Oral history: Sister Joann Quinkert the justice advocate
Sister Joann Quinkert (formerly Sister Joan Margaret) has known from her earliest years that she would become a Catholic sister. She remembers one day, before she was old enough to attend school, she was at the playground of the elementary school with her father when a Sister of Providence introduced herself to Joann: “My name is Sister Joan Marie,” she said. Immediately Joann replied, “Oh, my name is Joann Marie. When you die and go to Heaven, I’ll take your place!”
It would be less than honest to say the Sisters of Providence community at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods was always Joann’s first choice. At an early age she went to Louisville with one of her aunts and saw the Little Sisters of the Poor taking care of the indigent. On a subsequent trip to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to visit her other aunt, Sister Helen Celeste, SP, Joann told her, “I’m going to be a Little Sister of the Poor because they’re closer to God.” She relayed that story with a chuckle, pondering what her aunt must have thought.
Joann Marie Quinkert was born in New Albany, Indiana, during the Great Depression, at a time when one in four people nationwide were affected by unemployment. The early 1930s were some of the worst years of the Great Depression. Her father lost his machinist job. He took $50 and purchased an old Model T truck, bought fruit and vegetables from local farmers and peddled them on two routes. At the end of every week, he took what he had left to the African American community not far from their home.
Joann’s parents were Marguerite and John Quinkert. John was known as ‘Molly,’ an Irish term of endearment for ‘honey,’ his whole life. Joann’s parents were known as the ‘M & M’s’.
Sister Joann grew up in a devout, close-knit Catholic family. Her father’s godfather was actually her mother’s father. That grandfather owned a grocery and Joann’s father, Molly, worked there from the time he was high school age. He’d received a scholarship to attend Catholic High School, but he gave it up so he could go to work to help his family. Joann’s mother Marguerite was also working in the grocery store. Her parents worked side by side for several years before they married in their late 20s.
Sister Joann is the fourth of five children. She has one sibling still living, Father Denis Quinkert, at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. He served 60 years in ministry at Blue Cloud Abbey on Native American Reservations in South Dakota. Two older brothers, James and John, WWII Veterans, are deceased. Her sister Dolores, a registered nurse, is also deceased. She has a large, loving family of 25 nieces and nephews who get together frequently. This close-knit family arranges regularly to visit and stay in contact with their Aunt Joann and Uncle Denis at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and Saint Meinrad.
Care for others and loving others was modeled for her at home. And of course she is a proud member of the Silent Generation. ‘Silent’ can be a misnomer, especially because Sister Joann exhibits one of that generations’ qualities in full: leadership and participation in the civil rights movements.
“When I was in first grade I wanted to be a Sister. My paternal aunt was a Sister of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Sister Helen Celeste. We didn’t get to see her much, we didn’t have a car, but my Aunt Mary would drive us in the summer to visit. I wanted to work for God, and I wanted to help people.”
Basketball and sisterhood
Joann attended Holy Trinity Elementary School and was taught by the Sisters of Providence, but there was no Catholic high school in New Albany. She wanted to attend the Providence Juniorate, a high school at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, but her parents thought she was too young. With her father working again in a machine shop, money was not as tight so they said she could attend Presentation Academy in Louisville, run by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (who thought Joann would look good in their habit).
She stayed at Presentation for two years. During that time she played basketball on a team that her parish priest Father Carey had begun in New Albany. Joann loves sports, and her basketball team was runner-up in the Louisville League that first year. The late Sister Jean Ann Daniel was on her team and the following year they had to play the local high school. Joann’s team won that game and went on to win the league.
“This is the path traced by Providence and I follow it.”— Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
Sister Joann did come to the Providence Juniorate at age 15. She entered community on January 6, 1949, two years later. She was 17 years old.
Sister Joann has spent a lifetime in service to people in need. Her early experiences with her family no doubt laid the groundwork for where Providence would lead her, a family that understood Mark 12:31, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Whenever her mother took the streetcar, if there was someone of color on the streetcar she would go sit by them. Her grandfather’s grocery store treated equally every customer who came into the store. And her father made the trip each week to take his remainder fruits and vegetables to the African American community. Devoted in service.
“Where did I get that? My parents loved everybody. Father worked for St. Vincent de Paul. One Saturday evening we were sitting down to our chili and pie. A knock came on the door. A man was hungry so father invited him to come inside and sit with us and eat. There was a railroad track two-to-three blocks from us. We probably had people who knew to come to us for food. My mother would not turn anyone away. It was a provincial neighborhood, very stable. Many kids lived one block away. We’d play under streetlights in the middle of the street. My mother was always home.”
“We said grace at meals. We prayed for things and people. On Tuesday nights I would go to Novena Devotions with my dad. We walked about 1 ½ miles. After church we stopped at my father’s aunt’s house about a block from the church, said hello, then went home. In the summertime every two weeks my mother would remind me it was time to go to confession. I would get on my bike and ride to church.”
Equality for all
Sister Joann has degrees in education: a bachelor’s from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and a master’s from Indiana State University. She was a teacher and then principal for 26 years. She served schools in Indiana, teaching or administering in Fort Wayne, Sellersburg, Washington, and Indianapolis.
Sister Joann worked toward equality for all. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, Sister Joann served as teacher and principal at St. Ann Parish School for eight years, arriving the second year after it opened. St. Ann Parish School was the first integrated Catholic school in North Carolina, at a time when segregation was still the standard in the South. At another point in her teaching missions, Sister Joann was offered an opportunity to be a principal at one of two different schools in Indianapolis: one school was more privileged, one was inner-city. She chose the inner-city school. From an early age she knew those were her people. And when you know who your people are, you know they need you, and you need them.
Home in the parish
With Vatican II changes, a world of different opportunities outside of education opened. Sister Joann became a pastoral associate first at her home parish, Holy Trinity in New Albany and then at nearby St. Mary’s after Holy Trinity was destroyed in a fire. It was new for a woman to be in such a position, but Sister Joann grew up in the neighborhood and had been around German Catholics and Irish Catholics her whole life, and she knew people from both parishes. She knew who would be good to work with, to get things done. It was a good fit. After four years she moved on. The women of the parish wondered what they would do without her. “Well,” she told them, “you’ve got your foot in, don’t take it out.”
Sister Joann spent a year studying pastoral theology in Seattle. Then she ministered at Mercy Hospital as a chaplain in Des Moines, Iowa, while studying clinical pastoral education. She met with others in a group during that internship, to challenge one another, discover who they were, and put that discovery to good use.
People in need
The little girl from New Albany who admired the people she believed were ‘closer to God’ because they helped the poor was coming full circle as a Sister of Providence. No longer constrained to teaching and the classroom, she went to the Ministry Resource Center to find a mission opportunity to move into.
Sister Joann wanted to be in the Midwest and she wanted to help people learn to help themselves. Kentucky was always in her thoughts. There were opportunities in Appalachia, a resource center supported by 15 communities. She and Sister Laurene, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Dubuque, Iowa, took a chance to go look it over. They lived briefly with a nurse, then for the next seven years worked with the Friendship Center, a center for impoverished women, predominantly the wives of coal miners.
Selma, Alabama, was the next stop in this sister’s mission life. Selma has a rich history of discrimination as well as progression for Black people. It has seen its share of nonviolent marches for voting rights, equal treatment and an end to discrimination. Sister Joann’s mission in Selma began with social ministry, to assist individuals who came looking for help, issuing funds or directing them to resources. She introduced herself to all of the resource agencies in the community to learn what was available.
During her time in Selma, the AIDS epidemic was a continuing issue. Sisters Joann and Laurene would drive a young woman and her baby from Selma to Birmingham 90 miles away for AIDS testing. They took another young woman who was HIV positive for treatment. Black people and people without money were not able to receive treatment for medical issues related to AIDS in Selma. The Sisters began a community-based organization for HIV/AIDS: obtained an office, recruited individuals for a Board of Directors – a social worker, Black doctor, lawyer, teachers – and in 1995 Selma AIR was in business. Sister Joann came up with the acronym AIR: Selma Aids Information and Referral. Selma AIR continues to this day, nearly 30 years later.
Selma AIR received the highest honor from the state of Alabama its first year of operation. It became the organization through which the state could fund grants for 13 counties. Sister Joann and a social worker went to each of the 13 counties to introduce the program. The lack of knowledge regarding AIDS transmission at that time was still rampant. She helped people understand the disease and move through that.
“I was never an outgoing person, but I was not afraid of anything. I never really had fear.”
The two-hour drive to Birmingham or the hour drive to Montgomery was needed to get medical treatment for patients. Through their efforts, the director of one of the agencies in Montgomery arranged to staff the Black doctor’s office in Selma once a month. Next, they were able to get their own doctor who would staff the clinic in Selma. They made an AIDS quilt for a patient who passed. There was a client who lived 30 miles from Selma. Sister Joann would pick him up and take him to the clinic. One day the police called her and said she would need to pick him up from the jail. She did. They trusted her. Once, she wanted to take a gentleman to Birmingham to a program to dry up, but a volunteer insisted she not go alone. “I was not afraid of anything.”
“However good and holy your occupations may be, they leave distraction and fatigue. Come then, dear daughters, to enjoy yourselves a little in the Lord… ”— Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
While she was in Kentucky at the Friendship Center, Sister Joann took up the violin again. Working with people who were needy and the agencies that serve them is demanding, draining work. It is especially so for introverts. Playing violin filled Sister Joann back up, renewed her energy for the tasks she faced daily. She had borrowed a child’s violin one day and was playing it when someone heard her. The music teacher at Cumberland College in Kentucky was married to the Director of the Civic Chamber Orchestra. He invited her to play with them. She practiced and practiced and joined them. It enriched her. When she went to Selma she was in the choir and played for one of the hymns on Holy Thursday, and the Montgomery Symphony asked her to join them. She played with the Symphony for a while. “All those things gave me life.”
Had she always been musical? “At the Juniorate they tried to get me to take piano lessons to become a music teacher. I told the teacher I’d aways dreamed of teaching 40 mean little boys.” Music teacher was not her first choice. They put her in violin lessons, thinking she might just want to teach violin only. Oh, Providence.
Sister Joann gave up the religious habit after it was first modified, then shortened, then the choice was hers. One of the concerns asked of younger sisters: What do we do with our hair? She related a story that occurred on a plane. Her seatmate on the plane, a stranger, was in conversation with Sister Joann who eventually told this seatmate she was Catholic and a little later on that she was a Sister. She asked her seatmate on the plane, “If I had been in a habit, would you have come and sat next to me? And she said she probably wouldn’t. I told her that’s why we gave it up. We wanted to be among the people, to do our mission work among the people, and not be different from them.”
She had traveled overseas with her Aunt Edie, who was looking for a compatible companion and chose Sister Joann. They made a pilgrimage to Fatima, Lourdes and Rome; a 10-day trip that encompassed Portugal, France, Spain and Italy. She also traveled to Ghana with her good friend Sister Laurene. They were invited to come visit by another Sister who was working in Ghana, so they made a sabbatical for eight weeks at the Spiritual Life Center. She tutored a laundress in literacy, they both tutored English and math. It was a wonderful time. Sister Joann marveled at how even while struggling the people managed their Ghanaian traditions and their lives.
“Yes, above all things: justice, justice. If any preferences may be shown, let it be to the poorest or most abandoned.”— Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
In Selma, Alabama — that hotbed of racism and social as well as voting rights suppression for two centuries — Sister Joann kept a sign in the office: “And ain’t I a woman?” from Sojourner Truth’s speech to the Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, regarding equality and justice for women and slaves.
“I was interested in justice issues.”
On Nov. 17, 2002, Sister Joann Quinkert was arrested in Columbus, Georgia, for crossing a designated barrier at U. S. Army Base Fort Benning while protesting the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA). It was the 13th annual protest, with nearly 6,500 protesters. Around 90 protesters were arrested that day. Of the six religious community members arrested, three were Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. I asked Sister Joann what led her to this:
“I was in the office in Selma and we were having petitions signed to close the School of the Americas. People would come in and I would tell them about it, about teaching torture, and ask them to sign it. Sister Kathleen Desautels and Sister Dorothy Gartland were at the 8th Day Center of Justice. Religious communities were keeping us abreast of what justice things were going on. In a letter they sent out they were asking for groups to come together to cross the line at the SOA.
[The late] Sisters Rita Clare Gerardot and Adele Beacham and I talked it over with our Sisters in leadership and decided to go. The evening before, a group of communities got together to pray, and they prayed for those who were going to cross. The three of us and two Sisters from the 8th Day Center came up front – only five of us…
“I did it for justice”
“On the day we did it there were many people who crossed the line, just not that many religious. We crossed the line carrying a cross and singing, ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’. They arrested us and put us in shackles and handcuffs and put us on a bus and drove us away. There was not enough room in the jail so they put us in an old stockade in town. It was like a dormitory: the sink didn’t work, we had to brush our teeth in the drinking fountain, there were no curtains in the shower or toilet.
“We stood in a room for hours; there was no place to sit. They finally brought us something to eat in the stockade. We were taken by alphabet to see the Judge. He stopped having hearings before he got to ‘Q’, so I spent the night. I had one phone call so I called the others whose names came before ‘Q’. They were having a nice steak supper that night, but they did stay to take me home the next day. It was an experience.
“I did it for justice, for people who couldn’t speak for themselves. The stories from Central America about who were assassinated — whole villages — by people who had been trained by the SOA. I was anticipating prison time, but Sister Rita Clare asked for community service and probation to continue service, and I got the same.”
Friend on death row
Since 2006, Sister Joann has lived at the Woods. Right away when she arrived, sisters asked if she would visit an inmate at the United States Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute. She said yes. For 17 years she has visited a man on death row there and been faithful in her contact with him. What do they talk about, this Sister of Providence and a man convicted of murder on death row?
“I look on my calendar since my last visit to see what I have done since then and talk to him about those things. He has little to talk about. No visitors come except his lawyers and me. He was a professional; he watches history and science. His family doesn’t visit. We never discuss his case. We always say the ‘Our Father’. I subscribe for him the ‘Give Us This Day’ daily readings. He is a pauper. With his free phone call he called me when I couldn’t make one of the visits. He is my friend.”
Sister Joann initiated contact with his family members in the Chicago area at his request, giving some of them peace of mind about him.
Most recently, Sister Joann was contacted by two attorneys who flew into Indianapolis and visited her at the Woods to request that she write a letter to President Biden and ask that the sentence of her friend on death row be commuted. Of course she has done that.
“I’ve always tried to be the voice of the marginalized and the voiceless. I think of this as how God has called me.”
Life as a sister
What does it mean to be a Sister of Providence? “I think of our mission, based on love, mercy and justice. We reach out to the needy and the poor and the women. It has meant to me having the opportunity to always want to be closer to God and for God to be present — opportunities for that, a life for that. I think of God as love. The opportunity I have had is to get to know God as love. I call on my God as love and I present myself to God as love, because God’s love lives in me and through me.” Sister Joann has never doubted or felt the need to re-evaluate her vocation. Her commitment has been a freeing time for her to pursue her mission in life.
The Eucharist is the most important spiritual practice to Sister Joann, and her sacred place is nature and being in it when the opportunity presents itself. She stays busy.
What advice would Sister Joann Quinkert offer to someone considering a religious vocation? “Pray to your God and thank God for the inspiration, thank God for the call. Be sure as much as you can that God is calling you. You will have the opportunity to study and learn about community, learn about religious life. Thank God for the call. Come and see.”
Sister Joann entered community before Vatican II, which was the beginning of a renewal in the Catholic Church. She notes the beauty in seeing God in a positive light, church in a positive light, and opportunities to become closer to God in bright, beautiful ways. Her father as he grew older would remind others that progress in the church was a good thing.
What words of wisdom would Sister Joann offer? She reminds us of Mother Theodore’s counsel that you’ll be just as close or closer to God teaching the children all day long as kneeling in the chapel all day long.
Sister Joann Quinkert leaves no doubt that Providence has guided her from a young age to accomplish everything she has been able to accomplish. She credits God and community, a loving and devout family, support from the Sisters of Providence.
“Community has freed me and supported me in my choices. It has given me the opportunities that I would not have had if I had not been in community. I have been supported. I have been provided with education and enrichments for my spiritual life and also for my active life as a woman religious. Community has freed me and supported me in missions where I was, in crossing the line. They have provided aid for me all the way.”
She volunteers often now in any way that she can. She is a justice warrior as she has been all her life. Google her name. You will see she has signed letters and petitions to the FDIC, President Biden, Secretary Mayorkas, former President Trump, Senator Chuck Schumer, etc.
As I listened to her life story and read about her accomplishments and missions, a quote from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” came to mind: Tom Joad is leaving his mother to go help people in need, and Ma asks him where he will be:
“I’ll be all around in the dark — I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look — wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build — I’ll be there, too.”
Sister Joann entered the community at the age of 17; she had known most of her life that it was the vocation she would choose. Her parents planted the seed that grew. A justice warrior. Fearless. Called by God. Her lifetime accomplishments bless and enrich us every day.
“I’ve always tried to be the voice of the marginalized and the voiceless. I think of this as how God has called me.”