministry was removing and re-filling the long-burning candles in the Mother Theodore Shrine and taking early morning coffee and juice to her friend Annette during a serious illness.
Sister Edna Scheller stated that “Mary Jo loved to ‘putsy’ in the kitchenette and to keep everything nice and neat. She ordered the supplies every week. When Mary Jo returned to the Motherhouse in 2002, she worked at St. Ann Clinic, dispensing medications, and also served as a volunteer driver. When she drove, if a sister was having surgery, she would stay until after the surgery and then be with the sister for as long as needed, a great comfort because of her background in nursing care.”
I want the Stewart family to know that the last few days when Mary Jo was bedfast, the nurses and aides took such loving care of her. When they came every two hours to turn her, I would hear them say, “We love you, Mary Jo,” and one would always kiss her on the forehead before she left. Our chaplain, Father Dan, is untiring in his care for our sisters. He prayed with and anointed Mary Jo. The early morning Mary Jo died, he made a special trip to her good friend, Sister Annette, to pray with and console her.
I would like to close these remembrances with a prayer that was taught to my mother by the Sisters of Providence at St. Ann’s and then taught to us. As Mary Jo was dying, my sister Eileen and I recited the prayer at intervals and immediately Sister Annette joined us as well, for she, too, knew the prayer.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, assist me in my last agony.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace with you. Amen.
Funeral services for Sister Mary Jo took place on Friday, April 26, 2019, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception. A Wake took place at 9 a.m., followed by Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Mary Jo in the comment section below.
Sister Mary Jo Stewart (formerly Sister Joseph Maureen)
Teacher for 25 years in schools in Indiana, Illinois and California.
In Indiana: St. John the Baptist, Whiting (1954-57); St. John the Baptist, Fort Wayne (1957-67); St. Patrick, Indianapolis (1967-68); St. Mary, Richmond (1968-70).
In Illinois: Our Lady of Sorrows, Chicago (1947-48); St. Genevieve, Chicago (1948-52); St. Francis Borgia, Chicago (1952-54).
In California: Good Shepherd, Pacifica (1970-73).
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